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The Jewel of the Desert : Rock hounds put tiny Quartzsite on the map. Now everyone heads there to hawk their wares. And the locals are cashing in.


QUARTZSITE, Ariz. — Dick Cloud watches as the stream of smoke from his twice-broken nose succumbs to the gritty haze churned by thousands of tires grinding the desert crust.

"Why on earth do folks keep comin' here?" Cloud asks the question so often on his mind.

He grins sheepishly. His voice has a pinch-me huskiness: "Hey. I ain't complaining. But it does make ya wonder, don't it?"

Cloud, 51, is a proud pioneer-profiteer of the only-in-America phenomenon that transforms this desert pit stop briefly each winter into an outlandish and gargantuan freewheeling marketplace for nature's prettiest rocks and civilization's crummiest clutter.

The mom-and-pop crowd at January-through-February rock shows is overwhelmingly cut from the same loaf--vintage white bread wrapped in stars and stripes. Here, the homeless and disadvantaged are still called "deadbeats" and "bums." Anyone under 50 is still a young whippersnapper.

From the air, in every direction for miles, motor homes in clumps and encircled dot the dirt tracks twisting through mesquite and saguaro cactus. This year city officials guesstimate that between 400,000 and 1 million will visit here between November and March.

Quartzsite itself is a welter of tarps and tents strung from the rigs of some 2,000 drummers to shade goods on tailgates and folding tables.

A blue striped tent market sells only dented cans (soup, two for $1) and ripped boxes (cereal, three for $5).

The king of tri-tip barbecue drives a Cadillac painted like a black-and-white Holstein with a Texas longhorn hood ornament.

Four vendors claim a monopoly for either / or: blow guns, $1 car mats, $2 reading glasses, painted golf balls retired from driving ranges.

Second to rocks is the buy, sell, trade of marbles (40 for $1). A burro wears a goose on its head.

Enough. You won't--nobody does--believe it until you see it. Dazed, self-doubting, you'll return to make sure it was true. Now, in sweet revenge, it is you who must endure disbelief too.

"They told my dad this place was drying up and going to hell when he started selling rocks off tailgates in 1963," Cloud snaps with hindsight indignation. "Now they come from every state and all over the world." (An off-and-on parking lot survey tallied license plates from 29 states and Canadian provinces.)


Quartzsite (permanent population 2,008, perhaps) is split by Interstate 10, 21 miles east of the Colorado River in the great desert between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Temperatures hit 128 degrees last summer. But mild winters and clean air make it a favorite for snowbirds.

Before rocks, Quartzsite was most noted as the resting place of Hadji "Hi Jolly" Ali, an apparently most likable Syrian camel driver laid off by the Army in the 1850s upon discovery that camels and mules don't click. Today, Quartzsite calls itself "The Hi Jolly Town."

A short walk from Hi Jolly's modest monument is Cloud's Jamboree Grounds, a dirt patch by the freeway. From Jan. 15 to Feb. 15, Cloud rents 350, 18-foot-by-32-foot spaces to rock dealers for $329.40, plus $10.80 daily for water and electric (lights only).

"Sold out this year, be sold out by March 1 for next year," Cloud says cheerily.

Outside Cloud's one-room trailer office, vendors sullenly hose down the cursed dust that rises from the battered desert floor each dawn under the motorized onslaught of early bird buyers.

In short order, the grainy mist settles in hair and pores, and, given time, anchors briefly to the dampness of nose and throat before nestling in the lungs. The hacking and wheezing that results is called the Quartzsite Crud.

"Me and the wife just got over a bout of the crud," mutters Dale Davey, 44, a San Diego area tourmaline dealer on his eighth visit. For Davey, like most, Quartzsite can make or break their year.

"We do 20 to 25 shows along the coast, but 60% comes from here." This year, Davey says, Quartzsite has been "just OK."

Clearly, Davey is feeling blue. A little prodding reveals why: "Quartzsite is changing," he allows. "Big commercial vendors with truckloads of rock. Taxes. License fees. More restrictions."

Davey's wife nods from the doorstep of their 30-foot motor home. "The mom-and-pop days," Davey continues, "when you could dry camp for free and tailgate your goods for free, are gone. That's what rock hounding is all about." He shakes his head. "I'm glad it's time to go home."

Other vendors don't need prodding.

"The town is letting it go to hell," mutters Jim Mitchell, 67, a petrified wood dealer from Minnesota on his 18th trip here. "You got a bunch of desert rats which fell into something they don't know how to handle. But all of a sudden they got money . . . think this thing'll last forever." He wags his finger. "You can only [bleep] the public so long and this town has did it."

This year, Quartzsite raised the license fee from $25 to $35 and the city sales tax from 1% to 2% on top of the 6% state-county tax.

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