RV or Not RV?

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

Yeah, well, get over it, I think. If I were a 4-H kid bushed from a long afternoon of calf-grooming, I'd beg my parents to take me to Wal-Mart for the evening, and it wouldn't be a tough sell. "I'm gonna start collecting keychains," my older daughter says. "Keychains are cool, right, Mom? Mom? Or water bottles, or I might collect barrettes, or socks, or maybe bouncy balls. Can you think of a way I could get some money? Can we get a pizza?"

Can we get a breath of fresh air?

As dusk falls on the superstore parking lot, we come bumper-to-bumper with the biggest RV yet, an HR Navigator the size of a semi-trailer truck, with "pop-out sides" that expand to give you more space -- for what? A lap pool? A bond-trading office?

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

"I know what you're thinking," says the man who emerges from the Navigator. "Why would anyone camp at Wal-Mart in this? Well, I'll tell you. Because it's fun."

He ushers us over to the RV's private side, the one hidden from the rest of the parking lot and facing a three-foot strip of median lawn. Here he has set up two teak folding chairs and a generator-driven TV set. "We'll eat some chili, watch a little TV," he explains. "I looked up this town in Trailer Life and I didn't think the campgrounds looked so great, so I came here. We're on our way back to Houston after six weeks out. Only coming back because we have to. I'm a large-scale electrical contractor."

The large-scale contractor offers a concise explanation for the Wal-Mart camping phenomenon. The chain, he says, offers a discounted version of the Rand McNally Road Atlas, on which every Wal-Mart store in all fifty states is marked. All Wal-Marts have welcomed him with open arms, with a few exceptions. "Durango is notorious," he says. "They cut their parking lot up with a bunch of concrete esplanades till you can't barely turn around in there. They don't want RVs there, and they don't even need to post a sign. We know."

"You oughta see up north," he continues. "In Alaska there were so many RVs in that lot, you can't imagine. It was quite a community. We learned everything there was to know. At eight, for instance, the food concessions shut right down."

"That's too bad," I say.

"No, that's too good! You could get a huge stack of pizzas for ten bucks. They clean out the yogurt machines and sell you a bunch for almost nothing! What a great store."

"Did you spend money there?"

"Are you kidding? My wife and her sister spend several hours at every Wal-Mart, every night. Sometimes it's stuff we need. Like food. More than half the time, though, it's some kinda blouse."

At this point, large-scale's wife, who has been picking up litter in the parking lot out of sheer love for Wal-Mart, informs him that it's time for that chili dinner, and they head into their rolling palace to load up the plates.

"Hey," large-scale calls over his shoulder, "my thought here is smaller! When I retire, I want to get rid of my house, my cars -- everything but this! Smaller and faster, that's what I say!"

I think of that zippy image the next morning, when it comes time to confront the fact that our large, lumbering RV is wearing a giant colostomy bag slung below its belly, and despite my earlier optimism, we must now find a place to empty its vile contents. Obviously, we can't do this in the Wal-Mart parking lot -- that would ruin everything for everybody -- so we drive around until we find a friendly dump station. It is located at what is, for us, the road not taken: a KOA.

KOAs are full of people. They come in all sizes and ages and are busy playing putt-putt golf, enjoying the well-scrubbed showers, eating a cheap and filling pancake breakfast and riding their bikes up and down the gravel roads of the campground. Later that afternoon, a KOA host tells us, there will be an informal golf tournament, a barbecue and a Shriners clown to perform for the kids. We are impressed with the community spirit of it all, but, really, the gift shop/commissary is a joke. Who needs a genuine Colorado horseshoe puzzle or an overpriced loaf of Wonder bread? More to the point, why bother with any of that when another Wal-Mart is just up the road?

As we head out once again, we contemplate the schizoid response Minnie Winnie is inspiring. To people passing us on I-25, shaking their fists at us for daring to go no faster than 65, we're scum. But at a Colorado State Fair parking lot, we're treated like royalty. "Yes, sir, we have a very nice spot for you, right here under this tree." We may be white trash, but we're also kings of the road.

The Evergreen Wal-Mart is so close to home that I give my husband my Visa card and smaller child and send him back there. The nine-year-old and I will spend one last night in a parking lot.

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