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for people who care about the West

Mobile Nation

A motorhome metropolis blooms each year in the Arizona desert.

 

For most of the way between Palm Springs and Phoenix, Interstate 10 cuts a straight line through the desert; a brick on the accelerator could drive it. Most people don't find too many reasons to stop, except maybe to fill the gas tank or the stomach. The landscape is relentlessly rocky and beige, except for the green valley at Blythe, where the last remnants of the Colorado River are siphoned off to irrigate alfalfa, cotton and other crops that should not grow in a place this dry and harsh.

Seventeen miles beyond Blythe and the Arizona border, towering signs for gas stations and fast food joints hint at a middle-of-nowhere stopping point, the kind of one-dimensional town that wants you to spend your money and get back on the road as quickly as possible. But as you come closer, you notice a sprawling community that should have no reason to exist beyond the standard few blocks clustered just off the interstate. Specks of white twinkle in the desert like little pockets of misplaced snow. Each one is a fiberglass rooftop belonging to one of the thousands upon thousands of recreational vehicles that briefly turn this stretch of desert into a booming urban center.

This is Quartzsite, Ariz. From the middle of December into the first few weeks of February, this small town, population 3,500, becomes the center of the RV universe. Up to a million vehicles, representing a significant chunk of the 8 million or so RVs on the road in the U.S., roll through during "the season," when swap meets and trade shows lure vendors, tourists and anyone with a home on wheels into town. Winnebagos and Bounders and Itascas flood the city and its surroundings, where an informal community blossoms every winter like a rare flower.

The invaders create an impromptu city -- a place where thousands of nomads, following the drift of seasons and the pull of highways, come together to create a community even more vibrant than the permanent habitations they left behind.

A quick scan of just one of the town's RV parks this January reveals license plates from almost every American state and Canadian province, from New York to British Columbia. They've swapped gray skies, ice, snow and freezing temperatures for the hard light of southern Arizona's winter, with average temperatures that hover around 60 to 70 degrees during the day.

But it's not just the warm weather that draws these people. Every winter, along with its other attractions -- this is the burial place of "Hi Jolly," a Syrian-born camel driver who hauled freight across the Arizona desert in the 1800s -- Quartzsite becomes the swap-meet capital of the world.

"If it's for sale in the United States, you'll find it in Quartzsite," says Richard Olson, an Arkansas native who's been coming to Quartzsite for more than 15 years. The town has about a dozen swap-meet areas that host a variety of shows and sales throughout the season, with more than 2,000 vendors, hawking everything from kitchenware to wagon wheels, in town at any given time.

Wearing a headset and a speaker tied to a fanny pack, exhibitor Beverly Malone catches the curious ears and eyes of a few people walking past her booth. She's a tiny woman, so she climbs three steps to demonstrate the ease with which her product -- a telescoping flagpole -- can raise and lower Old Glory, whether from the back of a Winnebago or the grassy front yard of whatever brick-and-mortar home these RVers ditched for the winter.

Three people are sucked into her pitch: Two of them middle-aged men in black hats that display their military affiliations during the Vietnam War. The third is an overweight woman who's resting on a walker that doubles as a chair. Like the vast majority of Quartzsite's visitors, they are white, over 50, and politically right of center. Before they commit to a sale, one of the men wants to make sure the cascading pole can carry the flag at half-staff. Malone gets that question a lot. "When President Reagan died, our phones lit up like a Christmas tree," she says.

Malone has attended the Quartzsite RV show for three years now and always does pretty well. She says the crowd in Quartzsite is part of the draw. "They're down to earth. You don't have a lot of snobbery here."

That doesn't mean these silver-haired gypsies endure an uncomfortable lifestyle. The products on display at this show reveal a life of luxury and convenience. Think of the old adage that a man's home is his castle, and then add wheels. And satellite television and roaming Internet access. King-sized beds with Egyptian cotton sheets. Solar panels and high-end power generators.

"Our snowbirds are not the old folks that people think of," says Cee Carnavale, who runs the Quartzsite Business Chamber of Commerce out of a small pink trailer building next to one of the swap-meet grounds. "They all want to be plugged in and they want the free Wi-Fi."

They overflow the city's 70 RV parks and jam the otherwise quiet streets with 35-foot lumbering beasts on wheels. It's a stark contrast for Quartzsite, where summertime temperatures can reach 120 degrees and even many of the locals skip town. That leaves a very short window for tourism, which is really the only industry to speak of. Tourists and RVers swarm the local restaurants and stream into the Chamber of Commerce, looking for information on land for sale, RVs for sale, and pretty much anything else that might be for sale.

