Quartzsite is a tiny town of 3,500 year round residents located between Phoenix and Los Angeles, 20 miles from the California border.
It was once a gathering place for pioneers traveling to the gold fields of California as well as other travelers and then agates, limonite cubes, gold and quartz were found nearby, so the town itself became a destination for the “rock hounds”.
And nowadays, between November and March each year, known as the season, snowbirds, rock hounds and others converge here to escape the harsh winters elsewhere and to shop at various indoor and outdoor swap meets that began 40 years ago.
The majority of these swap meets take place during January and February when thousands of merchants also come here to sell their wares.
We are here in January and during our ten day stay there are eight of these events in town, including “world famous” gem and mineral shows and the Quartzsite Sports, Vacation and RV show. January is known here as “the largest gathering of RVers in the world”.
Many of the RVers come to stay in the desert, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands as far as the eye can see. There are five BLM areas here. With free camping for fourteen days in one 28 day period. And there is also a Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA) that charges $40 for two weeks and $180 for seven months.
“Boondocking”. No electric, no water, no sewer. Just open land, pick your spot and set up camp. Beautiful sunsets almost every day. And lots of stars at night.
We are joined by RVers of all stripes; the ATV crowd with their desert toys, the hippies and ex-hippies, the young, the old and the oldest – quite a few of those rocking their mobility scooters and walkers down the dirt and gravel. Hector says of this latter group – “I admire them, they are still after it”.
And all of those merchants. We are all here.
So people plan massive get-togethers; members of clubs, small groups of friends, people with common interests, you name it. They lay claim to an area of land and circle their wagons.
Others, like us, find a cozy little spot somewhere as far from the crowds as possible. A place to escape from the crowds and enjoy the desert. “Our” own little spot, with “gardens” on both sides and a great fire ring.
And we have our very own Saguaro, which now has a circle of white rocks around it that Hector “created”. And we also “enhanced” the fire ring with additional pinkish/brownish rocks. This rock thing is contagious.
And with so many people around it’s a pretty sure bet that you’ll make some new friends. RVers form strong communities, and it’s really evident here. This is a great place to connect with old friends and to make new friends. And we did both. Including meeting some fellow bloggers that we’ve gotten to know over time on the internet.
First, we got together with Amanda and Tim, who write the blog Watsons Wander that we’ve been reading for quite awhile. We figured out they were staying at the same BLM area, Dome Rock, as we were and invited them over for happy hour. They have a beautiful Airstream that they’ve renovated and polished (I miss Luna … our first RV, also an Airstream).
It’s great to see younger people like Amanda and Tim make the choice to travel while working, they are smart to do that early in their lives, and we admire them for it. Oh, and their blog is great as well.
Of course, we head to the shows to shop on various days while we’re here. There is lots to choose from;, some low quality old stuff, even stuff covered with dust. But as they say, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. There’s lots of cheap new stuff made in China. And nice vintage stuff and some fun buys. Something for everyone.
On the high end, there are beautiful gemstones and jewelry and multi-million dollar RVs. Like I said something for everyone. For the RVers, there’s a big white tent which houses most of the RV show. But there are lots and lots of other vendors at other shows in several locations throughout the town. Rows and rows of vendor stalls all over town.
In spite of attempts at restraint we made quite a few purchases including:
Best bargain – three kitchen knives professionally sharpened for $8
Most fun buy – a metal roadrunner sculpture for $20
Most impulsive buy – a knife with etched petroglyphs on an elk antler handle and a triple flow obsidian blade – this is our official “rock” memento from the “Q” -$45
Biggest buy – A See Level II tank sensor system to monitor holding tank levels. $385 installed – ouch!
Contrary to what some may think, many RV products are not available here and some items are actually more expensive here than online. Shoppers beware and do your research before making your purchases.
Aside from the buying, for me it’s always fun to see the amazing product sales pitches, these are a reminder of another time.
The whole thing has an air of “only in America”. And it’s kind of hypnotizing.
And there are lots of interesting characters here. A historic character is Hadji Ali, who quickly got nicknamed Hi Jolly, a camel driver from Jordan who became a legend around these parts.
He came to Arizona in 1856 as the lead camel driver during testing by the U.S. Army for possible use of camels for transporting of supplies across the desert during the Civil War. About 80 camels were brought to the area and apparently did very well, but this particular strategy ultimately was abandoned.
Mr. Ali served for over 30 years in the army, became a U.S. citizen and married a woman from Tucson. He moved to Quartzsite where he mined and did some work for the U.S. government. He died here in 1902.
In 1935, a monument was dedicated to him and the Camel Corps at his gravesite, which is now the most visited location in Quartzsite. As well as the inspiration for naming many town businesses, who use the “Americanized” version of his name, Hi Jolly.
And, speaking of characters, there is also a bookstore in town whose owner Paul wears nothing but a sock on his naughty bits on warm days (almost every day). Reader’s Oasis Books is actually a fine bookstore and an interesting place to visit.
We found a few other characters prospecting just across from our campsite; searching for gold. I don’t think they were finding much, but they seemed to be having fun looking. I guess it’s the thrill of the search.
Other local characters showed off their classic cars at a local “auto show” in a Shell gas station in town on Saturday night. Hanging out talking cars and engines and stuff like that for a few hours.
Okay it was no Barrett-Jackson but good community fun (50 cent hot dogs!).
Later in the week, we met Nina and Paul. Nina writes the blog Wheeling It, by far the best RV blog we’ve read. We’ve been reading it for years and it is a great resource for us and all RVers. Nina and Paul have a LOT of followers on their blog and arranged the meet and greet to create an opportunity for all of the people that reached out to them in Quartzsite to meet them and each other.
We had a great time meeting Nina and Paul and some of their many fans, including Mike and Linda, another adventurous couple who write another fun blog that we’ve been reading for awhile, Bear Tracks Blog.
One night, we joined George, the owner of RV Driving School and my RV driving instructor from last year, and his wife, Valerie at one of their campfire gatherings. So nice to connect with them again.
We ended the week with a potluck dinner with Amanda, Tim, Nina and Paul (Paul is the OTHER Cuban-American full time RVer, I wonder if there is a third out there somewhere) and their sweet dog Polly. Good food, great conversation, lots of laughs, another big campfire, oh and yes a little rum.
Quartzsite may not be for everyone, it can be dusty, crowded and dizzying. But it’s one of those “you should do it at least once” kinds of events for RVers. And who knows, the lure of the desert, the rocks, the shopping and, especially, good friends may bring you back again and again.
As we publish this blog we’ve left Quartzsite. We had a blast at the “Q” and were sad to leave, knowing that we might never stay at “our” campsite in Quartzsite again. Or maybe we will.