Quartzsite, a home for hermits and heroes

One person’s armpit is another person’s oasis.

If I were doing public relations for the travel bureau in Quartzsite, Arizona, that’s the tagline I’d be pushing.

Quartzsite, our point of interest this Travel Tuesday on Minnesota Transplant, is about 90 minutes north of Yuma, Arizona, where my Beloved and I wintered for a couple of months earlier this year.

All I knew before visiting there was that Quartzsite was just east of Blythe, California, which was the home to many happy memories growing up.

Not.

My only memory of Blythe was camping there one night in July 1982 when it got down to — down to! — 105 degrees at night. My family of origin was doing a summer vacation loop from Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean and back, and Blythe was a convenient stop on the way from Disneyland to Phoenix. I remember lying on top my sleeping bag in the pop-up camper sweating it out and dreaming of ice cream cones and Icees and swimming in the iceberg-infested North Atlantic.

Native Minnesotans can’t take that kind of heat.

Quartzsite, at the same latitude as Blythe, is known as the RV boondocking capital of the world. Literally thousands of campers descend on the area for the town’s famous gem show and swap meet every January and February (because, believe me, no one is shopping in July and August in Quartzsite for anything but icy beverages).

Not sure what boondocking is? Think squatting in a Wal-Mart parking lot where you can spend the night for free, but you have to bring your own water and TP. That’s Quartzsite. Combine campers too tight to pay for nightly hookups with a traveling flea market and you get a lot of cheap junk. So if you like cheap junk, you’ll be in paradise. Prefer to buy your baubles at retail? Well, you have to appreciate the natural beauty of Quartzsite.

Quartzsite

OK, I don’t mean the cacti. I mean the endless sunshine and wide open spaces. If you want to escape traffic and zoning restrictions and government oversight, Quartzsite is a hermit’s Shangri-la. It kind of reminds me of Mad Max (the one with Mel Gibson), only with a McDonald’s and cheap gas.

Besides the flea markets, the one place you have to visit in Quartzsite is Hi Jolly’s gravesite.

Before you think folks in the desert may have no imagination, you have to hear the story of Hi Jolly.

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. military cooked up a plan to use camels for communication and transporting freight in the arid Southwest. A Syrian named Haiji Ali came with the first 33 camels (later, 41 more camels joined the fray). As is typical with us Americans who can’t (or refuse) to get our tongues around foreign names, the soldiers changed Ali’s name to Hi Jolly, and this is how the camel herder came to be universally known.

According to the historical marker posted near his grave, “On the Beale Expedition in 1857 to open a wagon road across Arizona from Fort Defiance to California, the camels under Hi Jolly’s charge proved their worth. Nevertheless, the war department abandoned the experiment and the camels were left on the Arizona desert to shift for themselves.”

Hi Jolly died in 1902 at Quartzsite, and his headstone, if you can call it that — maybe pyramid stones would be more accurate, is a memorable testament to the Syrian immigrant, noting thusly: “Cameldriver ~ Packer ~ Scout ~ Over thirty years a faithful aid to the U.S. Government.”

Hi Jollys burial place

Next Travel Tuesday: Algodones Dunes

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