Snowbirding 2018: At Tyson Wells

An update on this year’s snowbirding trip.

Regular blog readers probably know that for the fourth (or fifth?) winter in a row, I’ve gone south with my RV to escape the dreary weather and short days in the Wenatchee area of Washington where I live. Once again, I’ve gone to Arizona, where I visited with friends and then camped out along the Colorado River with a friend and later at the Holtville Hot Spring in California.

My Booth(s)

Although I’d planned to spend some time boating and camping at Martinez Lake north of Yuma, electrical issues with my RV brought me north to Quartzsite about a week early. I decided to take a booth at the Tyson Wells Gem and Rock Show, mostly because it was a cheap campsite with water and electrical hookup. I figured I’d set up my Tyson Wells booth early and see if I could make any sales.

The day after I got there, I decided to invest in a canvas skirt for the overhang on my truck camper. Let me explain. My RV is what’s called a “slide-in truck camper.” It basically sits in the bed of my big Ford F350 diesel pickup with the part containing my sleeping area over the cab of the truck. When I park someplace for longer than a day or two, I take the camper off the truck. The camper has motorized legs that come down and lift it up, I drive the truck away, and then I lower the camper down closer to the ground. Although I don’t need them, I have a pair of heavy duty collapsable saw horses that I put under the body of the camper; they hold about half its weight and stabilize it while it’s off the truck. The overhang where my sleeping area is is still high enough for me to walk under. Adding a canvas skirt around it gives me a sheltered storage area for my bike and the items I’ve been toting around in my boat. It’s like adding a storage shed to my camping setup. This would come in handy the following week.

Unfortunately, the space I got for the gem show was in a lightly trafficked part of the show and sales were virtually non-existent. Fortunately, another space opened up in a better part of the show and I moved into it. But since it was a single-sized (14×28) spot — instead of a double-sized (28×28) spot like my original spot — I had to get creative. Instead of setting up my 10×10 shelter, which would not have fit in the spot with my camper, I backed my camper in, pulled the truck out, and set up that canvas skirt. I then used the space inside it as my booth, simply removing the front panel every day. Because no one needs to come into my booth — everything is done at a table along the show aisle — there are no worries about tall people hitting their heads. At night, I snap and zip the front panel on to close the booth.

The new spot was much better. Although I didn’t sell any of the aerial photo services I wanted to sell, I had a brisk business selling sky lanterns. Sky lanterns — paper hot air balloons — are extremely popular out here where there are tens of thousands of people camped out in the desert, mostly in groups with evening campfires. I found a supplier of “eco-friendly” sky lanterns — no wires in the frame — with built-in fuel cells. This gave me a competitive edge a week later when the Sell-A-Rama show started and a competitor started selling slightly cheaper sky lanterns. Everyone who uses sky lanterns feels some guilt about littering the desert; wire-free lanterns helps them feel a little less guilty.


I set off some sky lanterns with friends at their campsite the other night. Here’s a video of one launch.

Of course, I had to move again for Sell-A-Rama. I waited until my friends had moved into their triple spot next door with their massive fifth wheel camper and then I backed my camper into one of my two spots, pulled out the truck, and parked in my spot beside it. I’d been told that in order to have a full hookup site for Sell-A-Rama, I needed a double spot. This is an unfortunate management decision; forcing vendors to pay for space they don’t need leaves a lot of gaps in the show area and makes it tougher for vendors to earn enough to cover booth fees. Although my friends wanted me to set up my 10×10 shelter, I couldn’t see any reason to do so — it meant a lot more setup and teardown work and stress when one of Quartzsite’s famous windstorms come through. My “camper booth” met all my needs and was very easy to manage. And I liked the idea of being able to park my truck beside my camper.

My booth at Sell-A-Rama
The final incarnation of my booth at Tyson Wells. I bought the kayak for my own use but stuck a price tag on it just to see if someone would buy it.

Sell-A-Rama is the biggest show at Tyson Wells. It’s held the same time as the big RV and Vacation show across the street at a time when Quartzsite has the most winter visitors. There has to be at least 10,000 RVs parked out in the desert and every day all those people come into town to shop or at least look at what’s being offered. My new location gets a lot of traffic and I’ve sold about 200 sky lanterns so far — at 3 for $10. (If I’d known I’d sell so many, I would have bought at wholesale prices and turned a better profit.) I’ve also done aerial photos of campsites for three clients and booth photos for two vendors. I do all this with my Mavic Pro; you can see many of the photos I’ve been taking in a Google Drive folder I set up for public access.

