The true story of Quartzsite, Arizona, the tiny, desert town from 'Nomadland' that's much quirkier in real life

·9 min read
Quartzsite thumb v1
Background: A couple drives an off-highway vehicle through the streets of Quartzsite, Arizona. Inlay: Fern, played by actress Frances McDormand, visits Quartzsite in "Nomadland." Background: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images; Inlay: © 20th Century Studios;
  • Warning: Spoilers ahead for Academy Award best picture "Nomadland."

  • The tiny desert town of Quartzsite, Arizona, is one of the main locations featured in "Nomadland."

  • Quartzsite is a real-life RVers' stomping ground that attracts 2 million visitors each year.

  • Director Chloe Zhao called Quartzsite "one of the wildest towns" she's been to.

  • From the purported largest RV gathering in the world to a man known as the naked bookseller, here is the real-life story of Quartzsite.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Quartzsite, Arizona, is one of the main filming locations for Academy Award best picture "Nomadland" and a real-life nomads' stomping ground.

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Actress Frances McDormand plays Fern in "Nomadland." Searchlight Pictures

Based on a 2017 book by Jessica Bruder, the film follows the journey of Fern, a 61-year-old woman who turns to van life after she loses everything in the wake of the 2008 recession.

While Fern is a fictional character played by actress Frances McDormand, the places she visits, and many of the people she meets, exist in real life.

The tiny town is located in the Sonoran Desert 129 miles west of Phoenix with a permanent population of roughly 3,700 people.

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An arrow shows the location of Quartzsite, Arizona. Google Maps

Zhao called Quartzsite, Arizona, a main filming location for the film, "one of the wildest towns" she's ever been to in a recent interview with Conde Nast Traveler.

It's "the place that nomads gather once a year — you really want to see what it's like. It's special," Zhao said.

Each year, Quartzsite attracts an estimated 2 million visitors. It's particularly popular with van dwellers, who flock to its trade shows, 70-plus RV parks, and federal campgrounds during the winter months.

Quartzsite, Arizona
Snowbirds gather by a campfire in a Quartzsite, Arizona, RV park on January 24, 2011. Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

In an article for camping website The Dyrt, nomadic couple David Hutchison and Shari Galiardi call Quartzsite "a shrine to modern transportation."

"Every kind of mobile home and driver is welcome and celebrated in some corner of this open-air cathedral," they wrote.

Traveler Thomas Farley describes Quartzsite as both a "town and a meeting place."

"In winter it is a gathering of the clan for recreational vehicle snowbirds, flea market enthusiasts, ham radio operators, off-road motorists, geo-cachers, and rockhounds," he wrote in a 2017 article for Rock & Gem magazine.

Source: The Town of Quartzsite

In "Nomadland," Fern decides to make the pilgrimage to Quartzsite to join her friend Linda May at a real-life event called Rubber Tramp Rendevous, also known as RTR.

Nomadland official still (Quartzsite, Arizona - Cheap RV living crowd)
Fern, played by actress Frances McPherson, attends the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous founder Bob Wells. © 20th Century Studios

The RTR is an annual gathering of nomads run by Bob Wells, a van dweller since 1995 and founder of the blog Cheap RV Living, who plays himself in the film. The event is free to attend and takes place over two weeks in January.

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Bob Wells in "Nomadland." © 20th Century Studios

Source: Homes on Wheels Alliance

The goal of RTR is to provide van dwellers with essential survival skills and a sense of community. Seminars cover topics like how to go to the bathroom while on the road and how to stealth park.

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A van dweller teaches RTR attendees how to properly defecate into a bucket in "Nomadland." © 20th Century Studios

"I love this lifestyle," one RTR instuctor says in the film as she teaches attendees how to defecate into a bucket. "It is a lifestyle of freedom and beauty, and connection to the Earth. Yet there is a trade‐off. You gotta learn how to take care of your own shit.

This year, seminars were virtual.

The inaugural RTR in 2010 started with 45 people and has grown over the years, according to the New York Times. In 2018, an estimated 3,000 nomads attended.

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Van dwellers gather during the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in "Nomadland." © 20th Century Studios

"The RTR is full of kindred spirits, like a non-blood family," Jessica Bruder, author of "Nomadland," told the New York Times in 2018. "People there feel heard and understood and valuable. There can be a sense of isolation out there in the world. When they get to the RTR, it melts away."

While in Quartzsite attending RTR, Fern heads to the Quartzsite Sports, Vacation & RV Show, an annual event that bills itself as the largest RV gathering in the world.

Swankie, Linda May, Fern
Left to right: Swankie and Linda May, nomads in real-life, attend the Quartzsite Sports, Vacation & RV Show with Fern (Frances McDormand) in "Nomadland." © 20th Century Studios

The event is over 40 years old and takes place from mid to late January. In 2021, it featured 400-plus exhibitors selling products catered to nomads and those who live outdoor lifestyles.

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Aerial of the Quartzsite Sports, Vacation & RV Show from the southwest looking north. Quartzsite Sports, Vacation & RV Show

Source: Quartzsite Sports, Vacation & RV Show

One night, Fern goes line dancing at the Quartzsite Yacht Club, a real-life, boat-themed motel made up of a bar, restaurant, and hotel rooms housed in mobile homes.

