Want to go off the grid? First plot a course to Quartzsite, Az.
A tiny desert town, it only has a few thousand permanent residents. But it has hundreds of thousands of transients – travelers who come in by RV, van or foot and put down the thinnest of roots for a few months, as they make their home under the skies.
If you saw Nomadland, you got a lightly fictionalized glimpse of it. Now the documentary One Road to Quartzsite gives us the whole panorama.
Some of the people are long-time residents and full-time eccentrics, like The Naked Bookseller (who loves boogie-woogie, and hates pants). Or the cross-dressing loner who collects, and converses with, stuffed toy pigs.
Others are just passing through, like the runaways, and throwaways, who live out in the desert in ragged tents. The drugs of choice change – grass or booze, acid or meth. The quest for oblivion remains.
Director Ryan Maxey had passed in and out of this community while shooting documentaries on the outdoors, and he returns to chronicle it here. And he reveals a kind of continuum of non-conformity, a place where gun-collecting zealots and gender-blending outcasts can live side-by-side.
But the movie’s cinema verité style does it, and us, no favors. Without any narration, or even formal interviews, we’re simply dropped into an already chaotic place, and never get our bearings.
Literally. We see middle-class retirees who meet in their RVs for Patron margaritas, and strung-out characters camping with their vicious dogs – but there’s no sense of whether they’re a mile apart or 10, or ever interact.
Occasionally the film’s taken over by three vaguely feral children. No questions are asked, or further information given, but as a boring adult I have to wonder: Where are their parents? Do these kids live there year-round? Do they even go to school?
The director looks at them and seems to see innocent, unspoiled Huck Finns, lost in their own imaginative worlds. I watch them and only notice their matted hair, and wonder when it was they last had a bath, or a check-up.
How people survive in Quartzite remains a mystery, too. How close is the nearest town? What’s the crime rate like, or the cost of living? (There isn’t much of an economy, unless you count the giant swap meets.)
How these people ended up in Quartzsite is another puzzle, although occasionally a few suggestions poke through. A lot of residents – the saddest, most broken ones — talk about fleeing abusive homes. Almost everyone speaks of their dislike for rules.
But is Quartzsite really a refuge, or just the last stop on the line? Perhaps that depends on who you are, and what you’re coming from. But after watching One Road to Quartzite, I know if I saw a sign for it on the highway, I’d keep going.