The Vendors

I’ve learned a few things about the folks who do this kind of work. Many are year-round vendors — they go from show to show selling whatever it is that they sell and living in their RVs, sometimes on site like here or sometimes offsite. It’s not an easy life. They come to a show and spend hours setting up their booths — putting up a shelter structure, setting out tables or shelves, and putting out merchandise. In the morning, they take down whatever tarps or canvas protected their merchandise overnight, then spend the day sitting in the booth, selling and watching out for shoplifters. They often eat meals in their booth and they seldom get breaks. At the end of the day, they cover it all back up and get some time to themselves. They do this every day for as long as the show lasts — in this case, 10 days. Then, at the end, they stow whatever merchandise is left, tear down the booth, clean up their space, and head off to their next gig.

The folks who seem to do the best are the food vendors who have to charge high fees because their booths are more costly and they need additional permits for food service. Other folks who do well are the ones with inexpensive items that are either fun or deemed “necessary.” For example, one couple sell hand-painted wooden signs with fun sayings on them; they paint the signs and even do custom ones and sell them for just $10 each. They can actually make new inventory on site and do so most days. Another very large booth that’s under a tent sells cheap tools and other household items. They must have hundreds of different items in there ranging in price from 25¢ to $5 each. I think it’s impossible to walk through without finding an item you “need.”

The Shoppers

The people who come to these shows are mostly retired. What really shocks and bothers me, however, is how many of them:

  • Ride around on “mobility devices” when they probably don’t need to. It’s one thing if you are unable to walk or cannot walk long distances, but another when you’re just plain lazy. Time and time again, throughout the day, I’m reminded of the scene in Wall-E, with fat people getting around on chairs.
  • Carry their dogs around in modified baby strollers or baby carriers. Seriously: I see hundreds of strollers a day and have yet to see one with a human child in it. Instead, they wheel around their dogs. I even saw one woman wearing her dog on her chest with its legs sticking straight out. There’s something sick about this.

Yesterday, I saw an overweight man riding a two-seater mobility device that was pulling a wagon with two dogs in it with a two-wheeled shopping cart in tow behind that. He rolled down the aisle slowly, moving just his head to take in the view of the booths he passed. If I had my phone handy, I would have taken a photo and plastered it all over Twitter to give my followers something to laugh at.

Yet there are many other people who are walking around — sometimes with obvious difficulty — because they’re not lazy SOBs and still have enough pride to move under their own power. Some of them have walkers with wheels and little seats they can use to rest when they need to. I have a lot of respect for these people — and very little for those who can obviously move a lot better under their own power yet choose to ride around on electric carts.

In general, all of the shoppers are looking for a deal. They only things they want to buy are things that are novel or would score points with friends/family members or are cheap. I hear all day about what a great idea my aerial photos are, but none of the folks saying that seem the least bit interested in spending $29.95 to get a photo. Yet if I offered to do it for free, I’m sure they’d be all over it.

My ADD

Montana Agate
This is my first sterling silver wrap. The stone is a Montana Moss Agate, beautifully polished to a teardrop shaped translucent cabochon. (I really love Montana Agate.) Many thanks to my friend Dorothy for walking me through the process, providing tips, and letting me use her silver supply.

Yellow Jasper
Mike, another vendor here, gave me this odd-shaped cabochon of yellow feather jasper. I wrapped it in antiqued copper. He was so tickled when I showed it to him that he gave me another cab to wrap.

As anyone who knows me might imagine, I’m having a serious problem spending all day in one place. Although I had my booth open promptly at 9 AM for the show’s starting dates, I’ve slacked off more than a little since then. I almost didn’t open at all on Tuesday. Making sales has been motivating me; I’m eager to sell out on the third batch of 80 sky lanterns I ordered, which arrived on Tuesday afternoon, mostly because I don’t want to have to store them for the rest of my travels.

The one thing that is really making booth time bearable is my new jewelry wrapping hobby. I’ve made about 10 pieces so far and am getting better with each one. Of course, I’m spending all my sky lantern sales proceeds on supplies for that — I’ve got a stockpile of about 40 cabochons, including several that were gifted to me by cab makers who want to encourage my efforts. After working with a jewelry maker friend, Dorothy, on my first piece with real silver wire, I placed an order for more silver to make finer quality pieces. I’ve also begun exploring other wrapping methods using hammered copper wire. So I sit in my booth and make jewelry while people walk by and tell me what a great idea the aerial photos are (but don’t buy), occasionally getting up to explain how a sky lantern works and pocket $10 for three of them. I usually close up my booth by 4 PM — a full hour before quitting time — mostly so I can see what’s going on at the rest of the show and across the road at the RV show.