Quartzsite Yacht Club
RTR attendees dance at the Quartzsite Yacht Club in "Nomadland." © 20th Century Studios

"It doesn't get delighfully quirkier" than the Quartzsite Yacht Club, one Yelp reviewer wrote. "Even in Quartzsite, which is about the quirkiest place south of bizarre."

The Quartzsite Yacht Club is one of two lodging accomodations in town. Each motel room has a ship name like SS Minnow, and karaoke was a frequent occurence before the pandemic.

The motel is temporarily closed, with plans to reopen in October.

At the conclusion of RTR, Fern watches attendees place a large cardboard van cutout into a fire. This tradition, among others, led the New York Times to dub the event the real 'Burning Man' in 2018.

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RTR attendees place a cardboard van cutout into a fire in "Nomadland." © 20th Century Studios

Source: The New York Times

Fern decides to stay in Quartzsite after RTR, finding work at a gem and mineral show.

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Fern works at a gem and mineral show in "Nomadland." © 20th Century Studios

Quartzsite is known as a rock collectors' heaven and hosts multiple gem shows and swap-meets throughout January and February. The town even made its slogan "the rock capital of the world."

Gems in Quartzsite, Arizona
Gems and minerals lay on tables at a show in Quartzsite, Arizona. FileImage/Shutterstock

Quartzsite was home to 39 mines in its heyday, Thomas Farley wrote in a 2017 article for Rock & Gem magazine. By the mid 1960s, many had been shut down, and rockhounders came calling, he said.

Source: Desert USA, Town of Quartzsite

Fern also attends a piano performance performed by famous Quartzsite resident Paul Winer. Winer, who passed away in 2019, was the owner of Reader's Oasis Books, and was known as the "naked bookseller" for walking around mostly nude.

Paul Winer diptych
Left: Paul Winer plays the piano in Quartzsite, Arizona, on February 11, 2011. Right: Winer performs in "Nomadland." Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images; © 20th Century Studios

Quartzsite is "a tiny town by most standards, but most decidedly colorful," Russ and Tiña De Maris wrote in a post on RVtravel.com. "A big share of that color was courtesy of Paul Winer, the (in)famous 'Naked Bookseller.'"

"The attire on his scrawny frame usually consisted of a single strategically placed sock covering his naughty bits, maybe a straw hat, a necklace and sandals," M.V. Moorhead recalled in a tribute to Winer published in Phoenix Magazine.

Before Winer passed, a sign outside Reader's Oasis Books read "Public Notice - Store-owner wears only a 'thong' ... in other words - nudist on premises."

When he wasn't selling books and posing for photos with visitors, Winer performed as "boogie woogie pianist" under the name Sweet Pie.

Winer is survived by his wife Joanne, who now runs Reader's Oasis.

Throughout Fern's time in Quartzsite, caravans of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) can be seen in the background. OHVs are a common sight in Quartzsite since it is the gateway to the Arizona Peace Trail, a 675-mile network of OHV trails.

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ATVs appear in the background of several shots in "Nomadland." © 20th Century Studios

Over 1,000 miles of designated OHV trails surround Quartzsite, and visitors can access trails from almost any road in town, Shanana Rain Golden-Bear, president of the Quartzite Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, told Insider.

"Quartzsite is like an island, but instead of being surrounded by water, we are totally surrounded by [Bureau of Land Management] lands," Golden-Bear said.

Source: Quartzsite Tourism

Quartzside hosts an annual parade every January for OHvs called the Hi Jolly Daze Parade. Motorcyclists and classic car owners join in, and some participants build parade floats.

Quartzsite, Arizona ATV Parade
The annual ATV parade in Quartzsite rolls up Plymouth Avenue on February 12, 2011. Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Source: Hi Jolly Daze Parade

The parade honors a Syrian camel trainer nicknamed "Hi Jolly" who came to the US in 1856 at the request of the government to help transport freight and people across the desert. He died in Quartzsite, and residents erected a tomb in his memory.

Camel Tomb in Quartzsite, Arizona
Hi Jolly's Tomb is pictured in the Quartzsite, Arizona, cemetery on July 3, 2019. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Source: Roadside America

In recent years, Quartzsite's chamber of commerce and tourism has found sponsors to pay for at least one camel and handler to walk in the parade, chamber president Shanana Rain Golden-Bear told Insider.

Camel and handler in 2019 Hi Jolly Daze Parade - Quartzsite, Arizona
A camel and handler walk in the 2019 Hi Jolly Daze Parade down Plymouth Avenue in Quartzsite, Arizona. Courtesy Desert Messenger

Source: Hi Jolly Daze Parade

Fern eventually leaves Quartzsite to travel to various RV sites across the US in "Nomadland," but returns to the desert town the following winter, like many real-life nomads do year after year.

Nomadland official still (Quartzsite, Arizona)
Fern walks through Quartzsite during the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in "Nomadland." © 20th Century Studios

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