I'm instantly awake and driven to purchase. Pot holders. Deck paint. Sturdy overalls, size 2T. Disposable rubber gloves, the 75-pair pack. Sunny Delite juice drink. A-point-and-shoot camera. Things I've never seen before but that are so ingenious -- and such a bargain! -- that I must have them. Now.
So I shoot out of bed, throw on my jeans, slam the door of the RV behind me and stride out across the Wal-Mart parking lot, under the greenish lights and through the automatic doors, where racks of two-buck ladies' large tank tops flap gently in the breeze. I march on past bakery, produce and a licensed optometrist -- Whoa! Some deal on bifocals! -- and run smack into a mountain of plastic novelty water bottles for kids (one dollar each!) that slowly cascades to the floor, each bottle bouncing in slow motion.
I look at my watch and see that it is three-thirty in the morning.
After three days of RV camping in Wal-Mart parking lots, my circadian rhythms are shot to hell. Like some kind of befuddled cave-dweller, I have learned the habit of falling asleep under huge lights, then rising at odd hours to pay homage to the mega-store that stands, almost always open, on the edges of my world. Visa receipts flutter through our cramped environs. I have never spent so much money in my life on so many fine items. The feeling this gives me is a peculiar mix of comfort and dread.
For months I had been hearing that Wal-Marts have become the last -- and sometimes first -- resort of campers eager to settle down for the night, the weekend, the month. Sometimes the superstore is the only available campsite in town -- but more often, it's simply the most desirable. The Durango Wal-Mart is so popular that this past summer the manager clamped down, issuing the edict that RVs could stay in the lot for one night, and one night only. On the other hand, a Wal-Mart in the western suburbs is even now preparing for the annual influx of hunters who find the great outdoors even greater if a Wal-Mart is just a few dozen feet away.
What was the magic? I had to know.
And so, just before Labor Day weekend, I went down to Ride the West RV Rentals for a guided tour of my compact Winnebago (Minnie Winnie, as she's called) and a crash course in the rules of the RV road. Although I had never piloted one of these rigs, everyone else seemed to be a repeat customer or a big RV fan just hanging around to soak up atmosphere. ("Ooooh," someone squealed within earshot, "here's the little honey I took to San Diego for the Super Bowl! Boy, she's clean.") Ron, the guy who checked me out, was clearly in love with the details. "Okay, I'm just gonna go over your propane tank with you real quick," he said, "and I'll hurry, so you can get out there and have FUN!"
Fun? I was terrified. Minnie Winnie had five fluids to check, with four dipsticks. A deadly-gas-leak indicator to be reset whenever it emitted a piercing beep. Overdrive to remove and install. Vents to open and close and dually tires to watch like a hawk for any sign of blistering. Overheating was a real possibility: Your tires or tranny or engine or generator could just blow up at any second, it seemed. And bugs...
"Well, you gotta hose 'em off every time you stop to dump or they'll stick something awful," Ron ordered. Stop to dump? "Your gray water, and then your black water, which is your sewage," he explained. "You'll only have to dump, oh, once a day. Where will you be staying? Wal-Mart? No! You can't plug in there, and believe me, I'm not just saying this because I want you to go to KOA, but it's dangerous. Please, go to the KOA and plug in."
I had no intention of plugging in, at KOA or anywhere else. I would rely on Minnie's generator and her AC battery, and maybe a stub of candle and a box of Pop-Tarts if conditions grew grim. Other than that, though, I planned to follow Ron's advice to the letter. For example:
Highways are full of tortoises and hares, he warned. Be the tortoise.
Never, never freeze a fish in an RV freezer.
"And when you give your kids pop, make it clear pop, not red pop," Ron continued. "And put down your throw rugs so you don't have to end up replacing the carpet in here. That would make us look like the bad guys. And go out there and have fun!"
Despite the conspicuous lack of red pop on board, both my children enter a higher state of well-being the minute we take possession of Minnie Winnie. They can't imagine anything more wonderful than the RV lifestyle, and just to prove it, they are constantly offering us little sandwiches or ice-cold drinks. And then, instead of whining, they spend hours lying on the master bed, bouncing and waving out the rear window at less fortunate kids in much smaller vehicles.
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."
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.
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?
"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.
This Wal-Mart's camping section, around back by the oil-change and lube station, is sparsely occupied by dirt-bike racers, some of whom can be heard snoring at ten paces. The manager seems to be about sixteen years old. Overnight RVs, he says, are "cool, but we're closing in an hour."
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With that warning, we hurry into the nearly empty store. Although I have vowed not to spend one more penny, we still make a quick swing through sporting goods and school supplies before heading to the clothing department, where we play dress-up in the changing rooms until the manager tells us that the doors are about to shut for the evening.
We exit into the bright lights and hole up in our home-not-so-far-away-from-home. As the night progresses, the snoring dirt-bikers leave for the next segment of their drive, exhausted truck drivers come and go, and a group of dispirited mountain youth attempt to look menacing while skateboarding through the Commercial Federal parking lot. In the wee hours, a young deer steps briefly into our pool of light. At six, an elderly man begins marking down lawn furniture in the garden section. At seven, we argue about a McDonald's breakfast: The answer is no. At eight, I kick Minnie Winnie into gear and head for that imperfect, non-rolling place known as home.
I don't look back.