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.