One Road to Quartzsite is a vérité documentary about Quartzsite, Arizona, a desert town that boasts itself as “the Rock Capital of the World.” During the winter, its population swells thanks to RV campers, snowbirds and other tourists. It also hosts one of the largest year-round gatherings of van dwellers and a large local population of men and women who live on the margins, many having found this community after being displaced from their own. If it sounds a bit like 2020’s Best Picture winner Nomadland, well, that’s fair to say, except this is a broader and deeper look at a community of the kind that inspired that film.
“Don’t use homeless. Use travelers.”
Quartzsite interviews a wide range of people who have congregated to the area. Some are seeking a sense of freedom. One man, for instance, is hardcore into the Second Amendment and proudly boasts that he and his friends have found roles offering protection at their local coffee joint. Another is caught coughing, jokes that it’s COVID and shrugs: “Everyone dies of something.” There are women who trek across the border for cheap dental care in Mexico because it’s cheaper than what they can find here. There are many drug addicts featured, seeking safe haven while battling personal demons. In one particularly moving segment, a woman describes her deceased daughter, who passed away at age 8 several decades ago. She stays in the area to remain close to her.
There are artists, too, who appreciate the relative peace of the area to make their art. Paul Winer, known as the Naked Bookseller, owned a store in Quartzsite where he usually served his audience while nude. Winer had a history as a nude musician, with court cases against him that spanned decades. The ACLU even backed him in a federal case. Winer died during the making of the film, and his life and death form one of the several running stories in the otherwise structurally fluid film.
Given that it’s a vérité approach to the subject, director Ryan Maxey and his crew are mostly content to capture Quartzsite through the eyes of their subjects. Besides Winer, there are a few who have a recurring presence, and the most effective is a small group of kids who are making their own films with an old handheld camcorder. It’s effective footage, capturing their social dynamic and play in a world that is not providing them with much to build. Their segments contrast with the often sad stories of the adults who also live in the area and have found themselves on the edge of America for one reason or another.
If you look at a population density map of the United States, it’s amazing to realize how much of the landmass is relatively unpopulated. The vastness of our country is extraordinary, and it’s informative to go into these spaces to learn more about the people who choose to live off the grid. The American West is one of our great mythological spaces; to some, it still holds that appeal. What Maxey and company find is not wholly surprising but filled with heart, humanity and genuine empathy for the stories of people not often documented in stories.