Praising Arizona

One million retired Americans have left family, home and responsibility behind and taken to the road. Many have congregated in a dusty Arizona town called Quartzsite. Andrew Gumbel went to visit them. Photographs by Robert Gallagher
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Indy Lifestyle Online
or nearly 40 years, Virgil and Barbara Harrison worked hard. In the desolate splendour of central Washington state there wasn't much else to do: they raised two daughters and ran a hardware and lumber business. Then, one day in 1978, they'd had enough. Enough working seven days a week. Enough freezing cold winters. Enough responsibility, thrift and middle-class virtues. So they put the business up for sale, rented out their house, bought a four-wheel-drive vehicle and headed for the sun.

"We were Depression kids. We'd worked all our lives. So when we quit, we quit with a vengeance," recounts Barbara, now a sprightly 72. "That last day at the store, we threw our watches into the trash and neither of us has worn one since."

The Harrisons spent two winters in Palm Springs, California, then wandered east into Arizona where they flitted between Yuma, Phoenix and Tucson. At first they went home for the summer, but as the years passed they saw less and less point. They preferred to spend the warmer months on the road, exploring the great northwest right up into Canada and beyond to Alaska. Finally they sold everything they had, sank a big chunk of money into a smart Holiday Rambler mobile home and turned themselves into year-round creatures of the desert.

And now they live in Quartzsite, a sort of recreation park for displaced pensioners from across the United States. They're parked in slot 9E of the Holiday Palms trailer park, and from their improvised back yard they have a commanding view of dozens upon dozens of trailer homes like theirs, stretching across the stone and sagebrush towards the mountains. They've planted a few cacti to brighten the view, and dotted their Astroturf lawn with plastic garden cows the size of gnomes to remind them of home. But mostly they sit in their swivel seats, drink in hand, and watch the world go by - with binoculars handy for when the scene gets really interesting, as it often does.

You might see a group of 70-year-olds careering along a dried-up river bed in a "Baja buggy" - a three-wheel off-road vehicle. Or you might run into the likes of Gerald Stewart, a 73-year-old potato farmer from Idaho who rides around on a black Harley-Davidson. Or you might see a courting couple in their twilight years stealing kisses or carousing after a tipple at Silly Al's or The Silver Buckle. Not exactly your average retirement village.

Quartzsite is little more than a truck stop on the main highway from Los Angeles to Phoenix. Its permanent population is a mere 2,300. But if you add in the seasonal property owners and the trailer park tenants, that number swells to two or three hundred thousand. At the height of the winter season, when it plays host to a minerals and gems fair, Quartzsite bulges with more than a million people. Most of them are pensioners, and nearly all - like the Harrisons - have sold off their old life and waltzed into the desert in search of a new one. And this is not just about sunshine. It's about freedom. It's about the search for the exotic and the thrill of the open road. It's a supreme test of the American dream of self-reliance - that with the right rig and a tankful of gas there can be no limits to human endeavour.

Quartzsite, after all, is not some kind of genteel retirement village. The old folk drink too much, dance all night long and nurse hangovers in the shade of their trailer homes. With plenty of widows and widowers about, there's a thriving singles scene. Friends spend the long afternoons playing bingo and pinochle, or then get out their guitars for "Western" music jam sessions. They ride hot rods and camp out beneath the light of the desert moon. The Harrisons call themselves and their fellow revellers "recycled teenagers" and the epithet has caught on.

Here in Quartzsite, family is more of a burden than a blessing. These people don't want to be fussed over as though they were already in an old folk's home. They don't want to be told when to go to bed and what to eat and what to avoid. "I'm spending my children's inheritance," says a popular bumper sticker, and it's not a joke.

"What you hear people constantly saying is that they've come here to get away from the kids," explains Joy Cole, a 10-year veteran of Quartzsite who runs an informal local information centre. "Sure, we party all night if we want. We're not sitting on a porch someplace rocking the grandchildren. We're living." This, of course, is the flipside of the path mapped out for retirees in the United States: old folk in America either stay put or go to Florida, where they wear golf slacks and live in condominiums with strict rules about noise and garbage disposal. But a new category of retirees is growing up - mostly blue-collar types who won't be treated like caged birds. They prefer to wander aimlessly by themselves in their recreational vehicles, or RVs.

Some of them are nomads who never pitch their mobile homes for more than a few nights at a time, who have no fixed address, and who for official purposes choose as their residence one of the nine states that levies no state taxes. Some, like the Harrisons, pick a spot in the sun and stay there all year. Others base themselves in a centre like Quartzsite or Yuma or Aguanga on the Californian coast south of Los Angeles, and spend up to eight months a year travelling. And their numbers are swelling fast.

Five million Americans are thought to be living like this, at least a million of them retired. Clubs with names like Loners on Wheels, Birds of a Feather and Escapees proliferate, as do dedicated websites, tailor- made health plans and special technology such as solar-powered panels to let you survive off-road in the desert for days at a stretch.

