Passing Through

Rock hounds and RV campers know the road to Quartzite well. This small town at the junction of Highway 95 and Interstate 10 draws thousands of visitors every winter for its famous swap meets, gem shows and acres of campgrounds.
It has always been a stop for travelers since the pioneering days in the 1800s. Originally called Fort Tyson or Tyson Wells, the town drew early appeal from prospectors after it became known the area was rich in mineral ores. It was later renamed Quartzsite by postal authorities for the abundance of the natural stone found there.
In the 1850s the U.S. Cavalry formed a “Camel Corps” to survey land and construct a wagon route in the Southwest. Philip Tedro was a lead camel driver for this Beale Expedition. Tedro was a Greek who converted to Islam and made a pilgrimage to Mecca, earning the name Hadji Ali. When he came to America, his name was mispronounced and he became known as Hi Jolly. After the Camel Corps diminished, the camels were let loose and Hi Jolly stayed in the Southwest until his death in 1902 in Quartzsite.
In 1935, the Arizona Highway Department built a pyramid monument made of quartzite and petrified wood at Hi Jolly’s grave for his service to the U.S. government. His grave started the pioneer cemetery, where several of Quartzsite’s pioneer families were laid to rest. The cemetery is open to public viewing at the end of Hi Jolly Lane.
Camels and pyramids remain a symbol associated with Quartzsite. In fact, visitors can find several polished gems and rocks in both shapes for sale in the town gift shops. Several of the shops do close for the summer but a few remain open.
Spiritstone Gems Market is a huge shop right off Main Street, filled with every mineral in every size at fair prices. They have gems from across the world, sculptures and home décor, jewelry and agates in every color.
Main Trading Post, also on Main Street, is open year-round selling souvenirs of all sorts for the tourists who stop in on their travels. You will find moccasins, Navajo blankets, T-shirts, jewelry and tons of other great gift items.
A town staple, which has a new draw for Quartzsite, is Reader’s Oasis Books. Not only does this bookstore carry umpteen paperbacks in every genre, magazines, movies, music, postcards and gifts, it also was the stage for Paul “Sweet Pie” Winer, the store’s owner.
Winer was a blues musician and singer who performed at several festivals on the East Coast. He gave up life on the road to help his wife Joanne raise their daughter Celia, who tragically passed in 1994. After his daughter’s death, Winer began performing again, but in time decided he was too old to travel and therefore opened a music hall inside his bookstore.
In 2018, film crews came to Quartzsite to shoot part of “Nomadland,” starring Frances McDormand, who took home the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Lead Role this year for her performance. The movie also won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Directing from Chloe Zhao. “Nomadland” is available for viewing on Hulu.
Winer received his own claim to fame when film crews showed up at Reader’s Oasis.
“The original plan was to use the store as a backdrop for her (McDormand), coming in and buying books or something,” Joanne said. “Well my husband being an entertainer decided he would come and watch them film and when they saw the piano the guy said, ‘Who plays the piano?’ Paul said, ‘I do.’ The guy said, ‘Well play us a tune.’ So he played a tune and the guy showed it to production and they said, ‘I want that in the movie.’ So the next thing you know he’s in the movie.”
Winer can be seen playing part of his song “Next to the Track Blues” in the film and his full song is featured on the film’s soundtrack. Joanne said they received $1,000 for his appearance and later another $1,000 for the use of his song.
“I was amazed because I never asked for any money,” Joanne said. “She just called me up and said they decided to do a separate soundtrack for the film because everybody loves the music so much. So she asked my permission to use his song on the soundtrack and then sent me a $1,000 too.”
Unfortunately, Winer was falling ill around the time of filming and he passed away before the movie came out. Joanne still owns the bookstore and Paul’s piano he played in the movie is on display inside. His CDs of original music are sold at the store as well.
Another business in town is also shown in the film, the Quartzsite Yacht Club. In this scene, McDormand dances while Donald Miller, a regular performer at the club, plays his song “Quartzsite Vendor Blues,” which is also on the soundtrack. The Yacht Club bar is closed for the summer, but will reopen in October.
A final point of interest in town, also provided by the Winers, is Celia’s Rainbow Garden, a memorial to the couple’s daughter. This desert botanical garden is part of the Town Park on Plymouth Road. It is an ever-evolving garden memorial, which Joanne called her “therapy.” The peaceful park includes tributes to military members, first responders and even service dogs.