My sister Kath and her husband Rick spent some time this winter in the great state of Arizona, where, luckily, they look Anglo enough to pass unchallenged.
In addition to some javelina figurines (long story), they brought back with them a copy of High Country News, which, as its masthead proclaims, is “for people who care about the west.” Which, frankly, I don’t all that much. I mean, I like it and all that. I’m glad it’s there. And I don’t want to see it flattened by a meteor. But mostly I’m a homer, and, if I’m going to spend much time caring about a region of the country, it’s going to be the east.
Still, it’s a very interesting and well written periodical (which I read cover to cover), and the edition they brought back with them had a fascinating article on the town of Quartzsite, Arizona by Nate Berg entitled “Mobile Nation.” (I liked the article well enough to throw ten bucks in the magazine’s tip jar, even though I’m sure that this will open me up to all sorts of odd-ball incoming. Recently – Thanks, Wall Street Journal, I’m sure – I’ve found my way onto several Republican calling and mailing lists. I read and listen to what’s being said with interest. The things that get mailed – at least so far - are pretty pedestrian political party fare. Urgent poll! Would you rather have Congress lower taxes or require that Obama kowtow to foreign despots? The phone calls are pretty bad, but I listen through the recordings so that I can actually speak to the person at the other end, and tell them that I think their message is exaggerated and ridiculous, and, frankly, without any appear to independents. Which I probably shouldn’t tell them.)
As for Quartzite, it’s a town in the middle of moonscape nowhere that, each winter:
…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 swap meets are apparently the big draw – over 2,000 vendors, which would make it a mega-version of the swap meet (billed, if I’m not mistaken as an arts and craft show) that my cousins and sister and I attended in Florida earlier in the year. While Kath and Ellen were buying jewelry (there were some good craftspeople there), Laura and I drifted around until we came to the tent of an odd little couple from Wyoming who were hawking special cloth sacks to bake potatoes in. (I bought a Red Sox one for my sister Trish, who couldn’t make the cousins weekend in Florida.)
Well, a huge, perpetual swap meet wouldn’t be much of a draw for me. (My limit’s the $6 potato sack.)
Nor would the thought of contending with 1 million RVs.
But, as my parents always reminded us when we’d whine that “everyone else gets to” [stay out, buy a popsicle, cross Main Street], we’re not everyone else.
As one of the swap meet vendors said of the Quartzsiters:
"They're down to earth. You don't have a lot of snobbery here."
Well, I’m down to earth. That’s not a problem. But I will admit to at least a modicum of snobbery, and that modicum, I’m afraid, covers RVs. Even those equipped with:
…satellite television and roaming Internet access. King-sized beds with Egyptian cotton sheets. Solar panels and high-end power generators.
Some of these babies are as big as the house I grew up in. Difference being, our modest little house was on a foundation, and we had running water that came from a city pipe, and we could flush the toilet without fretting about whether this one was going to be the one that overflowed the holding tank.
Having all these blowins puts no small stress on the services of a small town (pop. 3500).
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.
Many of the RVers don’t stay at formal RV parks. They do something called “boondocking” in Long Term Visitor Areas (LTVA). Overnight RV parks cost over $30 a night, which adds up if you want to plunk down for the winter. The LTVAs, where you can stay for up to 7 months at a time, charge next to nothing. And, of course, next to nothing is exactly where you’ll be.
But “campers” they do get the companionship of fellow RVers, and many of them come back, year after year, to circle the wagons – metaphorically, yet pictorially - with their friends.
As Berg point out in his article, these communities are something of eco-disaster areas.
LTVAs are essentially sacrifice zones, where the sparse, fragile desert ecology has been annihilated by the seasonal cities.
Not to mention, the fossil fuel that RV behemoths gulp when they go. I don’t think there are any Prius RV’s – at least not yet. Maybe there are some that are nuclear powered…
One thing that can be said about the RV communities is that there doesn’t appear to be much crime in the Quartzsite environs.
While the RVers can certainly take pride in the fact that it’s ultra-safe to live there (which they no doubt attribute to the fact that a lot of them are packin’), from a sociological standpoint, it’s more likely because it’s a fairly homogeneous group. And they’re old.
Sure, you read every once in a while about the marijuana granny. Or the bank robbing geezer (as often as not some old coot who just got sprung after 40 years in the slammer, and can’t adjust to civilian life). But, let’s face it, crimes are committed disproportionately by the young.
Isolation probably helps, too.
If you’re a million miles from nowhere, predatory criminal gangs probably aren’t going to head your way when there’s plenty of pickins’ closer to home.
There’s also little opportunity for impulse crime, I suspect.
Is some kid going to hotwire a 40 foot RV and take it for a joyride?(Might be fun, though….) And if there aren’t any stores or gas stations to rob…
That flagpole seller at the swap meet only brings in so much cash.
An ephemeral community like this also doesn’t have the strains that come with permanent communities. Hey, if you don’t like the people next door, you can pick up and leave. And there are no covenants that say you have to let someone you don’t like into your circle of wagons. You’re free to associate strictly with doppelgangers. That’ll tend to keep the friction down, unless you’re the family feuding kind.
There's an area where gay RVers tend to camp, and another (farther away) where the nudists are.
Ah, the gay RVers. (Are they the ones with the Egyptian cotton sheets?)
Not everyone’s in a big-ass RV, by the way. One fellow interviewed in the article spent the winter in “a 12-foot trailer and a screened patio area.”
But a lot of it is big-ass RVs, and it’s hard to get past their petrol-snorting. But there is a conservation aspect to their existence that Berg points out.
"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 [Kazys] Varnelis [Professor of architecture at Columbia University – a city place, if ever].
Which means that those RVers are, in some ways, more environmentally friendly than I am.
I may not own a car. I may rely on public transpo and shanks mare to get me most places. I may live in a condo, not much larger than some of these RVs. But I am not willing to go without a daily shower. And, except when it’s a pee-run in the middle of the night, I’m sure not willing to go without flushing the toilet.
Photos by Etienne DeMaglaive, High Country News