My Takeaway

I guess the biggest problem I have about living here at the show is being in my little box among dozens of other little boxes with people in them. When I camp out in the desert, I sleep with the blinds open; here, I feel a need to close them. I don’t see as many stars at night. When I watch the sunrise from my window, it’s hard to see past the banners and wires and balloons. I hear trucks on the freeway. It’s like living in a city.

Mexican Booth Mexican Booth Closeup
Here’s the view from my booth: a large booth manned by four Mexican men selling Mexican-made blankets, ponchos, wallets, and belts. It’s pretty weird looking at Frida Kahlo and Jesus at the Last Supper every day.

But I don’t regret it. Even if I don’t earn enough to cover my booth fees — which appears likely at this point — I don’t regret spending the money to try this kind of life, even for just three to four weeks. My friend Janet, who is an amazing artist, has been doing this show (and others) for years and I’ve always been curious about it. Now I’m not curious anymore.

Will I do it again? Probably not.

Today is Thursday. In about a half hour, Janet and I will go for our morning “power walk.” Then I’ll come back, take a shower in my tiny bathroom, and put on clean clothes. I’ll have my booth open by 10 AM, just as the old folks start shambling down the aisle, reading my sign (“Aerial Photos of Your Campsite!”) out loud — why do old people always do that? — and pointing to my sky lanterns and saying “that’s what we saw in the sky last night!”

Just a few more days. Then I pack up and get back on the road. I’ll be boating on Lake Havasu or paddling up the Bill Williams River this time next week.

18 thoughts on “Snowbirding 2018: At Tyson Wells

  1. Thanks for sharing, Maria. You look like you have a wonderful life. Have you had any trouble with the drone? I’m still considering one.

    • I’m having fun. More fun than I thought I’d be having at my age.

      The drone is performing like a champ. I’m really happy with it. Have you checked out the new Mavic Air? I haven’t looked into it yet (and won’t because I don’t need temptation) but it might be another good, portable option.

    • No Maria, I haven’t checked any out yet. I want to decide if I want to get into them first. I figure that the longer I put it off, the better the choices and the lower the cost. I do enjoy watching yours though. Have fun. :-)

    • You’re definitely right about waiting. The longer you wait, the more choices there are. Prices keep coming down and technology keeps improving. In a way, it’s like buying a computer. But eventually, if you want to get one, you have to stop looking and start buying.

      I think you’d like it. They’re easy to fly and fun to take pictures with. Maybe a retirement career for you one day?

    • I just watched a YouTube video on the Mavic Air. Wow! Fly it with hand signals! Nice 4K video, but seemed to shutter at times. Don’t look, Maria!

    • No worries here. I’m having enough fun with my Mavic Pro. Seriously: it’s really easy to fly — you don’t need hand signals. Damn thing flies itself — you just tell it where to go. I’m going to take it out this morning and get some dawn shots of this area before my morning walk.

    • The writing is on the wall: helicopter pilot jobs will be fading away as drones take over many of the roles we play, especially in agriculture. I’m glad I’ll be retired before drones take over cherry drying, but I know they’re already working on it in Washington.

    • I’m guessing that the forward looking college applicant will be exploring the field of robotics. Labor will be a vanishing field. Pilots, drivers, machine operators, and repairmen will go the way of the dial telephone. As cures for diseases are discovered, there will be less and less demand for doctors. I should retire before they take the helicopter away from me and hand me a drone.

    • Of course there are UAV systems available now that are completely programmable to spray a given field repeatedly using pre-programmed tracks. Perhaps you could develop a system for cherry drying and sell it to your customers.

  2. It does look like Frida Kahlo is keeping a close watch on your booth, doesn’t it? I hope you were behaving yourself, she looks rather strict in that portrait!

    Your under-cab-over booth setup looks pretty slick. You know it’s not going anywhere when the wind kicks up, unlike the folding pop-up tent that are ubiquitous at vendor events. I’ve seen 10×10 (or maybe 12×12) pop-ups lift four five-gallon buckets full of concrete (used as tie-down weights) like they were nothing and take off across the venue, buckets and all. The power of wind is amazing, and frightening, when all that mass is lurching around uncontrolled.

    Up where I live sky lanterns are banned, I’m not sure if it’s statewide or just local. Here in Juneau, it didn’t help that a wedding party lit up dozens of them and released them right in the main approach path for the airport, flights had to divert and land downwind until they figured out what was going on.

