RV or Not RV?

Camping in a Wal-Mart parking lot is the natural thing to do.

The two adults on board are less gracious, but we find it disorienting to suddenly become the person of whom you've habitually disapproved. It's like catching sight of your own reflection and being stunned to see that for some reason you are wearing golf clothes, head to toe.

That said, this obnoxious road hog is also supremely comfortable. I decide that, for now, all disapproving people like the former me can go to hell.

Our first destination is an almost-brand-new Wal-Mart in the town of Salida, one of thousands reputed to welcome RV campers, for no fee, on the assumption that this gesture of goodwill will pay off in sales. Is it an official policy? Most Colorado Wal-Marts won't commit by phone. "You'd have to ask the manager," is the usual response. "I'm not sure. Come by and see what happens."

Concrete dreams: Most Wal-Marts, like this one in Evergreen (below), welcome RV campers.
James Bludworth
Concrete dreams: Most Wal-Marts, like this one in Evergreen (below), welcome RV campers.
James Bludworth

Plenty is happening at the Salida Wal-Mart. Just as a few protesters feared when the store opened two years ago, the Wal-Mart has turned into a regular town center. A guy is training his official guide dog in the parking lot; several senior citizens sit smoking on nearby benches. Just feet away is the biggest Wal-Mart we've ever seen -- with fresh produce, a bakery department, a bank, and walls too distant to glimpse.

We run around in a shopping frenzy, emerging a half-hour later with two camping stools, a sleeping bag, several cans of tennis balls (Why not? They were on sale) and a selection of trashy magazines. My husband goes back to the store half an hour later for ibuprofen and orange juice. I pop in shortly after him for a pen and a Tweety Bird notebook. Then we set up our new folding chairs and sit down in the blaze of light cast by the parking-lot lamp posts. We wait for action.

Half a dozen other RVs are dotted about, each at a respectful distance from its neighbors and all curtained up tight, with only tiny slivers of light or snippets of TV dialogue emerging. Every once in a while, a small door will open to spit out a single-minded person on his or her way to Wal-Mart. The rigs range from rusty old camper shells held together with baling wire to extreme silver bullets the size of train cars, each of which is towing behind it a late-model pickup truck, a selection of off-road motorcycles, or both. Exactly half of the vehicles feature a black dog sleeping beneath their front bumpers.

At nine, a loudspeaker announces that Wal-Mart is now closing, and the loneliness of the nuclear family settles around us. Just as we do at home, we eat dinner, read books, open a window for air, go to sleep.

While most travel is an assault on the senses, both positive and negative, this is the polar opposite. We're alone in our little metal bubble in a parking lot. It's as if we have been transported to some sort of suspended-animation home away from home.

As I begin to fall asleep, I muse that while the place would feel more homey if I got rid of the cheesy wallpaper, a few dish towels would certainly add a touch of comfort. Sure enough, by the time the sun rises, my subconscious has constructed a rather lengthy list of "necessities" we might as well buy right now. When Wal-Mart opens at seven, we're right there waiting.

"Come right in," says smiling Miss McGraugh, who has a pride of place unmatched by that of employees in any other chain store I've visited. Flicking away a bit of invisible dirt with her mop, she offers us a cart. "You're in an RV? How nice! How did you sleep? Does the little one want a cookie? Did you find the coffee?"

A nine-year resident of Salida, Miss McGraugh has been with Wal-Mart since it opened. She tries to maintain objectivity -- "This is only a medium superstore. Some are so big you'd get lost" -- but fails. "We're a symbol of the way this town is growing," she beams. "We've had to build a new elementary school. Things are looking up."

In no small part due to people like us, who are about to drop another fifty bucks. "Oh, yes, we get a lot of tourists," she acknowledges, "just passing through to see what we have. As for the RVs, it's completely up to our manager, but I've never seen him turn one away. I suppose, if you inhibited other customers or made a mess..."

"But no one's ever done that?"

"Oh, no. They're wonderful people."

Out in the parking lot, I find a middle-aged RV man walking his official black RV dog. "I never camp anywhere else," he says. "When I bought my machine, my mother gave me a road atlas with every Wal-Mart marked on it. They want me here. Heck, where I live, in Colorado Springs, people camp at the Wal-Mart all summer long."

But this is no time to verify that. We are headed in the other direction, to a full-sized superstore on the southern edge of Trinidad. Open 24 hours a day, it reminds us oddly of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul -- so full of merchandise that its gigantic aisles are crammed almost too full to push a cart through, and getting lost is a real possibility. Again, employees seem to glow with accomplishment -- in stark contrast to the beer vendors and mechanical bull operators at the county fair we'd visited on our way to Trinidad, all of whom had seemed defeated by the tiny turnout.

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