Snowbirds: Older Heat Seeking Tribes

Author self portrait

Snowbirds in their habitat by Cholla road.Like their feathered counterparts, Snowbirds migrate. The movement may be slower, one aspect of this creature’s physiology is advanced age, but nonetheless, each winter these beings flock toward the warmth of the desert. Not just any desert, mind you, but the Arizona hardpan that lies between Phoenix and the California border.

There are other migratory creatures that travel to this beautiful wasteland; Californian license plates adorn the road and countryside in profusion. These West Coast travelers are temporary nomadic residents who stay for a fortnight, or less; they are not staying for any real amount of time, hence the title of traveler. The less permanent spots on the desert floor have a precise time limit set on its occupants. 14 days, aka a fortnight, or 10 days depending upon the spot or whom one listens to.

Other visitors to this warmer area of the world come from afar. Exotic places such like Alaska and various parts of Canada can be seen on the backs, and fronts, of the various vehicles scattered throughout and around the small town of Quartzsite.

The “season” is apparently a short three-month span that starts mid-January and ends around the first of April. While the area has a steady trickle of visitors from October onwards, the real thrust of the migratory flock does not hit until the middle of the New Year’s first month. At that time, previously empty spaces of desert are taken up by various recreational vehicles of a very temporary nature. Occupants of these “dry camps” are there for the short haul.

Quartzsite itself does have “year-round” residents. The permanent denizens of the desert range from local business owners to the elderly who respond well to the lack of humidity on offer. Arthritis, Rheumatism and other diseases common amongst the aged, all cease to be as painful in this dry atmosphere.

Museum in Quartzsite, on Main Street.

Hardpan desert and mountains surround the small town that sprang up around Tyson Wells. The original purpose of the outpost was that of stagecoach stop. It was here that the coaches would pause to swap out horses, give any passengers a rest from the arduous journey and pick up any mail.

Many stagecoach stops like Wells also provided fresh mounts for the short-lived mail service of the Pony Express. This was the Old West’s version of speedy mail delivery. Adverts at the time asked for young, light, men who (preferably) had no “kin.” The rider had to fight off the elements, hostile Native Americans (known as Indians back in the day) who wanted to steal the horse and kill its rider. Other unfriendly barriers included bad men who wanted to steal the mail itself and animals, insects and serpents that all attacked a stranger who stumbled onto their path.

Before the “season” it is easy to forget that this desert is set in the modern day. Especially when walking after dark, the feeling is one of transporting back to olden days when Apaches were raiding or when the US Army was experimenting with the idea of using camels in the Western Desert.

Walking out along Cholla Road toward the mountains and Pipeline Road towards the insular community of Rainbow Acres, if one leaves the roadside and heads across the desert floor, signs of wildlife appear everywhere. Huge rabbit droppings are proof that jackrabbits are still in the area and before the season these huge creatures can be seen bounding off in the distance.

Open desert along Cholla Road outside Quartzsite, AZ

Until recently bands of coyotes ran through the area and even more recently a neighbor of the small snowbird community walked out into their front garden to find themselves looking into the ferocious eyes of a mountain lion. Walking along the dusty terrain, the tracks of a large cat can be seen. One particular hint to the “tenderfoot” a large dog’s paw prints can be mistaken for a wildcat or mountain lion track, and if they are side-by-side they probably do belong to some large pooch. If, however, the prints are more in line, like a household cat walks, then the tracks are of the domestic cat’s more dangerous, and much bigger, cousin.

Even after the crowds descend upon the town and its surrounding area, a walk in the desert at dusk, or in the dark, is a beautiful experience. It can, however, be a bit painful. Even in this day and age, a moment of carelessness or (to be very honest) a split second of not watching where one is going can be almost deadly.

Whilst walking back from town, an approximate trek of around 6 to 7 miles one way, I had taken a track recommended by a neighbor who claimed that it was a “straighter shot” than following the road. It was and I used it a few times without incident.

On one trip it was dusk and the sun was rapidly setting behind the mountains. The view was spectacular; light filtered up from the far side of those rugged hills and a small amount of cloud was interspersed with the fading daylight. The effect was a reddish tinted sunset that made me long for a camera other than my iPhone and the ability to used it properly.

As I walked toward Rainbow Acres, I turned my head back toward the mountains and the setting sun murmuring, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” Turning my head back to the direction I was walking, something grabbed my right foot and held it.

I went straight over and like those birds that used to adorn small eateries where they appeared to drink from glasses of water by leaning, or bobbing into the glass; I “face-planted” right into the dusty and gravel filled earth. My left cheekbone hit the ground so hard; it felt that my entire skull shifted in the opposite direction.

Author self portrait
Self portrait of wounds sustained by punching the desert floor with my face.

Luckily, I fell over on my face so the MacBook Pro in the backpack was undamaged. The same could not be said for my cheekbone, forehead, left hand and wrist. Until I could get cleaned up, the amount of blood oozing from the various wounds made me look as though Freddy Krueger had swiped me with one razor fingered mitt.

Thankfully I was walking in the desert and not along the road and it was getting darker by the minute. Raising one hand to my face I could feel that I was bleeding pretty impressively there as well and had anyone seen me, they would have thought a scrape with the roaming mountain lion had occurred.

The very next day I spent a little time backtracking my journey. I have very distinctive tread on my shoes making it easy for me to play frontiersman and “track” myself. I found where the fall had taken place. A half-buried stone about the size of those old “magic 8 balls” had been partially dislodged by my right foot.

(You know the ones, right? Ask the black ball a question, like, “Does Debby like me?” Then give it a shake and turn it over. A small oddly shaped die with different messages on it would float up to the tiny window and one could read either yes, no, or some other prediction. This old childhood favorite was used most amusingly in the first Toy Story film where Woody asks the magic ball if the Andy will pick him over Buzz and the ball’s answer is, “Don’t count on it.” Cue frustration on Woody’s part.)

4X4’s, or quads, are ridden all over the area and surprisingly not one had obliterated the events in the dusty trail on the desert floor. It was easy to see where my left hand had connected with the earth as well as my face and my left-knee along with my hat.

Somewhat chillingly, right next to where my cheekbone thudded into the not-so soft ground, was a large stone with a jagged edge…pointed up. Had my face come into contact with that, I might not have survived to write about the experience. Proof that the modern day desert is still deadly, even when populated by great concentrations of snowbirds and other nomadic creatures that apparently already know the dangers of the area.

Or, at the very least, have learned to watch where they are going…

Walking back recently, the moonless sky was full of stars so close that there was the feeling they could be touched with outstretched fingertips. Stopping for a moment and looking back, lesson learned, a group of five Chinese Lanterns were floating in a miniature constellation.

The pattern was eerily beautiful and for brief moment looked like tiny UFOs until their proximity to the Earth itself was observed and each slowly flew out of their shaped configuration as they caught separate updrafts.

18 January, 2015
Quartzsite, Arizona

Author: Mike's Film Talk

Former Actor, Former Writer, Former Journalist, USAF Veteran, Former Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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