Having travelled to parts of the world where some pretty odd things were available for purchase if the price was right, Quartzsite feels like a homegrown desert version of these places where “retail” is king. While this small Arizona town may specialize in rocks and older rebels, the feeling is the same as in those black markets and flea markets across the world, everything is for sale in this mecca of older entrepreneurs and retired couples out to make a few bucks in the sun.
While heading down to one of the flea markets along Main Street, I met a young lady and her male friend who had, until moments before, been standing by the road trying to hitch a ride to Tucson. The blonde dread-locked beauty turned out to be a writer of poetry, fan of Mark Twain and a “lone wolf” who liked travelling the back roads for inspiration as part of a search for self.
Her companion carried a bedroll, backpack, guitar and two very dark circles under his eyes. The pair knew one another from the road and according to her; they were two of a kind. Natural loners who were enough alike that they could travel together with little trouble, they paired up to move on down the trail and leave Quartzsite.
“I don’t like it here,” she said. The poet went on to explain that she’s stood up for an older lady who was being mistreated at the local food bank. Apparently she got so angry that the food collected for her and her friend was left behind as she accompanied the other woman off the premises.
“People are too banded together,” she explained. Yet, despite this annoyance with the local population, the writer went on to say that she comes back, strangely drawn to this small retail conscious burg.
Quartzsite itself feels like a throwback to another decade…or two. The Internet is dodgy and one bit of useful advice for the writer, or anyone who wants to connect via the net in the tiny town; do not pay out for the Wi-Fi in Love’s Truck Stop.
Before the hoards arrive, the signal is not too bad, but Pilot’s Truck Stop is slightly better and offers a bit more of secluded area to work. Although both had the air conditioning on during the coldest part of the year and hypothermia was a serious possibility for those who sat there too long.
There are other places, as mentioned in a prior article, and these are strong enough that most anything can be done on the net while having a burger or a coffee. Burger King does now provide free Wi-Fi for its customers and advertises the fact on the side of the establishment. I sat in BK for well over two hours and was not bothered once by staff or other customers.
I did, however meet another writer. She sat in the table adjacent to mine and we talked, and exchanged business cards, mine being a little out of date as I do not work for that publication any more, and discussed this little desert mecca of rocks, retail and rebels.
While the scenic vista of this historic little town, which sprang up from the stage stop of Tyson Wells, evokes images of the old west with battles between the ever encroaching hoards of white and the indigenous Apache, and other, Native American tribes the truth of the place is very different.
Modern Quartzsite is all about selling and buying…exactly in that order. There are other factions in the town, prospectors dry panning for gold, or a variation of that theme, can make a little money. One story is that an enterprising and persistent individual made just over $400 in one day this way.
This repeated event also serves as a bit of a cautionary tale. The amount made is impressive, but was made in one day, not every day or an average of $400 per day. Just “one day.” In other words, “Don’t give up your day job.”
Regardless of just what each faction or sub faction does in the town to earn a dollar or two, this Never-Never Land in reverse is full to the brim with older members of society. The average age looks to be between 70 and 80, if not older. One old dear parked in the entrance to the car park of the local Post Office thinking it was a parking slot. When she got out of the vehicle the oldster looked to be around 90 at least.
Of course appearances can be deceiving. Most of the geriatric community seems to be made up of sun worshipers who have all the sags and wrinkles associated with a lifetime spent tanning with, or without, sunscreen. There is also an aged attitude. Grimly defiant and slightly grumpy, again it needs to be pointed out that not all the denizens suffer from this attitude…just a significant proportion.
For example, when one enters a tent or booth, or cordoned off area, where wares are on sale, no one will approach you. (It should be noted that the chaps who sell the maple syrup, sorghum, and pickled produce all speak to you and are very friendly.) They will not acknowledge your presence and if an object is found that strikes your fancy, it will be difficult to figure out whom the seller actually is.
These vendors seem interested only in setting up their goods, sitting and visiting with others who have things for sale and in talking about how much money they could make from certain items. At no time do they actively attempt to sell anything. The aged salesmen, and women, apparently could care less if anyone buys anything at all.
