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Woodstock For RVers

Quartzsite has been called the Woodstock for RVers for good reason. Every winter thousands of RVers descend on this small community located on Interstate 10 in western Arizona to dry camp in the desert, shop the many vendors who set up shop here for the season, and visit with old friends they have met in their travels. Things come to a head in mid-January when the “Big Tent” goes up and a major RV show takes place. It is not unusual to have several hundred thousand RVers pass through Quartzsite during this period, causing long lines at the post office and the few local restaurants, and traffic jams in a town where a dog could sleep in the middle of the road undisturbed for much of the year.

We had been hearing about the big RV gathering in Quartzsite since before we even hit the road, and we knew we would have to brave the crowds at least once to see it. 2006 was our year. The experience was everything we expected, both good and bad.

We arrived in Quartzsite ahead of the crowds on December 30, and our first impression was excitement as we saw the vendor booths going up and the preparations getting underway for the crowds to flood in. Every day more and more RVs rolled into town, and where we could look out in the distance and see only sagebrush and Juniper trees when we first arrived soon switched to a view of clusters of RVs as far as the eye could see.

Over our month in Quartzsite as vendors, we came to both appreciate the place and eagerly await the time when we could leave. It was wonderful to see so many old friends and to make new ones, and to give our solar panels and battery bank a workout as we dry camped, but the constant dust, the frequent high winds, and the often pushy crowds wore thin very quickly. There are hundreds of square miles of desert administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) around Quartzsite open to dry camping. Included are the La Posa Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA), located south of Interstate 10 on U.S. Highway 95, where RVers can purchase an inexpensive permit that allows them to stay up to seven months. For shorter stays, RVers can either purchase a fourteen day permit for the LTVA, or camp on other BLM land near town for free up to fourteen days. After fourteen days campers in the free area are required to move to a site at least 25 miles away.  

We expected lots of the RVers we know and love, but Quartzsite also has grizzled desert rats with leathery wrinkled skin, a surprising number of hippy looking young people who look like they came straight from the Age of Aquarius, a good number of eccentrics, and a few downright lunatics. Independence seems to be the order of the day, and people come here to dry camp in the desert and to get as far away from society’s dictates as they can.Quartzsite attracts any and all kinds.

People watching is a great pastime at Quartzsite. The diversity of people and RVs is simply fascinating. We saw RVs costing many hundreds of thousands of dollars parked near beat up old rigs that looked like they might never make it out of town. There were retirees from the Midwest in motorhomes and travel trailers,  people living out of their cars and trucks, hippies in gaily painted school buses, and everything in-between. It was not uncommon to see yuppies in $100 walking shoes and cowboys types with boots and six-guns.

Lots of groups come to Quartzsite to hold annual reunions. The Escapees Boomers group, the medium and heavy duty truck crowds, Newmar and Alfa owners all held rallies while we were there. A group of nudists even hold an annual gathering at an area known as the Magic Circle at the La Posa LTVA! If your senses are easily offended, don’t worry. They are far enough off the beaten path that you would have to seek them out, and it’s a very big desert with room for all.

Even as big as the desert is, occasional conflicts still arise. The real purist boondockers who are proud of being able to survive with just solar power get upset when their neighbors start their generators. Some complain about ATVs stirring up dust clouds, and others are unhappy when they go to all the trouble of staking out a piece of desert away from the crowds, then return from a trip to town to discover the crowd has moved in next to them.  

The business people and permanent residents of Quartzsite seem to have a love-hate relationship with their winter visitors. While they appreciate the dollars that flood into the town’s coffers, some of them make it very obvious they look forward to the time when we all pull up our jacks and hit the road, giving them back the slower pace of life they came here for. One morning while filling up at the Shell convenience store in town, I listened to three police officers commenting on the dumb driving stunts they had seen so many RVers pull and compare notes on the tickets they had written. Overall, having dealt with more than our fair share of rude shoppers at our vendor booth, I thought most of the locals exercised a lot of patience.

Quartzsite doesn’t have much to offer in the way of dining opportunities. We had dinner out with friends several times, and the fare ranged from excellent for the Friday night fish fry at the VFW post, to absolutely terrible at Sweet Darlene’s on the east side of town. The Quartzsite Yacht Club (yes, they have a yacht club on the middle of the desert!) puts out a pretty good order of fish and chips, we got a good pizza at Silly Al’s, and though it’s not fancy, Taco Mio really surprised us with the simple quality of its Mexican food.

We looked forward to shopping the many vendors at Quartzsite, but the attraction paled very quickly. There was a lot of the usual cheap junk you can see at any swap meet in the country, and the vendors selling RV products did not have anything we had not seen at a dozen RV rallies before, and usually at a lower price. The crowds inside the big tent made it more of a hassle just to move about than it was worth.

The vendors seemed to be as disappointed in the shoppers as the shoppers were in them. Many of the long time vendors I talked to said this year was only a two week thing, unlike in the past where there was a much longer selling season, and most said their sales were down considerably from past years. Several vendors said they won't come back because of low sales, rising space rents, and tightening regulations. Vendor spaces are very expensive in Quartzsite. We looked into a space at the Main Event, a swap meet in the east side of town, north of Interstate 10, and were quoted a price of $780 for two weeks. Inside the big tent, vendors pay well over $1,000 for the nine days of the show.

The future of Quartzsite is in question as big RV dealers move in and gobble up space that used to hold vendors. We talked to several people who shopped the various dealers and none were impressed with the selection or prices offered. I didn’t stop at any of the dealers’ lots, but more than one person I talked to seemed to have the impression that some of the dealers were using Quartzsite as a dumping ground for units they could not move at their other locations.  

Lots of old-timers and townspeople we talked to are worried that the very reason people come here will be destroyed by the RV dealers’ greed. “People don’t come to Quartzsite to shop for an RV,” a lady at a local produce stand said. “If they come here, they’ve already got an RV! They come here for the small vendors. They can buy an RV in Tucson or Phoenix or Los Angeles. The dealers are turning this place into one big parking lot, and the Town Council is letting it happen!”

The changes in Quartzsite seem to be happening very quickly. We were told a section of the Main Event had been sold off to a tire dealership and would not be available next season. A major expansion of the Beaudry RV sales lot  will take place west to the junction of U.S. 95 and Kuehn Road, which will force out the vendor booths in that area.

On the other side of Beaudry, at the area known as Yorkdale Merchant Marketplace, where we had our vendor booth, plans are underway to build a combination condominium and retail complex. A recent issue of the Desert Messenger shopper publication included a full page advertisement with pictures of a seven story York Tower condominiums and apartments, with swimming pool, game room, recreation hall, gym, squash court, conference room, and an amphitheater. The same ad also showed York Village, with shops and apartments above each. Personally, I think these are big pipe dreams. Quartzsite may be fun to visit for a week or two of dry camping, but I sure would not want to have a condo here! Some say this may be the beginning of the end of the Quartzsite phenomena.

A lot of people we met either love or hate Quartzsite. We’re ambivalent. After a month we were more than ready to leave. We plan to return next year to spend a week or two in the desert, because we like dry camping. But we enjoy hookups too much to want to come here for the entire season. Still, we’re glad we came, if just to say we’ve been there and done that.