Snowbirds bring boom to Arizona desert town

QUARTZSITE, Arizona – When the first icy blasts of winter lash the northern United States, the desert floor around this small Arizona town starts to fill from horizon to horizon.

Towing trailers, a second car or even a golf cart, huge crowds of blue-collar retirees from as far afield as Idaho and New York state transform Quartzsite, close to the California border, into a quirky winter boomtown.

From November through March, authorities say the population mushrooms from 3,500 people to peak at a around one million, as the seasonal migrants, or snowbirds, arrive in rumbling convoys of recreational vehicles, or RVs.

More than 70 mobile home and trailer parks and three tracts of government land in the Mojave Desert town fill to bursting, as the visitors park up, plug in and chill out, turning it into the Arizona sunbelt’s largest instant community.

Most are retirees seeking to escape the ice, sleet and snow that locks up roads, not to mention their joints, in the northern states, enjoying the warm winter days, bone dry air and low rents of the town’s cactus-studded RV parks.

“You get people flocking here from across the country and even from abroad, who would never otherwise meet up,” said Quartzsite’s mayor, Verlyn Michel, a U.S. Air Force veteran from northeast California.

“It makes for a unique community that invents its own rules, makes its own fun,” he added.

Snowbirds spend an estimated $500 million a year in Arizona. Some over-winter in high-end resorts in Phoenix and Scottsdale, paying hundreds of dollars a night, while most stay in RV parks scattered across the desert.

Their arrival transforms a handful of towns like Quartzsite into nomadic havens, where new residents park up their RVs and spread out their lives in the sun among neighbors relaxing in shorts and T-shirts.

“I took the snow shovel and I buried it in the desert,” quipped Sal Cantelmi, 76, a retired printer from Brooklyn, as he did a crossword puzzle outside his trailer at the Holiday Palms RV Park. “I’m through with winters.”

A volunteer force known as the Citizens On Patrol helps local police keep order in the sprawling communities, while visitors set about amusing themselves with activities ranging from the formal to the frankly bizarre.

Many head over to the Quartzsite Improvement Center, dubbed by some “snowbird town hall,” where volunteers organize a round of activities including pancake suppers, square dancing evenings and monthly craft fairs.

Others pick over stalls at the nine gem fairs held in the town over winter, where they can buy and swap semi-precious stones and browse other booths selling everything from antiques to firearms.

The more offbeat head out to two improvised golf courses on the outskirts of town, chopping balls down parched fairways to greens that look more like bunkers. Others, some in their 70s and 80s, hunt rattlesnakes out in the desert. “I’ve caught some real big ones,” says Cecil Loyet, a 76-year-old retiree from Illinois. “If you par-boil them, they make for some good eating.” The number of winter visitors flocking to Quartzsite is growing every year as word spreads about the mild climate, cheap hook ups and whimsical, improvised social life on offer.

Local boosters are delighted at the growth — which has filled the streets with new businesses including satellite dish installers and RV service and repair shops — and they are lobbying to get the town upgraded to city status.

“Right now people come in for our swap meets and for the winter time. We want them to stay year round,” says Tiny Loyet, a director of the Quartzsite Chamber of Commerce.

“We have the same climate and conditions as Phoenix, and we don’t see why we can’t grow like they did,” she said of the state’s flourishing capital which has attracted residents from all over the United States.