Snowbirds: Older Heat Seeking Tribes

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

Old West Icon Faces Closure Flyover Pictures Hopes to Help

Old West Icon Faces Closure Flyover Pictures Hopes to Help

The Pony Express was a short but vital part of the American West and the history books tell of a group of young men, boys really, who rode hard and fast against the elements, indian raids, bandits and all sorts of other challenges to get the mail to folks before the stages, telegraph and railroads came in to put the Express out of business. Flyover pictures is honoring that old west memory and hope to help an icon hold off closure. Read on to see what is in danger of being closed and why.

One of the Pony Express stations remains at Middlegate, Nevada. Self advertised as being the “middle of nowhere” with an elevation of 4600 feet and a population of 17, this piece of the old west was turned into a roadhouse with a few motel rooms added on. Over the years this roadhouse has become a vital part of a spread out community that consists of ranchers, miners, the military and truckers who pass through this desolate part of desert.

While the building itself has passed through a few hands over the years, the purpose of Middlegate Station has been the same. It provides the folks who live in the middle of nowhere food, gas, rooms and a sense of community. The place is “off the grid” which means that it is not hooked up to any sort of power line. Quite a few years ago, the power was provided via a diesel powered generator.

Old West Icon Faces Closure Flyover Pictures Hopes to Help
Like most of the residents in the area, the station is off-grid.

This power source was, at the time of its inception, a cost effective way to provide what was needed for a community of “off grid” denizens. As laws changed, and diesel became  too expensive to provide power to the station, the good folk of Middlegate looked to alternative sources of energy via grants, loans, or other programs that have been open to residents who are “on-grid.”

The way to find an alternative way of keeping the way station open has been fraught with loopholes and stumbling blocks that made it difficult for these independent minded people to keep their center of the community open. The biggest hurdle to overcome has been that these “incentives” to use alternative energy do not apply to applicants who are not already on the power grid. With so many different people relying on the Middlegate Pony Express station to provide them with a place to meet, eat, sleep and visit with the occasional tourist or trucker these obstacles needed to be overcome.

Flyover Pictures found out about this iconic piece of the old west and took it upon themselves to help these proud individualistic people who either choose to live out in the middle of nowhere, or have no choice for whatever reason. Being “off the grid” may be the result of a decision to live where the air is clear and neighbors are not breathing down the back of their necks, but it should not be impossible for these modern people who want to live out west in an uncrowded area and beautiful country.

Old West Icon Faces Closure Flyover Pictures Hopes to Help

According to the folks at Flyover Pictures, around 200,000 people live “off grid” in the U.S. and many of this number are a vital part of the core of American providers. Ranchers, truckers and miners who keep the U.S. moving on. Middlegate is not only a historical monument to the days when Americans were fulfilling their vision of “manifest destiny” and heading further and further west in search of land, gold, and freedom but it represents the same spirit of men and women who fell in love with this picturesque area of the world.

Flyover Pictures are making a documentary in an attempt to chronicle the journey of the folks in Middlegate, Nevada who want a viable, and affordable, source of alternative energy for their wide spread community. The days of the Pony Express rider may be over, but the spirit of these stand alone young men who feared nothing and certainly did not feat wide open spaces lives on in the people who have decided to make this desolate area of the U.S. their home.

The documentary has the working title of The Last Roadhouse and it is being funded by Kickstarter as well as the money in the companies own pockets. Speaking to Lisette Cheresson, her enthusiasm, concern and empathy for the folks at Middlegate shines through. She and her partner Ryan, as well as the other folks who make up Flyover Pictures have been out to the area often and have already begun working on the documentary.

Old West Icon Faces Closure Flyover Pictures Hopes to Help
The Middlegate Crew! (From left to right: Brian Colgan, Megan Robertson, Lisette Cheresson, Ryan Cheresson)

There are only three days to go in the campaign and this last stretch will, hopefully, enable the filmmakers to meet their goal of $7,500. Thus far, they have over 127 backers and are roughly $278 short of their target. Tonight, I just became backer number 128. Please dig deep and see what great things you can get from donating to keep this worthwhile and vital part of a scattered community energized.

I will be keeping track of Flyover Pictures and their progress. I’ll try to report on each stage of the project and keep interest in this documentary alive. We owe it to the figures of the old west and the proud independent people who call Middlegate home.

By Michael Smith