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Off the Road

A Godforsaken patch of southwest Arizona desert called Quartzsite doesn't have much to recommend it--snarled traffic, scant medical services, too few cops. So why do so many aging heirs to the Kerouac legacy drive there each year to park, party and pursue their peculiar passions?

January 23, 2005|Leo W. Banks | Leo W. Banks last wrote for the magazine about a Catholic priest who broadcasts a radio show on the Navajos.

No one could invent Quartzsite, Ariz. It's a mile or so beyond imagining.

Picture a forlorn desert town of about 3,500 souls, a crossroads of trailers, dust, wind and a heartless summer sun blazing down at 110 degrees. With just a handful of tall trees, the only shade is under your hat. Now fast-forward past the cruel season into November and December, and watch as this southwest Arizona community--at the junction of Highway 95 and Interstate 10, 130 miles west of Phoenix--transforms into a temporary Shangri-La for retirees fleeing the northern cold. Most come in giant RVs to claim a spot at one of 73 RV parks or one of the sprawling Bureau of Land Management campgrounds. And what a sight these motorized Conestogas make, thousands and thousands of them sparkling in the sun for as far as you can see.

"Following the Weather Channel is everybody's favorite hobby," says Steve Hardies of Hardies Beads & Jewelry, a Main Street business. "When snow starts flying up north, we know they'll be here soon."

Suddenly, or so it seems, Quartzsite--on the brink of extinction just a few decades ago--has become the place to be, hip if you liked Ike, a kind of blue-collar Palm Springs with American flags flying everywhere and seniors hitting the bustling swap meets and dancing past 9 p.m. to the country songs of Conway Twitty and Dottie West. Their median age is 66.5.

"We're all old folks and just a little bit kinder and gentler," says Ken White, a former Oregon apple grower. "These are the good people of America here in Quartzsite."

How big is the winter surge? A conservative estimate puts the number of visitor nights--one visitor staying one night--at a little more than 2 million a year, according to Richard Kuczek, economic development director for the Western Arizona Economic Development District. The majority of visitor nights--1.5 million--come during the January-February peak. "Think of it this way," Kuczek says. "Sedona gets 4.5 million visitor nights a year, Quartzsite a little over 2 million. That's an awful lot for a small community. Usually you don't think of Sedona and Quartzsite in the same class, yet they both attract in the millions."

Five or so months after arriving, at the first whiff of 100-degree weather, the snowbirds start their engines and head back to Minnesota, Iowa, Canada and elsewhere, handing Quartzsite back to the scorpions and those brave enough to live here year-round.

Certainly nothing else in the state, and perhaps the West, matches this grand migration of white-haired wanderers, freed from life's usual constraints. Think of them as latter-day Jack Kerouacs, post-work, post-kids and still on the road, playing, discovering and getting their kicks while knocking around the desert in shorts and ball caps in the dead of winter. They drop out, a notion given full voice in Kerouac's classic 1957 novel, "On the Road." He wrote of beatniks, of course, not snowbirds, but if you add 50 years, some grandchildren and a Social Security check, most of the differences melt away. After all, they share the same way of being, of doing whatever the day brings.

While not necessarily intentional, their annual presence is a testament not only to the seductive madness of the desert, but also to the enduring values of graying Beat Generation America: the tireless pursuit of freedom, the profound respect for the individual and the knack for creating community--even if that community gathers for a few months a year in what, essentially, is a giant sun-scorched RV park.

This corner of the Mojave Desert, 880 feet above sea level, forms a tabletop that rolls out over miles of cactus, sage, sand and rock. Jagged mountains frame the horizons in modest glory. They're not overly tall, these peaks, but they're pretty in their way, especially when the winter sunset blankets them in heartbreaking lavender.

Hard as it is to imagine, settlers did come here. Charles Tyson, one of the first, built a fort in 1856 that became Tyson's Well, a stage station between Ehrenberg and Prescott, Ariz. The first post office was established at Tyson's Well in 1893, lasting three years. Another opened in 1896, when the settlement became Quartzsite.

The town experienced bouts of gold fever in the 1900s, although none of its mini-booms played for long. While gold has been the marquee mineral, the area grew up around abundant, lesser-known rocks--quartz crystals, agates, jaspers, rubies and others. Most peg modern Quartzsite's beginning to February 1967, when the Quartzsite Improvement Assn., a local nonprofit, held its first Pow Wow gem and mineral show. Eight exhibitors set up inside the school, with about 20 more selling from tailgates in the parking lot. They drew about 1,000 people during three days.

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