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South of Nowhere

Terry Gydesen

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.

The first year, we stayed in an RV park in town. Then they told us you can stay out in the desert as long as you want. I looked at Shirley and she looked at me--we thought, "We aren't going out there, alone, with the spiders and all that." Now we've been out there for five years.

You can be anywhere you want to in the desert. You make your yard with rocks, you set out your space, put out your lawn chairs. It's different, I tell you, than Minnesota. It's fun just to sit and watch how different it is. I know one thing for sure: You go from our world into another one, and then you go back into our world again.

We run into all kinds of people from Minnesota. Bud and Marge from Hibbing--we're from Hibbing, but Bud was just young when I knew him, he was 20, and then I got married and moved and I haven't seen him since. And here they are out in the desert.

I've been in my camper for a long time. My husband and I used to farm in the Cambridge area. We got divorced in 1980, he remarried. Then I sold my mobile home--camped through the summer and lived with my kids in the winter. So I was ready to go anytime. When you get older, the winter is hard on you up there, especially if you haven't got a man to do the work. I come back in the summer because my children are all there, up on the Range and around Braham and in St. Cloud. I park the camper in my kids' yard, and Shirley and I go all around Minnesota and camp.

It's a different life--a let-down life. All these people come in these big, beautiful campers. At home they wouldn't even say hi to us on the street because we're so far below them. And here they're just happy to see anyone from Minnesota--money doesn't mean anything. They can't be happy if they don't have any friends. That's no fun. At home it is, but not here.

I'll probably have to go back some day, when I can't do this anymore. I'll live in St. Cloud. That's where I'll end up, with my furnace on 90, trying to keep warm.

SHIRLEY

We see every sunrise and sunset. Back home, on account of trees, you don't see that much. And in the RV parks, all you see is more RVs. But where we are, we see for miles. When the full moon comes up, it's so beautiful. When you've never been to the desert--people that drive through, it's "we're going to get out of here as quick as we can." They never know what it is, really. And another reason is, if you're low-income, which we are, it's only $100 for the whole six months. In six months in Minnesota, you'd pay a lot for heat.

My sister got a pickup camper and I have a Transvan. When it comes out of the factory, it's got everything in it--a stove and refrigerator and a potty room and the bed and the booth. They're comfortable. Small, but we're outside all the time. We go downtown every morning. We meet--there's a bunch of us from Minnesota--and have breakfast. By 12 or 1 we're back out in the desert. We sit outside and then we have bonfires at night, everybody does. In the evening there's fires all around us.

Home is Keewaytin. I got married in '50 and lived there until '66 and then I moved to Bemidji. I don't have any children, but we go to my sister's and visit those kids when we're back home. And our brother is in Keewaytin. Mostly it's just Bunny and me--we do real well. I think if we lived together it probably wouldn't last. But she has her house and I have mine.

 

I have a little long-haired dachshund, 11 years old. Sweetie. She's spoiled. She's been traveling ever since she was a pup. She takes the passenger seat. I build it up and she sits on top and looks out the window.

It's 2,200 miles to get down here, but to us it's getting to be like going from Hibbing to Duluth. We take two or three weeks to get down and two or three weeks to get back. We break down a lot and we always get that taken care of, too. We both have CBs and we talk back and forth the whole 2,000 miles. Truck drivers talk to us too--I had one truck driver singing like crazy all morning. That was kind of fun. We stay at the truck stops--they have security, so you never have to worry. We don't pay a penny other than our gas to get here. And we love to drive--love it.

I sold my first camper after a couple of years. I wasn't going to come any more. Sold it and bought a car and got an apartment in Keewaytin. And after a little while, I said: I'm getting out of here. I was so used to so many people down here, Keewaytin seemed like death. So I traded my little car in on this Transvan and took off. There was no action back home, see. Here we're in contact with many people every day, all the time. When they have their campfires, they invite the whole neighborhood to come out, there might be 15, 20 people and everybody's talking--it's a whole city on wheels. I imagine I'll be coming here until I'm 85 or so. Until I can't anymore.

One thing about living our life--see, I never did this in all my life, I was a homebody. But you're totally free. And until you live the way we do, you're never free.


Sharon & Donny Ramberg
1,500 tacos

You take a piece of fry bread and you put seasoned ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese, sour cream, black olives--and guacamaca, if you want. Its guacamole, but I'm from Minnesota, so when they started asking me for guacamole, I didn't know what they were talking about. So I went to the store and got some avocado dip in a jar. This was 13 years ago. Trust me, I do know what to do with an avocado now. But we still call it guacamaca, and people get a kick out of it.

We started the business in Minnesota--it came out of my kitchen. I saw the basic idea somewhere at a stand, they called it an Indian taco. It was made with fry bread, which we had for years--we called it elephant ears. So we went home and made it for ourselves, never intended to sell it. I was working as a hairdresser, my husband was a gunsmith, and in the winter we also drove school bus.