Up the road, the town's library is flooded with visitors looking to check out books and videos or get on one of its 13 Internet-connected computers. Billie Fowler, one of the library's desk clerks, estimates that they see about 1,200 people a day during the height of the season. Only about 100 trickle in on a typical summer day.

"We've been doing more library cards this year than ever before," says Fowler, possibly because of the economic downturn. Locals also blame the recession for the gradual decline in swap-meet attendance over the past few years. But even with lighter crowds, the small town feels the stress.

The seasonal population explosion can strain city services. A recent rainstorm had town officials working overtime to block off flooded roads and tow out trucks and cars that got stuck in the mud. And with tens of thousands of extra residents tapping into the city's water supply and sewage infrastructure, the system risks being overwhelmed. Local ATMs sometimes run out of cash, and gas station pumps occasionally run dry: RVs average single-digit gas mileage -- and do a lot of filling up.

But that's just within the town's narrow borders. Beyond it lie tens of thousands of acres where RVers can drive even farther outside the boundaries of civilization. In this empty land, which is managed by the federal government, RV culture takes a more extreme form than the gated parks and electricity hookups that define much of the mobile lifestyle in Quartzsite. Out here in the desert, there's little to rely on beyond the walls of each individual RV. Little, that is, but the community they create.

It's known as boondocking. RVers keep tabs on free or nearly free places where they can park for a night or more. Wal-Mart parking lots have become the proverbial couch for crashing wanderers, though to boondocking purists that's little more than cheap parking. The true boondockers are out in the wild, on the unconnected and grid-less frontier, seeking a quiet, empty place to rest after a long day's journey. But even though RVs and the people who drive them come highly equipped and self-sufficient, there are a couple of real-world necessities that make true frontiersmanship a rarity: water and waste.

Even the most luxurious motorhome can hold only so much water, and its holding tanks only so much sewage waste. Although there are places along the road to get water and dump holding tanks, there aren't many cheap places where RVers can refill water, empty their tanks and camp, all in the same vicinity.

A few miles south of town, on a two-lane road that seems headed to nowhere, speckled whitecaps of RV rooftops spread across a huge expanse of desert. Once it recognized the location's appeal to snowbirds, the Bureau of Land Management designated 11,000 acres near Quartzsite as a Long Term Visitor Area. There are six other LTVAs in Southern California and Arizona.

Snowbirds and travelers and the destitute can legally camp in LTVAs for up to seven months at a time. These empty places are a blank canvas onto which almost any urban form could be drawn -- if you don't mind the complete lack of resources and infrastructure. Enter the RVers. With their equipment-stocked homes on wheels, they stay out here for months at a time, all for a permit fee of just $180.

"When you're full-timing, it makes a big difference," says Jesse Lea, who's been camping out in La Posa LTVA for about five weeks. Since selling everything back in California six months ago, he and his wife have been on the road, living full-time in their fifth-wheel trailer. "Some people can afford to stay in overnight RV parks, but those places run $36, $45, even $80 a night. A lot of us can't afford to do that."

It's one of the cheapest rents in the country, but it doesn't get you much. In La Posa, there's about a mile of paved road leading out into the desert. Along the way are a few vault toilets, a couple places to fill up water tanks, a garbage collection area and a sewage dump. Other long-term areas might offer pay phones, but that's about it. Beyond the road and the meager services are wide-open spaces, free for the parking. And between Sept. 15 and April 15, those 11,000 open acres go from a barren landscape to a crawling metropolis, home to hundreds of thousands of RVs.

Depending on your viewpoint, these areas are either environmental and cultural travesties, or a glorious example of the American pioneer spirit (assisted by federal generosity). Certainly, in an environmental sense, LTVAs are essentially sacrifice zones, where the sparse, fragile desert ecology has been annihilated by the seasonal cities.

"You could go up on one of these hills and you could look out and see a sea of white," says Phil Corpus, pointing to the desert mounds in the distance. From where he's standing now, there's not one place around him, looking in all 360 degrees, without an RV.

Corpus has been coming out to the Quartzsite area for years, and for the past four has been the organizer of a group of RVers who rally in the LTVA every winter. They're known as the Southwest Bluebirds, a geographically dispersed group of people who drive Blue Bird Wanderlodges, a rather gargantuan brand of motorhome. Most Wanderlodges are in the 40-foot-long range, and can come equipped with 100-250-gallon fuel tanks, 100-gallon water tanks, walk-through bathrooms, cherry-wood interiors, and multiple big-screen televisions. They can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $300,000, used, which is the only way to get them these days, since the company shut down in 2009. About 70 Wanderlodges are at this rally, and they've arranged themselves into a big horseshoe. Owners mill around in the common area in the middle, while a few people prepare for the rally's barbecue later in the day. It's a vacation in the desert, and the Blue Bird owners are enjoying the organized leisure.

