South of Nowhere

Howling coyotes, lows in the 60s, and neighbors from Hibbing: Minnesota snowbirds roost in the desert

You've heard of the mirages that can beguile a desert traveler--the city of gleaming white walls and friendly strangers, under a sun brighter than regular daylight. There are bonfires in that city, exotic feasts, and bazaars offering wares from the ends of the earth. But when the traveler wakes in the morning, it's all gone. Was it a dream? A vision? Or just another winter in the largest Minnesota city south of the Iowa border?

In the summer, Quartzsite, Ariz., is little more than an exit off Interstate 10--a few buildings scattered along a one-stoplight road two hours west of Phoenix. Residents support themselves chiefly by catering to the tourists who happen in to fill up on gas and Happy Meals. The town's claim to fame is the memorial to Hi Jolly (a.k.a. Hadji Ali), a camel driver enlisted by the U.S. Army as part of a failed 1857 effort to introduce camels as beasts of burden in the Southwest.

But in winter the desert around Quartzsite comes alive. Winnebagos sprout from the dusty plain; buses too, and converted vans, and ancient pickups with jerry-built campers on top. Rock formations appear, spelling "PEACE" or "WELCOME" or "KEEP OUT." Homemade signs point to the Lundquists' and the O'Connors' and the Schmidts'. There are bonfires where Quartzsite's winter residents gather to take stock--of who made it this year, who went to see the grandkids in Texas instead, who had to trade in the camper for a nursing-home bed. The population swells gradually as frost grips points north; Quartzsite reaches its climax during a frenzied four weeks of oversize flea markets and swap meets where vendors offer just about every item you can load on a semi and display in a parking lot: Gems! Salsa makers! All-terrain vehicles! And then, in the blink of an eye, it's all gone.

No one's yet counted the number of "10,000 Lakes" plates around Quartzsite in January, but in 1987 a University of Arizona study found that Minnesotans made up the largest share of the Grand Canyon state's winter residents. Will Craig, a researcher at the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, estimates that about 10 percent of Minnesotans over age 65 travel south each winter. According to Craig's data, snowbirds tend to come from rural parts of the state, and they're more healthy and wealthy than the elderly population as a whole. About a third head for Arizona, another third go to Florida or California, and the rest scatter across the Sun Belt.

The Quartzsite snowbirds are a tougher bunch than most. No apartment complexes, condos, or bungalows with golf-course views here--no golf courses, period, unless you count the one Edwin and Doris Lundberg set up each year with holes fashioned from sewer pipe. If you're going to stay in Quartzsite for any length of time, you drive out into the desert and park. It's all federal land out there, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management issues long-term camping permits for $100 a season. If you get sick, the town has a clinic, and if you care for quilting classes, the Quartzsite Improvement Association can help. Other than that, you're on your own. And that's the point.

"Until you've lived like we do, you're never free," 68-year-old Shirley (Bird) Cassman says from a pay phone at the truck stop. She and her sister Bunny (Bird) Christianson, 62, put in their time back in Keewaytin and Cambridge as wives, co-workers, homeowners. Now they like it that there are no trees between them and the sunset; that when the neighbors get on their nerves they can pack up and move; that there are only a few tanks of gas between them and Mexico. "You really should experience it," Shirley says. "Unless you're married. Then you have to wait until you're old." And with that she lets out a cackle that bounces on the line all the way back home.

City Pages photographer Terry Gydesen met the Bird sisters in January while working on a photo documentary under the auspices of the state historical society's Minnesota 2000 Project. (The society funds photographers to create a record of life at the millennium. An exhibit and book are planned for next year.) The sisters were suspicious when she first parked her VW camper near their spot, but they soon warmed to her presence and her shutter. ("Terry just hangs with us," Shirley says now.) So did Sharon and Donny Ramberg from Mentor, who take their Oof-da Tacos stand to Quartzsite each winter; Bud and Marge Richards from Hibbing, whose RV is home to two dogs and a parrot; and Doris and Edwin Lundberg from Detroit Lakes, who at 79 and 80 have shortened their desert hikes to just two miles each. What follows are their stories, in Gydesen's photos and their own words--five tales of home and away, of the desert and the disappearing city.


Bunny (Bird) Cassman & Shirley (Bird) Christianson
You go from our world into another one

BUNNY

In 1989 we decided that we were going to go south for the winter. My sister and I had a camper together, and two other friends that are sisters had one, and another woman bought a camper and came with us. We left Minnesota and we didn't know where we were going, but we weren't going to stop until we got to where there was no winter. So we went to Texas, but they said they get snow there. We went on to Tucson, they said it gets pretty cold, and then we got to Phoenix and that was just too much traffic. So we headed over to the [Colorado] river, and we got here, and they said, no, we do not get winter. And we've been coming every year.

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