The woman who calls herself Adios Annie had packed her motorhome as carefully as you’d pack a snug motor sailer, although the motorhome is much larger.
With pop-out rooms, it’s quite spacious, but it folds in on itself so that it’s hardly bigger than a Greyhound bus. Annie hitched her red Jeep Liberty on behind, and prepared to join the parade of winter visitors leaving Wickenburg.
Annie has spent the last few months prospecting for gold, riding horseback, buying scratcher lottery tickets and letting her skin dry out.
“Where’s home?” I asked. She looked puzzled. She walked around and looked at a rear license plate.
“Montana,” she said. She thought a moment and said, “I can overnight in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Salt Lake. Nobody will bother me there.”
Around here, “spring runoff” means that in spring, the winter visitors run off.
The Hassayampa River Sardine Cannery has shut down for the season. Here in Wickenburg, the river is a raging torrent of sand.
After four months without rain, we’ve had just enough showers to make the cactus stop rattling. There was no grand show of desert wildflowers this year–just a bouquet of out-of-state license plates.
We sat in a restaurant beside U.S. 60-93 on Friday and watched an eclectic parade of snowbird vehicles heading out–Buick sedans and SUVs packed to the roof with clothes, BIG pickup trucks, fifth-wheel rigs, motor homes towing Camrys or Subarus.
We also made our annual pilgrimage to the former mining camps at Stanton and Octave, where prospectors from Oregon to Maine spent the winter looking for gold. The RV park at Stanton is steadily emptying. The number of ounces of gold the visitors took out of the rocks around Rich Hill will probably multiply by the time they reach home.
Part-time residents are pulling out of Congress and North Ranch, north of Wickenburg. The Museum of Missing Socks in Congress has closed for the season, but the Library of Congress is still open.
Most of our winter visitors come from states directly north of us–Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska. The next tier to the east–Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta–also is well-represented.
Another big bunch comes from the upper Midwest–Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin. However, I’d guess that since November, I’ve seen plates from 40 of the 50 states, and several provinces of Canada.
Sometimes their driving is unusual, but most long-term visitors are good people. I could not afford to be one, but I’ve studied the breed for many years.
I don’t blame them for fleeing the cold. We went to British Columbia for Christmas. While Arizona was having a prolonged dry spell, that part of the world was having a record spell of cold, rainy days. I landed in a hospital with pneumonia. Twice. Wickenburg never looked so good.
Now the winter visitors are leaving all the warmer areas of Arizona, knowing those places will soon get hotter than that stove burner you thought you turned off a while ago. They’re fleeing Yuma, Mesa, Tucson, the Sun Cities, to name a few.
Quartzsite, which has a year-round population of about 3,500, claims a winter population in excess of 100,000 people, most of them in motorhomes. I’ve seen the Janury parade of Winnebagos and Holiday Ramblers coming into Quartzsite from the north, and it’s terrifying.
Mesa is for the snowbird who likes urban comforts, and doesn’t mind traffic. At Yuma one winter, two Minnesota men were having a mock dispute, and one threatened to put some distance between himself and his buddy: “Next year, I’ll go to Mesa.”
“No you won’t,” his friend said. “They’d run right over you up there.”
Many Canadians know Mesa better than I do. The North Dakota Legislature used to convene there in January.
At tiny Salome, I talked to an old Montana cowhand who mourned friends who hadn’t shown up–they’d died or grown feeble during the summer. By definition, snowbirds are old enough that they no longer have to go to work every day, and older than that.
Every town is different, and Wickenburg is really different.
Wickenburg used to call itself the Dude Ranch Capital of the World. Although they call themselves “resort ranches” now, several are still thriving. They have attracted much quiet wealth to town.
Some guests at the dude ranches liked Wickenburg so well that they built substantial second homes here, occupied mostly in winter. This is a hard demographic to track, because some come in and out in corporate jets.
Some RV parks include boarding stables, for those snowbirds who bring their snowhorses with them. It’s not uncommon to see two fifth-wheel rigs arrive from Colorado in tandem, one for horses, one for people.
Some winter visitors hang out in the old motels on what used to be called the California Highway. They prospered until 1973, when I-10 replaced U.S. 60 as the main road between Phoenix and California.
When it was being built, that stretch of I-10 was called “the Brenda cutoff.” It rejoined the route of U.S. 60 near the community of Brenda, 80 miles west of here.
Brenda didn’t amount to much 33 years ago, but now it’s a lively snowbird colony with five RV parks, soon to be thickets of vacant RV hookups.
Last year I was visiting with a grain farmer from Manitoba who said he was afraid to leave Brenda and go home.
“Why?” I asked innocently.
“Well, just before I came down here last year, we dug 265 new post holes to put in a new fence. That wind howls across the prairie, eh? When I got home, the wind had blown away so much topsoil that all 265 of those post holes were standing 21 inches above the ground.”