"It's a suburb of Quartzsite -- once a year. Come out to Blue Bird City, Ariz.," says Corpus, like the slogan of an imagined postcard.

That a huge mobile community is able to repeatedly –– and safely –– assemble in the desert like this speaks to the power of its members. Kazys Varnelis is a professor of architecture at Columbia University, and co-author of the book Blue Monday, part of which explores the city's temporary swap-meet culture. He sees the informal nature of the community outside of Quartzsite as a unique metropolitan form.

"It's curious," he says. "Sure, some cities actually function like that, but generally at some point they'll have more serious governance. But Quartzsite's never really had that. And it doesn't really seem to need it, either."

That seems to be part of the place's appeal.

"I've never seen such an interesting community," says Cindy Sunderland, who came out from California in her Blue Bird. "This is such a family."

Like an increasing number of recreational vehicle drivers, this group of people from all over North America originally met not in a campsite, but online. Corpus runs the group's Web site, which has more than 350 people on its e-mail list. Yahoo groups, discussion forums and a variety of online support clubs have added a newer, more connected level of community to an RV world formerly linked solely through formal associations like the Family Motor Coach Association and the Good Sam Club. Now, even those traditional groups have a vibrant online presence.

Deane Simpson calls them leisure nomads. He's a doctoral researcher and architecture instructor based in Copenhagen who has been doing research on America's aging RV populations. His work has looked at the concept of "unsettlement" and studied the mobile community that has formed between RVers both online and on the road.

"There are different aspects of community that are part of a more personal set of relations that have built up over a long period," says Simpson. "And then there's another community where people are really connecting online."

The desert plays host to a variety of formal and informal groups during the winter. The groups, like the Southwest Bluebirds, often organize themselves into their own neighborhoods. There's an area where gay RVers tend to camp, and another (farther away) where the nudists are. Modern-day hippies -- "rainbows," as many RVers refer to them -- stay out on other BLM-run land nearby where people can camp free for up to 14 days.

"They're from all walks of life and all parts of the country," says Phyllis Seal. She and her husband, Larry, are volunteer managers for the La Posa LTVA, a cakewalk job for two retirees tasked with little more than issuing camping permits and fielding complaints.

They're sitting under the shade of their RV, visiting with BLM Ranger Clyde Praast and looking out on the RV city that spreads around them. Praast says they also get a handful of tents during the season, some sleeping bags in station wagons, even a teepee or two. "We see the whole range -- from a hundred bucks to a million bucks."

Praast says the RV crowds have been growing in recent years, despite what some describe as a decline in attendance at Quartzsite's shows and swap meets. Despite their proximity, the swap-meet culture inside Quartzsite proper and the boondocking ethic of the LTVA campers represent two distinct facets of this place and of the economic recession. The low-cost lifestyle of the LTVA has likely become even more appealing during these tough times: With the crash of the housing market, a half-year's rent of $180 is tough to beat. The declining attendance at the swap meets and shows could just be a symptom of the widespread pull-back in discretionary spending. A handful of major recreational vehicle manufacturers have also gone out of business in recent years, chopping what was a nearly $15 billion industry in 2006 down by almost a third. There's less to sell, and fewer to buy what's left. But for many in the LTVA, the shows and swap meets are a minor diversion, off in the distance. Such things are not the reason they come to this desert.

"There's tons of people like me who don't come out here for the event. We come out here for the camping, the peace and quiet," says Ron Jones, a middle-aged Oregonian who spends more of his time away from home than in it. He's smoking a cigar as he washes his dishes. He's got a four-basin dishwashing setup on a makeshift table outside his camp, which consists of a 12-foot trailer and a screened patio area. It's neat, compact and sturdy enough to stay that way for months.

He's been here since before Thanksgiving and won't leave until April. He looks like someone who knows how to get by in the desert, with his black cowboy boots, blue jeans, Western-style button-up and a mustache that could steer a Harley. His hat proclaims "Shit Happens" in a way that simultaneously acknowledges the fact and strives to find a solution. He lives alone, but he's not the solitary type. Besides, he says, he's never lonely here.

"I've got more friends out here than I do at home," says Jones.

