Quartzsite: After the crowds

May 09, 2013

Every winter, hundreds of thousands of snowbirds with RVs descend on the tiny desert town of Quartzsite, Ariz. For a few months, this dusty little place on I-10 morphs into what National Geographic calls “The World’s Largest Parking Lot," but in the summer it almost becomes a ghost town.

sign Some people think "Closed Till Oct. 1" could be applied to the entire town of Quartzsite this time of year. Other signs in town are more surprising. Note the lack of traffic on Quartzsite's main drag. (Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)

What happens when the crowds go home? I traveled to the Arizona/California border to find out.

Quartzsite is famous for its seasonal swap meets and gem shows, but this time of year, it is like any small town. If you want to know what is going on, you head to a local diner. Mayor Ed Foster met me at the Three Times Family Restaurant. Every year, when he sees the snowbirds take off, he feels the same pull.

“Gets like a duck on the pond,” he said, chuckling. “You want to go with the flock.”

Foster said he is a traveler at heart, but you can tell he does not want to abandon this place, even though it is famous for its quirks and corruption. He casually admits he has been arrested or investigated for 11 felonies in this town, but he has never been convicted.

Still, Quartzsite grabs him, especially in the winter.

“When you come over the hills coming in, it’s like a sea of white out there from the RVs parked all over the desert,” Foster said, wistfully.

This time of year, it is something else entirely. We jump into Foster’s car, and drive through wide, empty streets. We pass more shuttered shops and restaurants than open ones.

Most of the RV parks are slapped with signs that read “Closed until October.” Every summer, Quartzsite’s population plummets to only a few thousand people.

Foster wanted to introduce me to some friends, who he thought could sum up summer here. Our first stop is a little trailer on the side the road.

“Hi, I’m Jennifer Jones, with the Desert Freedom Press newspaper and A Fur Salon Pet Spa,” said the proprietor, a bubbly woman with long hair, flowing wildly in the wind.

A lot of people have multiple jobs here – whatever it takes to get through the hot months. Jones says the winter is like an annual party. And this now is the time locals get be normal again.

Or, as Jones put it, “Whatever normal is in Quartzsite.”

For Jones, it means camping in some old RVs with her husband and 13 pit bulls on now-empty BLM land. They have got plenty of open space, and even their own outhouse, but soon, like every summer, they will be moving back into town and away from the heat.

Foster says, regardless of where your home is, one concept captures life in Quartzsite: the Japanese term wabi-sabi.

“And wabi-sabi means that it’s beautiful because it’s imperfect, and, you know, a Iittle worn,” she said, “and sometimes that sort of stuff, that makes it even more beautiful.”

And certainly more memorable, as the next stop proved. It was Reader’s Oasis Books, better known as the bookstore owned by a naked guy named Paul Winer.

“I’ve been nude all my life,” he said, from his open-air store. “The challenge in my life has been how to find a way to make a living without changing the way I want to live.”  

So Winer spends most of his days wearing just a knitted, strategically placed codpiece on his lean, tanned body. That day, it was made from bright blue yarn.

He will put on clothes, but only when he leaves his business, which is packed with records, knickknacks and 180,000 used books. He said the summer is a financial disaster, but he still loves it here and not just because it works with his wardrobe.

“And I enjoy the quiet and the calm of the desert, and that’s what brought me to the desert,” he said. “Not the crowds in the winter. That makes it possible to survive here all year.

Winer said the off-season has been getting longer, as gas prices keep RVers closer to home, but like a lot of people here, he has faith in this little place.

Barbara Bowman does too. She is 70-something with bright red hair and an equally fiery personality.

“I hate it when people say it’s bad because they’re only making it worse,” she said. “This is not bad. If people would just come back the way they used to. It’s a party. The more people, the more fun.”

Bowman was closing up shop for the season at the dollar store down the street. There was a special on. Everything was half off.


Look below to see a photo gallery of "Quartzsite: A Day in the Life."