Then one year my husband and I were in charge of Mentor Days. You know where Mentor is? About 20 miles east of Crookston? My husband said: "I don't know how we're going to feed all those people--why don't we make our tacos?" I says, "You've got to be out of your mind." He says, "You used to run a restaurant, didn't you?" Which I did, a long time ago. He said, "I'll handle the bread dough." So we sold the tacos for three days and then we went to Colorado for our second honeymoon.

Come home and we had letters in our mailbox asking us to come to different places and make the tacos. And Donny says, "I'm building a stand." I said, "Now I know you're crazy." But he did, and it went well for three years, and then my husband turned 50 and he said, "I want to do something different before I'm too old and crippled up to do it." You know, men have menopause. He said, "We are going to take our stand to Arizona."

When we left Minnesota, we asked the Lord to put us where he wanted us. We saw Phoenix, with trees and grass and flowers. And then you come 130 miles across that desert, which I hated then, love now, and you overlook Quartzsite, and all it was was this little black-and-white hole in the desert. And I said, "Lord, if you expect us to stay here for more than five minutes, you're badly mistaken." That was 13 years ago, and now we wouldn't leave here screaming and kicking.

 

The first year we had two chairs, and it was a good thing, because the only way we could keep them full was if we put our own butts in there. Now we have seating for 48 people, and it's usually full. We can do up to 1,500 tacos in a day--that's with extra help. We try to open up the middle of December and work through the last day of February, and then we do our business in Minnesota from May to the middle of October. We have licensed three franchises in Minnesota.

We have our RV out in the desert--you bet. We lived in town the first year, but we realized that getting out there was a lot of fun. We're four miles away and there's 10,000 acres around us. You know, I love people, love talking to them all day, but at the end it's nice to get out there and not talk to anyone.


Doris & Edwin Lundberg
We're always doing something

It's not very professional--it's a nine-hole, par-3, and not a very long drive from one hole to the next. We use a 7-iron. Sometimes the ball hits a rock and it goes all over the place. It pretty much depends on luck as much as whatever skill you may have.

It was built years ago by a guy who had his daughter and son-in-law coming to visit, and he wanted to provide some entertainment for them. But we've kept it going, and every group of people has some idea for how we should improve it. The cups are made of plastic sewer pipe, 4 inches across, and when we leave we take the cups out of the ground and my husband puts nails in the holes and then covers it all up. And when we come back we take a metal detector and find where that hole was.

It's a nice activity--you're with other people and it seems like everybody is so congenial. You develop a community in your own little area of the desert. There are dozens of little neighborhoods, and you find the people you've known from other years, and it's just like you came home. And it's amazing how people look after each other. Someone isn't out and it's awful quiet around the place, and pretty soon people check to see if everything's alright. Healthwise, everyone's got their little problems, but everyone is doing their best to be mobile, even if they've got a cane or a walker or something.

Edwin is 80, and I will be. We've been coming down since '82--that came about through friends in Detroit Lakes. We had an air-conditioning and heating company up there. And we always used to camp, with a little trailer and then a motor home. It just kind of evolved from summer vacations to a big winter vacation. We love to hike and climb in the mountains--we hike every day, a little over two miles a day, and sometimes another hike in the afternoon after we've had our golf. It seems like we're always out there doing something.


Bud & Marge Richards
We aren't that brave yet

I'll be 62 and my husband is 70. We lived in Hibbing all our life, still have a place up there. But we had always been into camping. My husband isn't too much for staying in motels. He wants his own bed to drive around with him. So we started out with a pickup and a camper in the back. Now we have a motor home. Bud worked for a trucking firm for 35 years, so he does most of the driving. We've been coming here for three or four years. We got here the first of December, and we're staying till the first of March.

It's pretty--lot of mountains, the desert is interesting. We get around with ATVs and we ride bikes or walk into town--that's half a mile. We have run into a lot of interesting things, all of the living things in the desert that I never expected. Flowers, hummingbirds, a lot of birds.

Some people are braver than we are--they sell their house and just live in their RVs. But we aren't that brave yet. We want to go home--it's still home. But we'd never go and live in a condo. Here, when I don't like the people I'm next to, I can pick up and move.


Jim & Margaret Cook
Watching the cars go by

I'm 75, and--Jim, how old are you? --82, right. We were down here twice in the 1940s. We had a daughter that had bronchitis real bad, and we tried coming down here in the wintertime. But then the kids were ready for school and we felt like we should stay in Minnesota. We had a farm, my husband worked in the gas station some, and I cooked in the school. That was in Clearbrook, near Bemidji. But we always said that when we got the kids up through school, we were coming back here.

 

The first time we came down here was in the fall, and we never realized how busy it was going to be later on. We were out in the country, too, about eight miles out, so we didn't see as much. Then my husband started working at McDonald's, I worked there one year too, but I didn't appreciate it much and I gave up. But it got to be quite a long drive for him, so we decided that we better find a place closer to town.

We go in sometimes. They have music several nights a week, at the Quartzsite Improvement Association. But we don't run around a lot. We're getting old, and it's fun to just sit around and watch the cars go by.


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