He's been coming out to La Posa for about eight years, and he camps in just about the same spot every year. Down the way is his friend, Jim Nicholson, who always camps nearby. They come for the weather and the slower pace of life. And even though they've got their separate places and every piece of equipment they need to survive on their own, they can't help but revel in the community around them.

"Everybody's friendly. If they're not, usually they don't like it around here," says Jones. "If you've got problems, they'll help you. You don't have to ask. They'll just show up."

An open hood on an RV is like an invitation to a party, according to Jones. Men will wander over from far-off campsites to see what the problem is and whether they can help. Some might say it's because there's not much else to do out here. Then again, living in the desert creates a common bond –– an awareness of the possibility for serious trouble, even from behind the wheel of a luxury motorhome.

"If you're dependent on people, you tend to be more supportive when they need help," says Jones. He says the community life is much stronger here than he's ever known anywhere else.

The La Posa Long Term Visitor Area is the kind of neighborhood where every front door is unlocked, though "front door" is a flexible term. The living rooms here are outside, and it's nearly impossible to walk past one without receiving a wave or hearing a hello. Campfires dot the horizon after nightfall, and the gentle hum of thousands of power generators underlies the desert's evening soundscape like the dull background noise of city traffic.

For many of the campers passing their winters in the calm of the desert, La Posa's not too far off from a regular city, both in the social sense and the physical sense.

To do research for his dissertation, Simpson stayed out in Quartzsite for a few weeks in January 2008 and again in January 2010. At one point, he took a short flight to get an aerial view of the place, and he says the impromptu city's form was just as varied as any permanent place.

"There are different densities and different kinds of arrangements," says Simpson, who looks at the RV community from an architectural and urban perspective. "You see courtyards set up where they park to make an interior space. They'll have larger gatherings where there are up to 30 or 40 vehicles in a circle, or you see more of a suburban arrangement where everyone is equidistant and turned away from each other. It's really a mixed situation."

And the situation is just as harmoniously disjointed in terms of its social structure. But even for a community that forms, disappears, and then re-forms year after year, there's a surprising cohesion. Members often keep in touch, and many even visit each other outside the season, beyond the borders of the LTVA.

"We made a decision to buy a motorhome, and we got all these friends along with it," says Kay Green Losh, who comes out from Texas annually with her husband and their 1983 Blue Bird Wanderlodge. "The only thing that's bad about it is my friends are scattered all over the U.S."

For this instant, fleeting city of RVs, that reality is both a challenge and a testament to its residents' self-sufficiency -- qualities often missing in modern-day cities.

But as environmental concerns and sustainability issues become more important, those qualities are emerging again, even in the big city. In the immobile world of cities and suburbs, backyard gardens put salads on tables, rain-collection barrels harvest water for household use, and solar panels detach homes and buildings from the energy grid. In a mobile home community without electrical hookups, everything is off the grid. It may not exactly line up with the ethos of the sustainability movement -- after all, the food the RVers eat has to come from somewhere, and there's no denying that these things burn up fossil fuels at alarming rates. Still, the decentralized nature of mobile homes gives them a sort of pilot-project quality. From local energy harvesting to resource conservation to community building, the mobile world may offer some lessons for its nailed-down rivals. If it can work on the road, or out in the middle of the desert, maybe it can work in an actual city.

"Being in the boondocks, you have to be really careful about how much you consume. You can't really use up a lot of water, because then you have to move and get more. And if your tanks get full, same problem. So you don't take a shower every day. And when you do, it's two minutes long," says Varnelis.

Even within Quartzsite proper -- a midpoint between the traditional city and the temporary desert metropolis -- the RV ethic has seeped into the town's bloodstream. Entire sections of the town are effectively shut off like a light switch when the crowds and vendors leave. Swap-meet grounds sit silent and empty. But when the crowds return, that emptiness surges back to life.

Now, however, it's getting on springtime, and Quartzsite's temperatures are beginning to climb. The swap-meet hawkers have packed up their trinkets and tents, and the wandering shoppers have taken their discount merchandise and hit the road, headed back towards home or on to another beckoning deal. As the population dwindles to about 3,500, the metropolis of a million-plus snowbirds is little more than a memory.

The RV city has vanished, scattered like seed pods on the wind, dispersed in thousands of homes, trailers and RVs across the continent. The community is now in hibernation, but come next winter, it will be wide awake and buzzing again.

Nate Berg is a freelance writer working on a book about city-like places. He lives in Los Angeles and camped at  the La Posa Long Term Visitor Area in a tent. He felt out of place, but very welcome.