One Road to Quartzsite
Director and Writer: Ryan Maxey
Written by: Ryan Maxey, Josh Polon, Sophie Hardeman
Time: 105 minutes
Official Site: https://www.facebook.com/quartzsitefilm
By Mike Szymanski
I loved the 2021 Best Picture winner “Nomadland” partly because it was a bit frightening. It came out while the world was quarantined and in the middle of the pandemic, and I felt like I was e only a few steps away from living like they were in the film.
Not homeless, but without a home.
“Nomadland” showed a community of people who live in cars, campers and trailers and live in transient towns and communities. One of them is the city of Quartzsite, Arizona which is normally a small town of 2,000 but with a persistent drive-in transient population of campers, cars and trailers it can go up to a population of a million or more.
It’s easy to pass by Quartzsite on the freeway, in fact, as the title says, because there’s only one road into Quartzsite, and you can otherwise miss it if you weren’t planning to visit. There are three places to eat, which are all fast-food places, as the unofficial tour guide brags as he shows the documentarians around town.
The life in Quartzsite is tragic, yet hopeful, also sad, yet cheerful, and freeing, yet limited.
These people thrive on the fact that they are free, without restrictions, without rules and without walls, but they are also without a lot of the other amenities of life, and are generally poor senior citizens.
The mood is very melancholy as the communities come and go, and the casual friendships slip away. The names, even in the credits, are questionable and transient too, with names like Muskrat and Skrat.
One lady talks about the freedom she has and how she hates rules of any kind. Yet, she allows a young guy into her camp and they become friends, and she is almost mother-like to him. She says she is very protective, pledging she will always look out for him. By the end of the documentary, though, he is scolded out of the camp by her because he slips and takes some meth, and brings other meth-heads to her camp. That’s against her rule, and therefore she kicks him out and he goes on his way. The lady who hates rules proves that she actually has some after all.
One fascinating couple is Paul and Joanne Winer, who run a bookstore in town. Joanne talks about losing a daughter when she was 8 years old from an illness, and she worries about losing her husband Paul, who has cancer.
Paul is a local hero, known everywhere as the Naked Bookseller, because he always walks around naked, in his store, while performing, and while driving around town.
Paul goes into town after a long illness and greets his friends, and he does a few songs for the locals like he is used to doing. He has a fantastic story that’s a movie in itself.
The voyeuristic cameras take is into senior community centers, and even a tented church where the Pastor Hurburt Whittaker tries to keep the spirits up in the town. Pastor Herbert explains that a lot of people lost everything during the Great Recession in 2008. Now, everyone is simply trying to scrape out a living.
Leaf Jensen and a few of the other kids are given a camera to create their own film. They take a camera and talk about a fantasy world they have created while they explore the area and climb trees. One of them falls out of a tree and seems really hurt, but the cameras keep rolling.
The characters in the film are called snowbirds, crust punks and libertarians. There are a lot of Trump supporters with shirts that read “Black Guns Matter” and other mottos, and there are all sorts of belief systems all mixed together.
Perhaps the most colorful character in the movie is the trans woman who is wearing a pink dress and carrying his piggy doll. We follow this character around to the laundromat, hearing the chatter to the piggy and talking about wanting to go to San Francisco. We go shopping with the trans person who tells a sad story about having to wear adult diapers because when going to a store bathroom, the owner wouldn’t allow it and even after offering a $20 bill, still had to just stand there and pee in the adult diaper.
Two widows befriend each other and one of them is rather new and says, “I learned a lot about drinking since I’ve come here.” They both talk about how they still talk to their late husbands. One of them shows her ice pick that she keeps on the driver’s side of the car, and shows her loaded gun and another by the bed. The other woman has no such protection and doesn’t worried about getting killed.
The town has an annual festival and parade called HiJolly, named after a camel who is buried there. Some of the longtime residents ended up also being buried around the camel as well. Every year people dress in camel outfits, shape their tents into the shape of a camel and even trot out real camels.
HiJolly is a simplification of Haji Ali, the original name of the camel, which means “One who completes his passage.” The locals couldn’t say it correctly and it became HiJolly.
At one point people who come to help the campers are shown doing a survey of their needs and one counselor warns, “Don’t call them homeless, say travelers.”
This unique film follows the world of Quartzsite pretty intimately over a period of years. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to point out that more than one person dies during the run of the film, but it shows the poignancy of the community and how the town handles such passings.
The movie won the Best Feature Film at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and was premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and the Cleveland International Film Festival. The movie will be seen on all streaming platforms soon.