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.


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.

Snowbirding 2018 Postcards: RTR from the Air

I’m still in Quartzsite — I’ll be here for two more weeks — and I kept hearing about something called RTR. I knew that it was a gathering of RVers out in the desert east of Quartzsite, and I had heard from one participant that there were 3,000 RVs parked out there. Yesterday afternoon, I decided to take my drone out there for a look.

Quartzsite is surrounded by BLM land. For the most part, you can camp there for up to 14 days at a time for free. (There are some areas closer to town that provide services such as garbage dumpsters and outhouses and require a fee.) One of these free areas can be accessed by a roughly paved freeway service road that ends suddenly with a right-hand turn to the south. From there, the road is narrow and unpaved and cuts into the desert. This is the path you follow to get to the 2018 RTR campsite.

I estimate that I drove about 8 miles from town to reach an area jam-packed with RVs. The types of RVs ranged from rickety vans to costly Class A motorhomes. They were parked alongside anything that could be remotely considered a road. There were vehicles driving around — very slowly, I should add, to keep the dust down — and the campsites had plenty of people milling around. I parked my truck at a road intersection near a sign that said “No Camping Beyond this Point” and set up my drone in the bed of the pickup for launching.

I did two flights from the pickup bed. The first was a high-level flight that circled the camping area, taking video and still shots of the entire site. I was about 400 feet up for these.

This first shot is from the southeast, looking back toward Quartzsite, which you can see at the base of the mountains in the top left:

RTR Quartzsite 2018

This shot is more from the south west. You can see the road I drove in on cutting diagonally across the top right of the photo, as well as semis on the freeway off in the distance:

RTR Quartzsite 2018

For the second flight, I flew at about 150 feet — low enough to get some detail without bothering the folks on the ground. (I should emphasize here that I never flew over people — I always flew around the perimeter of the event.) Again, I took several still images and a few short video clips.

This shot was from the west of the event looking back to the east. I’d love to explore that road that winds up into the mountains.

RTR Quartzsite 2018

This shot was from a bit lower. You can see my truck in the lower right corner.

RTR Quartzsite 2018

Keep in mind that this is only one of the many areas where people are camped out in the desert here. I’ll share more photos as the place continues to fill up.

Also, please remember that these photos are copyrighted and may not be shared without permission. You may link to this page but you may not reproduce these images elsewhere. I am a commercial drone pilot with a lot invested in my equipment and training. If you want to buy any of my images for reproduction as postcards or posters, contact me.

Another New Hobby: Wire-Wrapped Jewelry

As if I didn’t have enough hobbies to keep me out of trouble.

I’m in Quartzsite, AZ, this January and although I originally had plans to camp out in the desert for the first half of the month, a variety of circumstances convinced me to take a booth at Tyson Wells’ Rock and Gem show. I’m selling (or trying to sell) aerial photos of desert campsites. (More on that in another post.) The east side of the show is full of rock vendors, many of which sell polished cabochons (or “cabs”) and finished jewelry.

Dictionary Definition of Findings
In case you’ve never seen the word “findings” used this way, check definition 2 here.

There are several ways to make a rock into a piece of jewelry. The most obvious is to drill a hole in it to fasten a hoop or use some other sort of findings. But a more artistic method is to use wire to wrap the stone securely and add embellishments. This is called wire-wrapping and there are a lot of examples of it here, especially during the rock shows at Tyson Wells and the bigger/better rock show at Desert Gardens nearby.

Kindling an Interest

Last year, my friend Rebecca came to town while I was here and introduced me to her friend John Heusler, a gemologist who has a booth each year at Desert Gardens. John not only cuts and polishes stones, but also makes jewelry. Dorothy Roubik-Ellenbecker, another jewelry maker, works for/with John and shares booth space. She makes beautiful wire-wrapped pieces with intricate wraps that are really a joy to behold.

I got slightly interested in wire-wrapped jewelry last year, but was busy doing a lot of other things. This year, I’m sort of trapped in my booth, especially on weekends when there’s a decent crowd at the show. I’ve been looking at a lot of different wrapped jewelry styles while I’m here and starting getting the idea that maybe making some of these was within my capabilities.

Getting Training

I talked to Dorothy and asked if she’d be interested in teaching me in the evening, when we’re both done booth sitting for the day. She agreed and set a date for Monday evening. I asked about books that might be helpful and she recommended skipping the books and going right to YouTube. So I did.

