Mobile Nation

A motorhome metropolis blooms each year in the Arizona desert.

  • Recreational vehicles, winter 2008, Quartzsite, Arizona.

    Etienne De Malglaive
  • Quartzsite, Arizona, during peak season. No one really knows how many RVs converge on the town and surrounding BLM land, but estimates range to more than 1 million.

    Etienne De Malglaive
  • Mid-January traffic jam in downtown Quartzsite.

    Etienne De Malglaive
  • The gem and mineral show (below), which, along with the swap meets, are a big attraction.

    Etienne De Malglaive
  • A modern-day circling of the wagons on BLM land near Quartzsite.

    Etienne De Malglaive
  • Being on the road doesn't mean giving up the luxuries of home for many Quartzsite RVers.

    Etienne De Malglaive
  • Because wood is scarce in the desert, campfires are fueled with propane.

    Etienne De Malglaive
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....