    I’d be surprised if they aren’t banned lots of places after this fire season in California, given their propensity to light forest fires if used indiscriminately. Most of the time the forest here is so soggy it would be hard to light it on fire with a napalm strike, but every once in a while we get a couple weeks break from the rain and it does eventually dry out.

    The wrapped stones look interesting, do you make them as necklaces?

    • Frida’s eyes follow me. Jesus is cool, though. He knows I’m not a believer and has no problem with it. Today I count 5 different Fridas and 4 different last suppers.

      Funny you should mention the wind. It kicked up today and I had to move the posters inside. The sides are flapping a bit, but it’s cozy in here.

      I’ve heard that they’re banned in some places. Not much to burn around here and, if they’re launched properly in the right conditions, they should be cold when they come down. But ban or not, I certainly wouldn’t fly them anywhere during fire season.

      The wire wraps are pendants, although I do have a pair of matched stones for earrings. I think that when I begin selling them, I will include a chain. Apparently, things like this sell better when they’re ready to wear.

  3. Great post. Good writing.
    Sorry that the campsite photos are not more popular, your prices are very reasonable, so I am surprised. Perhaps the event is so popular that every owner’s ideal photo: “My RV, alone in the wilderness”, is hard to realise?
    A business model that does not quite take off in Tyson Wells might be a big hit in leafy New England…or Jackson Hole.?

    Never mind. Your wired cabs are looking so much more professional. Much tighter work with great care in the scrolls and tie-offs. Excellent work. I really liked the use of the old copper wire.

    That image of Frida Kahlo was like a weird unexpected electric shock to my memory. Not her best painting, but well known. (IMHO, the best shot of her is the photo taken by her dad when she was 25. See Wiki, it shows her immense power, anger and confidence)
    What a character, what a life! I love her creativity.

    Enjoy your travels…

    • I think it’s the fact that so many people tell me all day long what a great idea it is that’s driving me a little bonkers. It’s obviously NOT a great idea if no one wants to buy it!

      Thanks for the kind words about my wrapped cabs. I was expecting my first shipment of silver wire yesterday; I sure hope it comes today so I don’t have to start tracking it. The drawback to copper is that it’s difficult to find a matching chain. It looks like I’ll be investing in some black leather or satin necklaces; I think they’ll have a better chance of selling when they’re ready to wear. I’m going to a local shop to buy some display boxes for them later this morning.

      Oddly, I was at a vendor booth yesterday looking at cabs and his son showed me some of his wire wrapping work. It was intricate and nicely designed, but it really dominated the piece, basically hiding the stone. I’m trying to develop a minimalistic style where the stone remains the star of the piece. That’s why I’ve really been going out of my way to find nice stones. I’ve got some beauties I can’t wait to wrap in silver. I also need a good way to photograph them so the color is true and there are no reflections and shadows.

      There are about a half dozen prints of Frida portraits at that booth. The one they put out facing me yesterday was quite disturbing. She looked angry and had a ring of thorns around her neck. Who would want that hanging in their house?

  4. A friend that sells metal art at fairs and such says you always have to have a just-sub-$20 option if you want to make it in his biz. That’s where the “pocket money limit” breaks, in his experience. Perhaps a smaller/fuzzier version printed on a cheap mouse pad or refrigerator magnet would open up some wallets. It’s not like the typical RVer has 20-10 close up vision anyway, are ANY of them under 60?

    • I agree. The sweet spot is definitely under $20. I was having no trouble selling 5 sky lanterns for $15 and an even easier time selling 3 for $10 — which is actually more per lantern! I think having a $10 product that you can obtain/make for about $1-$2 is the way to go. That’s the formula the sign folks have. They must have sold over 200 of those silly little signs for $10 each — and they make custom signs ready the same day for the same price!

      Are any of them under 60? Not many. Not many under 70, either. One way to feel young is to hang around with old people. I feel like a kid here. LOL.

      As for my product, I don’t sell a print product at all. I deliver 10-20 images and 1-3 videos within 8 hours on Google Drive. They’re paying for me to come on out to their site, launch the drone, and spend 15 minutes taking photos. But the conversation usually doesn’t get that far. It doesn’t usually even get to the pricing. They tell me what a great idea it is and keep walking. Or rolling.

      Whatever. I’m not here to make money. I’m here for the experience and to hang around with my friends in the booth next door. I’m glad I did this, but I don’t need to do it again. When I sell out on the sky lanterns I’ll be close enough to covering my booth fee that I won’t consider it a loss.

      Besides, without all the boredom of booth sitting, I never would have picked up the jewelry wrapping hobby.

What do you think?