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!"