Editor’s note: This is part of a four-story package on Quartzsite, Arizona — a snowbird mecca that draws a huge cross-section of Americans, including hundreds of retired Latter-day Saints.
QUARTZSITE, Ariz. — It was dark when we arrived in the middle of nowhere, but Google told me, “You have reached your destination.” I wanted to believe it, but it didn’t look like any destination at all. The only things I could make out in the darkness were a tree and a giant tumbleweed to add to the 3,000 people that populate this town in the middle of the Arizona desert.
“Nine hours and 600 miles for a tumbleweed and a lumpy pillow at the only hotel in town,” I thought as I went to sleep my first night in Quartzsite.
A fellow reporter and I visited Quartzsite last fall to discover how this tiny town functions when millions of snowbirds, or people who move to a warmer place for the winter, arrive. The masses of people had yet to arrive, but the long-haulers were already well settled into place.
The heartbeat of this town is the great people who come here year after year. It is their spirits that inhabit Quartzsite, and it is their inclusive love of all things simple that continues to draw people in year after year.
It was the opportunity of an interesting story and the chance to take a road trip that initially drew me here, but it was the feeling of family that made me want to share it.
Quartzsite is a charming place, and it took Ron Kroschell less than two minutes — which is the amount of time it takes to drive around the whole town — to charm his way into the soft spot of my heart. From his Army veteran T-shirt to his Quartzsite hat and rough-and-tumble demeanor, I was enchanted.
Kroschell and his wife, Marsha, began visiting Quartzsite 15 years ago. He was most proud to tell the story of their climb up the Quartzsite social ladder. They started in the lowly vending stalls on the left side of the street and have now, through constancy and years of sucking up to the right people, worked their way into the prime spot right across from the makeshift grocery store.
“We got onto the deal to do the show across the road, but then he talked us into taking a place down there at the end of this road, right here where the tailor and the barber shop are, and so we took it,” Kroschell said. “Then we got a chance to get this one.”
His face visibly glowed with pride as he showed off their new location. It is pride in the simple things that keeps Quartzsite going, and Kroschell provided a glimpse into the charm this tiny town possesses.
Quartzsite locals say this small town has a lot of integrity, and Eleanor Varady, the woman who could tell you life stories for hours without pausing for a water break, lives with that credo. She’s a wilderness aficionado, sharing tales of desert forages, battles with bears and a three-year stint living in a rented big rig with her autistic son.
“I was the truck driver, I was the mom and I was the school teacher,” Varady said. “I wore all kinds of hats.”
She has lived a hard life and “worn every hat” under the sun, but it’s hard to imagine anyone more grateful to be alive selling oils and handmade soaps in the middle of nowhere. I was awestruck by the integrity that she appears to have lived each phase of her life, a representation that embodies many permanent residents of this desert town.
“Timeless” best describes Kym Scott, the owner of the Tyson Wells Enterprises, which was founded by his father-in-law in 1977. The family held its first rock and gem show here in 1978, when Scott was a teenager. Back then, he spent his summers building forts and hunting in the desert.
“I grew up in this town. I’m like a fourth generation here,” Scott said. “We just kind of rode our bicycles and motorcycles and played out in the desert. When I was, little we would hunt rabbits, bring them home and my mom would cook them up like fried chicken.”
When Scott was young, there were only 400 people living in Quartzsite. When he left for college, he swore he would never return, but he couldn’t stay away. He now hosts the three biggest rock and gem shows in Quartzsite and owns the largest flea market. His shows have helped this small corner of Arizona grow into the winter destination it has become.
Quartzsite locals said their town welcomes everyone without judgment, and that is what Quartzsite snowbird Barbara Alberts said she loves most about her second home. She spent an hour trying to explain why she keeps coming back, noting how it has become a permanent refuge every year. Every year, she makes the three-day trip from Indiana alone to spend the winter away from her kids and grandkids. She tried to explain it all, but the words weren’t there.
Life has thrown her a few curves. She tears up trying to articulate what this tiny town means to her.
“The people themselves make it just a cool place to be,” Alberts said. “To me, it’s homey. We’re family — from all walks of life. We’re family, and I guess out here, we don’t judge another human being. We accept them for who they are, and so they let you know who they are.”
Pizza from Silly Al’s provided us the energy for exploring the most visited place in Quartzsite: the Hi Jolly cemetery. We soaked up the love with which each grave site was decorated and cared for, and then took that love to Celia’s Rainbow Garden. It honors one family’s long dead but much loved daughter who died too young.
We hiked to the top of the highest point in sight: a pile of dirt with a Q painted proudly on the side. I could really see Quartzsite then. The desert seemed beautiful, but on reflection, it was the people who made the nothingness seem appealing.
My goal in writing this story was to fulfill a promise I made to the people I met there — to do more than just report the facts. They are more than just existing in some random place in Arizona. They are more than that crazy snowbird population, more than just a place on a map.
Any place, no matter how small, has a heartbeat. Some hearts beat stronger and faster than others, but it is not the number of people smashed together that determine the strength of the heartbeat; it is the quality of the people. Quartzsite’s heartbeat still sounds in my ears.
The whole town of Quartzsite can be accessed by four main roads that form a square. This video is a time-lapse video tour of the entire town of Quartzsite. (Kelsey Robertson)