The weather, of course, is a big lure. Many people are "snowbirds", northerners flocking south for the winter and then forgetting to go home. "I'm going to tie my snow shovel on the back of this motor home and travel south until someone asks me what it is," Bernita Jackson Brown remembers a couple of friends saying more than a decade ago. Within three years, Brown and her husband had followed them from Nebraska to Quartzsite, where they resumed their bridge games and watched the gold and magenta sunsets of "the great southwest".

But it's also about breaking the shackles of the American work ethic, especially for farmers and factory workers from rural areas who have always known the great outdoors but never been free to roam it. "For years, social mores dictated that only the millionaire and his servant had the right to travel; others who did so were considered irresponsible and branded with such labels as `hobo' and `gypsy'," writes Kay Peterson, co-founder of the Escapees club, in her book Home is Where You Park It. "But when industry decided to reward the diligent workman by retiring him with a pension, it was decided that he too had earned the right to travel."

Cheap gas and the open spaces of the American West made the dream of class levelling possible, a dream now turning into an epidemic. "We never travelled until we retired," explained Barbara Harrison. "Now we love this unstructured way of life, seeing something different every time we drive north or south. We might go 300 miles in a day or we might go three. We've been known to stop at a crack in the pavement." It is not just the ageing process that seems to slow down in Quartzsite, but time itself. When a curious city-dweller phones the Coles' information centre to ask which day might be suitable for a visit, a gravel-voiced Ed Cole responds: "Are you coming this year or next?"

All over town, opening hours are posted on shops and restaurants, but in practice the owners stick around until they get tired and then slope off for a nap. The lay-out of the town is similarly lackadaisical, a straggly collection of glorified caravan sites that for more than half the year looks like nothing at all - "deader than a squashed lizard", as a passing trucker described it at the height of summer. The only solid buildings are the petrol stations, the McDonald's, the post office, a clutch of churches, and a supermarket - all strung out along a dusty road running parallel to the highway. But that's the way folks seem to like it.

Quartzsite was incorporated as a town just ten years ago, and even then only to guarantee its water supply. Otherwise it has always been more of an informal arrangement than a real place. Gold prospectors found it handy in the 19th century because it was at the crossing of two roads. Its name was originally Quartsite (as in "the place of the four corners") but the post office added the extra "z", thinking it was a mining reference. It found brief fame during the Civil War when the southern states tried to jump the gun on the great Pacific Railroad by importing camels from the Middle East. The camel driver, Hadji Ali, died in Quartzsite where everyone still refers to him as Hi Jolly. The camels, meanwhile, have been replaced by Winnebagos and Landcruisers, state-of-the-art mobile homes with "slide-outs" that let you broaden your living room by eight feet.

Why did they come? Originally it was for the gem and mineral show at the exhibition area known as The Main Event, where the latest nuggets and pieces of hand-wrought jewellery would be displayed by vendors with names like Elmer Fudpucker: as the local rag says in its description of "good ole" Elmer, "You meet the nicest people in Quartzsite!" But soon the town took on a life of its own as a desert hangout that simply wasn't to be missed.

They came not only with their white golf hats and white socks and sneakers, but also with silver-buckles on their belts and cowboy hats and snakeskin boots. Some brought along their guitars and fiddles and banjos too, so they could play "Home on the Range" and "Mockingbird Hill" and the other old classics at the daily jamming sessions.

"We would like to have permission to rent and maintain a Port-a-potty to use at Retirement Cove for our music jams as many older folks need one close by," reads a petition recently circulated around Quartzsite. More lively is the off-roading or the "boondocking" (circling RVs in the desert like wagons in the Old West) or the golf.

Quartzsite's golf course boasts no greenery at all. Course rules dictate that "You can set your ball up on anything you can find" - except, that is, the saguaro cactus that is the region's most prized and protected species. The only thing that differentiates greens from fairways is that the former have been smoothed out by players rolling around on the ground ("Large indentations made by your backside are OK"). If a rattlesnake, desert iguana or kangaroo rat swallows your golf ball, you have to hit it anyway.

Then there are quirky local attractions like the second-hand bookshop, run by a rake-thin ex-hippie from Boston called Paul Winer who rarely wears more than his swimming trunks. Winer used to tour with a cabaret show in which he played boogie-woogie in white coat-tails and nothing else. One day he found himself in Quartzsite with just $35 and decided to stay, setting up his bookshop in an old shipping container left by an ex-hub-cap salesman. Or there is the favourite bar of the old folks, the Yacht Club: "Long time, no sea!" jokes the sign. Or the sex shop, with its well-stocked car park and steady line of guilty looking septuagenarians.

"You can get anything here," explains Virgil Harrison, "except medication or a casket." Both of those are available discreetly and cheaply over the border in Mexico, where a medical and undertaking business has developed at lightning speed. In Quartzsite itself, death and disease are taboo subjects. Everybody here just wants to bake in the Arizona sun and carry on being old for ever