Space, Death, and Memory: My Summer Vacation in Quartzsite

Past the Coachella Valley, where the desert floor pushes the mountains out of sight, my grandfather levitates above a steamy I-10, alternately stiff-arming the grill and checking the coolant level of my eastbound station wagon.

“You’re out of your mind!” he says, a plaid shirt and work pants hanging from his lanky frame. “Either that or you’re a masochist.”

I tell him I need to think, and that everywhere else is full.

“But you hated it in the winter, and there’s nothing to do there in the summer,” he replies. “No people, no junk. And it’s 100 degrees every day!”

“If you can tell me why you went,” I say, “then I can tell you why I’m going.”

Our circular dialogue continues until I reach Blythe, where the fishtailing, kitsch-stickered trailers of Havasu enthusiasts demand that I focus on the road.

I cross the Arizona state line twenty minutes later, and the only things I recognize are the jagged, barren mountains that enclose Quartzsite in a dark ring. The skeleton of off-ramps and overpasses and collector roads has grown, but the flesh has shrunk. And besides the gas stations and fast-food restaurants that hug the intersection with Highway 95, nothing moves. Boarded-up businesses and empty RV parks line Main Street with “closed for summer” signs and rows of utility hookups.

I find JR’s RV Park a few miles north on 95, and I exit the car stiff, sweaty, and blinded by the sun-baked roads and aluminum siding. The park is half-full of motor homes and trailers, but I don’t see any people. The thermometer outside the office points to 115, and a white-haired woman comes out looking confused.

I tell her that I am writing an article about Quartzsite in the summer, and ask if she knew my grandfather.

“I’ve only been here a few years,” she says, “and this is my first summer.”

“Can I stay here?”I ask.

“Sure, but you’ll be the only one besides me and my husband.” She points to a sign next to the thermometer. “Twenty-four dollars a night, two hundred twenty a month.”

We talk about her background and the recession, and then I walk the park, admiring leftover gardens of succulents and rocks. I circle the community center where I used to take showers and play ping-pong, then I drag pebbles with my feet until I stumble upon my grandfather’s double-wide.

My grandmother died in 1980, and my recently retired grandfather moved to a small town in the Northwest where my family lived. He stayed with us a few months before buying a house near the high school. In his spare time, he repaired pocket watches and classic cars and dead technologies, but he was soon restless, and on a trip through Arizona found Quartzsite.

By the mid-1980s, we had moved to California, and my grandfather was splitting time between Seattle and Quartzsite with his second wife. They would leave just before Christmas and stay until mid-March, first in a motor home and later a trailer, and I would visit them in the peak season of late January.

My grandfather was a typical Quartzsite resident: white, working-class, 60s or older, and a “snowbird” fleeing from the elements of the Northwest, Midwest and Canada. In the 1980s, Quartzsite had a population of 2,000 during the summer and fall, but by late January, half a million people called it a temporary home, ostensibly to see the flea markets. The RV parks inflated to overcapacity, and the RVers dropped anchor anywhere they could, dry camping on raw BLM land or open space.

My grandfather and his wife would rise at dawn to read the paper and drink coffee, then cooked eggs and bacon with toast and margarine. In the afternoon, they shopped. My grandfather for tools and vintage electronics, his wife for gemstones and beads. He’d come home to an adjacent shed to tinker with his purchases or do home improvements, and his wife smoked in the living room. Occasionally they drove to Blythe to get groceries or day-tripped northwest to the Colorado River, south to Yuma or east to Phoenix. At sunset, sitting on plastic chairs and artificial turf under an RV awning, they shared their purchases with neighbors over drinks. When conversation lagged, they talked about the weather.

On the way back to town, I find the Chamber of Commerce trailer closed, but on the corkboard outside, I read the map, suggested hikes and an advisory titled Desert Survival Rules. Number 1: stick to your plan. Number 2: drink water. Number 3: keep an eye on the sky. And Number 12: a roadway is a sign of civilization – if you find a road, stay on it.

I park my car near the westerly freeway off-ramp and walk east along Main Street, stopping at the handful of businesses that are still open. I start at T-Rocks, a large sand lot where chunks of tumbled stone line the fence, resting on oil barrels and wood tops cut in the shape of wagon wheels. Under a tent at the back of the lot, the owner shows me pendants of amethyst, emeralds and tourmaline, and I ask if she wants to buy some of my grandfather’s rocks.

“Maybe,” she says, “We buy all the time.”

“Who do you sell to in the summer?” I ask.

“People passing through,” she says. “Travelers, energy workers on the way to Sedona, people who know we’re here.”

At Daniel’s Best Jerky, whose numerous billboards line the I-10, a seventy-ish clerk named Trish tells me she came here seven years ago for a man, trading in the humidity of Oklahoma for dry heat and bagging groceries until she landed at Daniel’s.

“There’s karaoke at the Yacht Club on Thursdays and Fridays,” she says, “and bingo at the senior center. Sometimes you see four-wheelers on the weekends, and there’s a golf course in the desert a ways off. Most of the time it’s hot like it is today, and you just stay indoors.”

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