“You have to keep moving. Making plans, having interests, whatever they are,” she says. “As long as you feel good, it is good.”
Her boss comes by and we talk moccasins and the semi-precious stones in the rows behind me. I walk around the shop, inspecting the leather and prints of Native American pastorals. The customers leave, and Cherie and I talk about computers and the internet for a few minutes. I buy postcards with aerial views of Quartzsite’s change through the seasons.
I drive around town, walking through the empty spaces where vendors and RVers will be in six months. There are hundreds of storage sheds and vehicles strewn across the desert, and although I search desperately for a place to take pictures, it’s too flat to get perspective on anything. When I reach the mountains on the south side of town, the trailers and storage sheds have faded, as has the sun. I tape the postcards to the dash and head back to town.
I cross the easterly overpass and see the naked bookseller biking home with a three-wheeled dingy in tow. He told me five years, as did Cherie and Carol. They would be out in five years or less. The Wal-Mart would open a half hour away in Parker the next week, but jobs and owning a home would still be tough for full-time residents. They’d miss the summer solitude and the winter excitement, but they would have to leave.
I stop at a community park on the east side of town, where kids play basketball in the dusky frame of two decommissioned fighter jets. I try unsuccessfully to determine the kids’ ethnicity, then stare at the sand and sky beyond. Mesquite trees and a sprinkling of black and amber rocks foreground the last flickers of crimson with magenta accents.
At some point, life becomes about space. Controlling it, negotiating it, with others and yourself. I thought that’s why my grandfather came here, and I assumed that if I could encounter that space on its own, I could grasp it. Like a school or a ski lodge in the summer, I wanted to walk through vast, echoing chambers and build a personal relationship with the landscape. But Quartzsite’s winter grid of white rectangles, neatly plotted along a crossroads, reveals a random succession of atomized clusters in the summer. Like many Southwestern cities, its sprawling, indeterminate borders leave inhabitants drifting between points on a map. And in the summer, the desert cannot be owned or stripped to its roots, for that is when it’s most alive.
Before Quartzsite, my grandfather took few vacations, but when he did, he worked. A survivor of the Depression, he went on vacation to see someone, to do something. And during a Quartzsite winter, everyone was always doing something. Moving to it or from it. Touching, buying, using an infinite number of products, leaving little time for anything else. The town and some of its vendors had an artistic background, and my grandfather’s third wife fashioned herself as a beadmaker and crotchetier (in the 1990s, another story), but creativity was never essential to their identity. It was an accoutrement, a flattery, but the primary ethic was still work.
I wake up in my car to a full moon, lighting the backboards and jets into a 3-D trapezoid. I walk outside to take pictures of the stars, but my camera’s batteries are dead. I smell the air, but I can’t distinguish one element from another. I think about going to Burning Man, and what I’ve heard about the art, the free love, and the archetypal transformation through ritualized self-expression. And then I think about going to Vegas, checking in under a fake name, and spending the same amount of money on a hooker and a room with VH1 Classic. And then my mind spins. I wonder what the purpose of travel is, and if it has an ethic. The intense, printless stimulation of a Burning Man; the easy, collapsible community of a Quartzsite; the restorative alt-reality of an island massage: what do I get from it, and what’s the difference?
In December 2003, my grandfather was arrested in Arizona for driving on the wrong side of I-10. It was 3 a.m., and he had two loaded pistols under the front seat. My family sold the trailer and drove him back to the Northwest, where he struggled with increasing dementia and heart problems. His wife left him, and he moved back in with family before passing away in November 2004.
When I was younger, traveling and writing used to be heroic, idealized pursuits that led to a teleological end, but as I get older, they are primarily a vehicle to let my mind wander. To collect images and sensations and reflect on them, occasionally thinking up something new, without the demands to make sense of it all. I don’t know that my grandfather came here to negotiate space, nor to cope with his mortality. That sounds more like me. Maybe he just liked the weather, or maybe he just liked being around people his own age. Beyond that, I’m trying too hard to resolve him, which is the last thing I want. Because whatever joy comes from what passes as illumination, from piecing together a life or a world, also comes with a dose of terror. And in the desert, or at least in Quartzsite, the only palliative is motion.
When it’s light out, I drive to a gas station and load up on potato chips, donuts and candy bars. A group of tweaking teens stare at me with pink eyes, and a man with a cane strikes up a political conversation. He criticizes the president, then praises him, all the time trying to fish out an opinion from me. After a few casts, I realize he doesn’t care about politics, and we grab a bench together. We talk about Quartzsite, his past, and the weather.
As I wolf down my second maple bar, I daydream about Indian Fry Bread, a flat, deep-fried disc that was made from scratch at the large swap meets in Quartzsite. My grandfather would buy me a plate every afternoon. Crisp on the rim and doughy in the middle, it was soft enough to tear with your fingers. I piled it high with powdered sugar and honey, and then cajoled another family member into buying me two or three more before a gorging that inevitably knotted my stomach.