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Arrival in the Desert – Quartzsite Arizona

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“Well, Ranger Abbey,” says Merle, “how do you like it out here in the middle of nowhere?” -Desert Solitaire

I look out at a blue sky pressing itself down upon a red earth like a double sized woman’s buttocks being plopped down upon a standard sized chair. And like the poor chair, their is no escape for the land here: the blitzkrieg of sky has it completely covered. Blue, thick, impenetrable by cloud or human artifice, the sky in the Arizona desert dwarfs even the mountains.

This is literal fact, of course: the sky is bigger than everything. But I have not know such a sky that seems so impenetrable. Perhaps by contrast of the fact that it is devoid of all features, blemishes, or inclusions, the sky — and not anything in it — seems to have a presence that I have never known before.

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Quartzsite, Arizona, USA, North America
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
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In a city, you can only see the sky in tattered slivers between this or that man made monstrosity; in the Mountains, the view of the sky is subverted by the endless role of horizon encompassing peaks, valleys, and, very often, clouds; in the jungle, the tree canopy all too often acts as a roof against the sky. In the desert, it is the sky that rules: you cannot get away from it, sky is everywhere.

Desert Sky

Desert Sky

In the desert, space is big and everything else is small. It is akin to looking at a negative of a photo: the positive space becomes the negative, the negative the positive. The desert is the negative space of the world. Where other landscapes fill themselves with things, the essence of the desert is found in what is not there.

Arizona desert

Arizona desert

In the desert you see nature bare naked: there is little cover for the earth, the mountains have been skinned of tall trees, and, yes, the sky does not often boast a single cloud to occupy your gaze or to stand between you and the heavens above.

I have traveled through many different environs of planet earth — high mountains, dense jungles, large cities, open plains, and thick forests — but it is in the desert that you can see most clearly. You can see the shapes, curves, and the ebbs and flows of a landscape as if looking at it through an X-ray. You can see the direct results of wind and sun. And what little rain that does fall here almost indelibly tattoos its mark upon the land for a long time after its hasty evaporation.

When I look out across a desert plain, I can almost fool myself that I am gazing into the the very soul of the earth — or, barring that, perhaps my own.  It is no wonder to me why the three great mono-theistic faiths arose from the desert.

Barrel Cactus

Barrel Cactus

I am looking out at the desert of the southwestern USA: directionless sky, burning sun, crisp brittle earth, dry brittle shrubs, dust devils spinning, fiercely armed cacti — the atributes that lend definition to the word “harsh.”

This is the desert of the southwestern USA: warmth, colors dancing on sunset mountain tops, gentle sunrises, endless land for walking, a horion that perennially begs to be chased — the atributes that lend definition to the word “cathartic.”

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I pulled into Quartzsite at night after running a gauntlet of agressively patroling highway police. I was driving in Arizona within 40 miles of the California border, and I passed no less than ten police cars who had pulled vehcles over and were in the process of thorouughly searching them and interrogating their drivers. Apparently, this is a major drug/ immigrant trafficing corridor.

20 miles outside of Quartzite  I saw headlights in my rear view mirror fly through a distance of at least a mile in a mere moment and slow down right behind my bumber. No other person on this highway would be bold enough to drive this quickly except for a highway patrolman. I rode in the right hand lane and the patrolman rode in the left on the edge of my bumber.

He was running my plates.

A tense moment passed. The patrolman, who apparently realized that my Maine plates were more indicative of a tourist than a drug smuggler,  suddenly dropped back into the night, skipped over a path in the median, and then pulled over an unsuspecting vehicle on the opposite side of the interstate.

I rolled on into Quartzsite.

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“The town of Quartzsite is kind of a trailer park in the middle of a parking lot,” I received these words of warning from an Arizona archaeologist before departing from Maine.

I checked into the Quartzsite Yacht Club, the ironically named hotel where the archaeology crew was put up, and made way for my room. I found out quickly that the rooms in this hotel are actually trailors — I was staying in a trailor park hotel. I suppose this was suiting given the housing preferences of the town’s inhabitants.

The population of Quartzsite fluctuates in population from 3,200 in the summer months to over 300,000 in the winter.

All of Canada and the northern USA, apparently, caught wind that the sun lives down here in Arizona all year round, and, perhaps feeling ripped off over this geo/ climatic imbalance, migrate down from their dark and frigid wintertime holes to vindictively claim their rightful chit of sunlight and warmth. They travel in motor homes or have tailor homes pulled behind big trucks.

Aerial view of Quartzite in Winter

Aerial view of Quartzite in Summer

Photo from http://www.riceranch.biz/map.htm

Quartzsite, Arizona really is a giant metropolis of a trailer park in the winter, a ghost town in the summer. Apparently, the northern migrants like the sun and warmth, but not 110 degrees worth of it.

“Have a nice drive,” is the common goodbye salutation for the restaurant and supermarket workers of Quartzsite, Arizona in the summertime. When they see you walk in again the next day they look at you like you are either nuts or somehow very unfortunate to be summering in their personal inferno.

And I understand.

There is nobody in Quartzsite, Arizona in the summer. This place is not only in a desert, but is deserted.

Arizona desert series
[seriesposts orderby=date name=”arizona desert” ]

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Filed under: Arizona, Deserts, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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