Some of their clients are what seem to be regulars. Men and women who either live locally “year-round” or come back each season to either buy specific things, prospect, mine or hunt for geodes and other geological items.
I have personally witnessed one vendor treat a prospective customer with something like hostility. Under one tented area, a number of handguns were on sale inside wire-topped wooden boxes. These were the real deal, not facsimiles or working replicas, but deadly weapons. An elderly man went to inquire about price and the vendor asked if he was an Arizona resident.
The elderly visitor said that he was not, but he was visiting a friend who was. Before the old chap could continue, the proprietor said, “Don’t waste my time. If you aren’t a resident you can’t buy them. Quoting you prices for guns you can’t buy are a waste of my time and yours.”
Blunt to the point of being rude, any possible sale by the “friend” was lost. This attitude of “I could care less whether you buy anything or not,” seems to be pretty standard.
It should be pointed out that this rebellious attitude seems to be most prevalent in the flea markets. Other business owners are friendly and most of the staff in many of the shops and fast food places are approachable. Even the blunt ones will smile and react well if spoken to in a friendly manner. There are, of course, exceptions.
The whole feeling around the flea market stalls with their “antiques,” curiosities, second hand books, battered videos, rocks, minerals, “split your own geodes,” grocery items, hardware and tool vendors, et al is similar to the old fashioned “carny” atmosphere.
According to the writer I was speaking to in Burger King, who was experiencing Quartzsite for the first time, the town is known as “The Big Tent.” While this is presumably because of the flea markets and the rock stalls, the entire area does emote a sort of county fair atmosphere sans barkers.
There are no stalls where the rubes can “take their chances” at the ring toss or those type of huckster games, but there are an amount of things on sale that have no real place here.
And others that belong as surely as the cotton candy stalls at the fair. Over priced BBQ stalls where a bowl of nachos will set the visitor back a cool $9. Pulled pork sandwiches will cost from $8 to $12, depending on the vendor, or type of BBQ. Wood-fired pizza is another “specialty” eatery set up for the flea markets.
Many places sell, beads, blankets and Navajo jewelry. Walking sticks, some of which look suspiciously like broom handles as well as canes, and something called a “Bubba Stick” are sold everywhere. As are different types of knives such as combat, hunting or self-defense and one place where a plethora of samurai and katana swords were on offer.
Ammunition, knives and rifles are sold at the same place visitors can purchase camouflaged hats, purses and clothing, along with nail clippers and wind up radios. This same establishment, a more permanent type of facility than a tent, sells a huge selection of books, DVDs and various other things which are as mundane as folding canvas chairs and paper towels and as exotic as military vehicles and memorabilia. As well as a number of accessories for rifles, pistols, tools and a large selection of what appeared to be airsoft replica weapons.
On top of all this fascination with retail, from the customers only it seems, and rocks, the other common factor in the town is a sort of rebel without a cause, or with too many, attitude. These aged residents, whether temporary or more permanent, all exude a sort of middle finger to the rest of the world.
It should be pointed out that there are friendly people here, even the rebels will give out a smile and a “hi.” But the main difference is that they do not care if you like them or not; just as they do not care if you are interested in buying any of their wares.
The only thing that these fierce individuals seem to be in sync on is their distinct dislike of the “hippies,” beggars, drifters, and desert rats. (Although it should be pointed out that the attitude of not caring whether you purchase their goods or not even filters down to the various “yard” sales held in various communities of the town.) While there is a temptation to write of these objects of scorn and avid dislike here, they will be discussed in another article.
It will not be too difficult to write quite a bit more about Quartzsite. This mecca of rocks, rebels and retail is like the desert that surrounds it; full of sand (the human kind) and also full of layers. A lot happens here, festivals and the like, which still need to be covered. And…the historical aspects of the area are still to be explored, with many experts on all things military, a pretty interesting crime or two and, rather amazingly, a movie star who came from these parts.