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The World’s Largest Swap Meet in the Desert

Yesterday we returned from Quarzsite, Arizona after finishing working the ‘Big Tent’ RV Show for 9 days straight selling mainly coffee and donuts.  Quartzsite, Arizona is really just a blip in the road 8 months out of the year with a population of roughly 3,000 people.  But come November the population starts to swell from Snow Birds and retirees in motorhomes, trailers, campers, everything imaginable until Quartzsite spike to over 1,000,000 people in January.  By the end of April the population is back to 3,000.

Quartzsite is possibly the world’s largest swap meet.  It is what I would imagine the world was like for the pioneers wandering west in motorhomes instead of covered wagons.  A great big tent trading post in the middle of nowhere.

The RV show in the ‘Big Tent’ is the big attraction for the season.  They estimate over 100,000 people roll through that show over the course of the nine days.  I could easily estimate that there over 300 vendors alone.  It becomes it own microcosmipolitan unto itself as you begin to know your neighbors and see regular faces.

We brought my Dad’s old 1978 Dodge Tioga motorhome up from Tucson to stay in while we were at the show.  In a brief moment of genius, we decided to bring my Suburban to tow the trailer and act as support vehicle ‘in case’ anything went wrong.  The drive from Tucson to Quartzsite is about 225 miles straight west on I-10 passing through Phoenix.  It should take about 5 hours max with stops.  On our way out it took us 12 hours!  Before we even got out of Tucson, one of the dry rotted tires blew out and it was three hours before we could get a replacement from a tire shop.  The spare wasn’t much better and we ended up getting two new tires before we hit the road again.

Just as we approached Phoenix another tire blew and this time it was too late in the day to find a tire shop that could get us a replacement.  The motorhome has dually wheels in the back and we did have a spare- but if another tire went out we were in trouble.  We decided to slow down and keep trucking towards Quartzsite because I was running out of time to set up and finalize all the permitting for the show.

We made it by 10pm that night.

We set up the next day and all the permitting went well.  We were open for business on Saturday, the first day of the show.  Thank goodness my Dad joined me.  There were several hours we were both working non-stop the show was so busy.  Sunday followed and it was the same.  By then we had our act together and the work flowed a lot smoother.

We were located directly across from the Ice Cream Vendor who had 80 feet of counterspace and about 8 employees dishing out ice cream.  When it was nice and sunny out- people flocked to the ice cream.  When it overcast and chilly, I sold the ‘heck’ out of coffee and donuts.

Monday turned cold and we ended up selling more that day than on Saturday.  Tuesday was the same with some light rain and again we sold more than Sunday.  Wednesday things started turning ugly with storms coming off the California coast straight at us.  There was a tornado watch in the area and we were advised to secure our tent as winds could top 40 mph.  We survived and it turned out to be another strong day for sales.

Thursday all hell broke loose as rain and wind hit us and they shut down the show about an hour into the day because they were afraid the high winds would knock down the big tent.  We staked the tent, added weights, added ratchet straps staked into the ground with 12″ steel stakes, and finally moved the suburban in front of the tent and strapped the tent to the each bumper of the truck.

The wind peaked around 70 mph and ended up blowing down more than a few of the smaller tents.  The next day broken, twisted tents were everywhere in Quartzsite.  We were lucky, a few of the cross members to our EZ UP tent were bent slightly and 3 of our sides were ripped.  The front of the tent ripped the worst but I had a spare to put on and we were open for business Friday morning as usual.

With the weather cold and overcast, Friday was another strong day for sales.

Saturday came it the weather passed leaving blue sunny skies in the afternoon.  We ended stripping off our sweatshirts down to T-shirts and watched the whole afternoon as people piled in line for cold ice cream while our sales slowed to a crawl the rest of the day.  The sales still ended up being as good as a week day.

Sunday the show ended and the weather was gorgeous.  We weren’t busy enough to keep both of us active, so we took turns to wander around and talk to other vendors.  By 3pm, people were already starting to break down their booths.  We shut down shortly after 4:30 and by 6:30 we had the trailer packed.

I was supposed to stay in Quartzsite for the next show, a Gem, Craft, and Car show, that lasted until the next weekend.  On check in, another vendor and I were chatting and he suggested I skip the second show and work the Tucson Gem show instead.  He gave me a name and number and sure enough the let me into the show at the last minute.  The only problem was the shows overlapped.

I spoke with some of the other food vendors who had been there many years and all agreed, the second show you could expect about 1/3 the sales you had during the RV show.  Normally, if I had no other plans it would be like free money because I was already set up and paid my fees.  This time, I had an opportunity to setup in Tucson, our home base, and work 14 days at an event that is bigger than the tent show.  So we decided to bag the second show and head back to Tucson.

The motorhome sprang a brake leak as we arrived in Quartzsite and Dad had to special order a new brake line.  Monday morning, the day we wanted to head home, we found out it was the wrong brake line and we had to re-order a new part that was take a day to arrive.  We spent the day wandering around the desert looking at motohromes, visiting the MANY swap meets around Quartzsite and in general marvelling at the temporary tent city that had risen among the dust.

The next morning we picked up the part, which was correct, only to find we lost the all important bolt to the brake shoe (argghh!).  After a few visits to auto parts stores, we ended up in a junk yard in Blythe, Ca. 20 miles away, knee deep in mud, pulling a single bolt out of a wrecked Dodge van.  Two hours later, we were on the road back to Tucson.

The trip back was uneventful, thankfully.

Quartzsite is definitely a site worth seeing if you’re ever that way in January.  We did well for the 9 day event for selling $4 a dozen donuts.  At some point there’s only so many donuts you can sell.  While not a complete home run, I learned a ton, made some good money, found another good show, and we’re closer to making enough money to buying a land yacht motorhome to house the family unit.

Today I’m supposed to set up for the Gem show which will last until the middle of February.  It definitely puts a wrinkle in our plan to spend all of February on the boat.  Cash comes first right now.  If we can get a nest egg together and some basic amenities squared away there will be plenty of time to spend on the boat in the future.  As it is, we are reconsidering our calendar and may try to stay in this locale into late May to sneak a few more intermittent weeks on the boat before we head to more temperate (cooler) climates.

I have some pictures and videos to add as soon as there is time.

I’ve come to the conclusion that plans are for people that live in far more structured worlds than we currently live.  As I’ve said before, the more you plan, the more the plan changes.

Some of it’s Magic, and Some of it’s Tragic
But I had a Good Life all the way

-Jimmy Buffet, He went to Paris

While it does seem like an exercise in futility, SOME kind of plan helps me at least work through the variables to prepare.  There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you don’t place too much importance on the plan but emphasize the experience.  If you want things to work out as you expect they should- you will, undoubtedly, be sadly disappointed.

We’re definitely on the roller coaster ride of life right now, better enjoy it while we can.

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