I discovered that there are a lot of how-to videos on YouTube about wire-wrapped jewelry. Search for yourself. I spent one evening watching about a half dozen of them, mostly by one artist. “Tried-and-Tested Wire-Wrapping Tutorial for Pendants” showed one basic technique and “Quick Wrap! Wire Wrapping Tutorial for Pendants” showed a quicker but less polished technique. Neither of them looked terribly difficult. I went to bed that night eager to get started.

Buying Materials and Tools

Fortunately, everything I needed was walking distance from my booth. Before I opened that morning, I went shopping for cabs. I bought two nice ones, then realized that since I was just learning, I should start with lesser stones. I found a booth selling some nice but apparently low quality ones for a lot less. I bought ten.

I closed up early (as I often do — seriously, how to people do 9 to 5 unless they’re busy the whole time?) and walked over to the booth where I could find tools and wire. Although the woman working there tried hard to sell me expensive square silver wire, I homed right into the silver-plated copper. I expected to make a lot of mistakes and didn’t want to screw up with expensive wire.

A comment about tools…

If you look at the two videos I linked to above, you’ll see that the woman who does the tutorials makes a point of saying that she uses regular tools — not special jewelry tools. Sure, you can use an Ace Hardware needle nose pliers and wire cutter to get the job done. But look closely at her work. Those ridges that make needle nose pliers so good for gripping also mark up the soft metal wire she uses to wrap the stones. I didn’t want those ridges on my stones so I bought the right tools.

Her husband was extremely helpful with the tools. They had a big selection with a variety of qualities. One video I watched discussed tools in some detail, so I knew what I needed to get started. He helped me find every one of them, including one that wasn’t displayed that he had to dig through stock to find. (He also recommended another tool, which I passed on but wound up buying the next day.) The tools weren’t expensive — they averaged $5 to $10 each. My initial investment in tools and wire was $35, which I didn’t think was bad.

In case you’re wondering what I bought, here’s a list:

  • Small chain pliers
  • Small flat pliers
  • Small round pliers
  • Wire straightener
  • Wire cutter
  • 18 gauge silver plated copper wire
  • 20 gauge silver plated copper wire
  • 22 gauge copper wire

First Tries

That evening, after dinner, I spread out my tools, pulled out some wire and a large teardrop-shaped labradorite cab, and got to work. I went with the quick wrapping technique in the second video I linked to above, using the 20 gauge silver wire. The biggest challenge was holding the cab and wire in place while I did the wire twisting required to hold it. I was almost surprised when I got the cab to stay in the cage I’d built for it. I then made and positioned swirls on the front of the piece with two of the leftover ends. I admit that I was kind of blown away by the results. The finished piece didn’t have the same polish as John or Dorothy’s work, but it sure wasn’t bad for a first try.

Labradorite Wrapped in Silver
My first finished piece: labradorite wrapped in silver-plated copper.

A closer look at the piece, however, reveals its problems. The biggest problem, in my opinion, were the small burrs I’d created in the wire by rough handling. Simply said, I’d used my flat pliers too aggressively and had damaged the soft metal wire. There were burrs on the decorative bends, especially on the back. This could catch on fine fabrics like silk or nylon, making the piece pretty much unwearable. Unless Dorothy knew a way to fix it, it would never be more than a piece for show.

My wire twists aren’t as neat as they could be, either. Although my spirals are very good with minimal tool marks, the wire joins are clumsy. Surely Dorothy would have tips to fix that, too.

I decided to try the more difficult technique on a small piece of bacon agate that the vendor in the next booth had polished up and given me the day I arrived. I really think that the desire to do something useful with this pretty little stone is what helped fuel my interest in wrapping.

Bacon Agate wrapped in Copper
My second piece was a small bacon agate stone gifted to me that I wrapped in copper.

I chose the thinner, 22 gauge copper wire for the job. I thought (rightly, I believe) that the copper wire would go well with the colors in the rock and the small size of the rock meant I needed a thin wire. I followed the instructions in the video to the letter to create the tightly wrapped anchor points that would form the cage around the rock. I was very careful to avoid overworking the metal; this was a piece I wanted to wear and I didn’t want burrs. I purposely made the bail small and loose and added a single swirl to the front. When I was finished, I was very pleased with my work.

I sent photos to a few friends and put them on Twitter. I got some positive feedback, which made me feel good.

I watched a few more videos before I went to bed.

Additional Efforts

The next morning, I went back to the tool shop and bought three more tools:

  • “Micro” chain pliers – to get into tighter places
  • Nylon headed flat pliers – to prevent marring soft metal
  • Bailing pliers – to make nice bends

Speckled Agate wrapped in Silver
My third piece was an oval of some sort of speckled agate wrapped in silver-plated copper.

I chose another cab from my collection of cheap ones: an oval stone that combines a white quartz with black and pink rock specks. (No one seems able to give me the exact name for this stone, but I will keep trying to find out.) Again, I went with the more polished technique that used tightly wrapped anchor points to build the cage. I ended up with spirals that I positioned over the area that had no colored specks. I think it came out good, although I wish I’d made the upper spiral a little larger.

I had a nice elongated piece of rose quartz that was actually two-sided and decided to get fancy. I’d do a bevel mount with a thin wire to weave the bevel and hold the stone. I walked over to the findings booth and bought two more types of wire for my quickly growing collection:

  • 24 gauge silver plated copper wire (for this piece)
  • 28 gauge copper wire (for future use)

Then I went back to my booth and got to work. I started off well, using the 18 gauge silver-plated copper wire for the edges of the bevel. When I brought the ends up and around, I created a really pretty spiral finish.

Around this time, a woman I’d seen around the show came by my booth. She was on a bicycle with a small, white, curly-haired dog in the front basket. She’d caught sight of me working on the wire wrap as I sat at the table in my booth. She also does wire work. I told her I’d just started and showed her my pieces. (By that time, I’d also bought a small glass-fronted box to hold and display my work.)

We chatted for about 45 minutes. She complemented me on my work, pointing out how nicely I’d used the swirls to fill the white space on the stone with the pink and black speckles. She said that the labradorite piece I’d chosen was not a good one, showed me how to look for features in labradorite, and explained the importance of finding good stones by “cherry picking” them. She told me about a big booth on the other side of the show that had decent quality, inexpensive cabs, as well as where to find more wire in a shop in town. She pointed out that the swirls in one piece could move if they were caught on the wearer’s clothing and gave me a tip about preventing that. She also told me about some inexpensive wire-wrapping classes being held evenings at the QIA building not far away.

While we talked, I tried to work on the piece. The distraction is probably what screwed it up — I accidentally shifted one of the thick wire frames while trying to weave it to the opposite side. My wraps were okay — neither good nor bad — but I’d made one side much smaller than the other, thus screwing up the bevel.

I had to run out to the post office so I closed my booth early. On the way back, I stopped at Hardies Beads and Jewelry in town. They sell mostly beads and jewelry (as you might expect) but do have a good selection of wire-wrapping wire at the back of the store. I wound up spending about $32 on a selection of wires in colors and styles, including an interesting 21 gauge twisted silver wire and various thicknesses of antique copper wire. I now had just about all the wire I’d need to move forward with additional projects.

Rose Quartz wrapped in Silver
My fourth piece was an incredibly boring round piece of rose quartz that I dressed up with fancy twisted silver-plated copper wire.

That evening, I tried to fix the bevel piece but failed miserably. I took a few photos of the design (which I won’t share here) so I could remember what I liked about it, then took it apart. I tried two other wraps on that stone and gave up before putting much time into it. But rather than finish the day with a failure, I picked a round rose quartz piece and did a wrap on that using the new twisted silver wire with a narrower wire for the wrap points. The stone was extremely boring — I honestly don’t know why I picked it — but the fancy wire and swirls I added really dressed it up a bit.

So at this point, I have four completed pieces, three of which can be worn.

Next Steps

It’s Saturday morning. Before I open my booth for the day, I’ll stop by that shop with inexpensive cabs and buy a few interesting ones. I feel better qualified to choose them now that I know how I can work the features of the stone into my work.

After I open my booth, I’ll settle down with my little bin of cabs and tools and wire. I’ll pick out a cab and work up another piece. And maybe another after that.

And I’ll likely do a few others on Sunday.

On Monday evening, I’ll bring my collection to Dorothy for her critiquing. I hope she’ll be honest and frank. I also hope she can offer good advice on doing the wraps and twists I find difficult. And teach me how to do bevels!

It might take more than one evening. That’s fine. I’ve told her I’ll pay for her time, although I don’t think she expected that. (She is a professional; she should be compensated when sharing her expertise with a novice.) We’ll both be here at least until January 25, so we have time for a few lessons. I’ll post an update on my progress — if I make any!