Outside the Big Box
Wal-Mart RVers excerise their right to camp
It's 5:30 p.m. The sun is beginning to sink through a milky summer sky, and Mary Breuer, like most other campers across Vermont, is beginning to think about supper. But instead of gathering wood and building a campfire, she's headed over to pick up some food at Hannaford, a short walk from the Williston Wal-Mart parking lot, where Mary and her husband, Bob, have parked their Southwind RV for the evening. Originally from Wisconsin, they're on their way to Maine's Acadia National Park and are a bit embarrassed about the state of their brown-and-beige motor home.
"When we settle somewhere and set up, it's a lot nicer," says Mary. "Then we put stuff out, stained glass, etcetera, all sorts of things."
Inside, Bob rousts himself from a nap to demonstrate how the living room walls open out to provide more space. But for a jar of Jif peanut butter and a packet of Ritz crackers sitting on the kitchen counter, the place is immaculate, with framed photos of kids and grandkids and all the comforts of home: two televisions, two air conditioners, refrigerator, furnace, curtains, cell phone, a computer where they keep track of their budget ($268 per month). If anything's missing, they can find it right across the lot at Wal-Mart.
Except, of course, the dinner fixings.
Mary looks wistfully at the customers wheeling in and out of the chain store. With Lake Champlain and the Adiron-dacks just beyond its blue roof, and little hillocks all about, it's probably one of the most scenic in the nation. "I was a little bit disappointed this isn't a grocery, because we're used to stopping at Supers," she says. "That's the best, because that has everything. We buy all our groceries at Wal-Mart."
The Breuers are among tens of thousands of travelers who will turn their road hogs onto the tarmacs of Wal-Marts up and down the East Coast and all over the country this summer. Filmmakers Doug Hawes-Davis and John Lilburn focused on the phenomenon in their 2002 documentary This Is Nowhere, which looked at how Wal-Mart has redrawn the map of America. "Where are we tonight?" one woman asks her husband at one point in the film.
"The travelers we interviewed are not out of the ordinary," says Hawes-Davis. "They are representative Americans who share a common bond of loving to travel in RVs and loving Wal-Mart. Most of them are interested in nature, meeting new people, learning about our nation's history, or just plain new experiences, but they are also interested in the predictability, homogeneity and sameness that Wal-Mart provides for travel and shopping."
Some of these vagabonds plan their vacations around the locations of Wal-Marts; there's even a Wal-Mart Bound Club. Others, like the Breuers -- full-time RVers who retired early and sold their house for a life on the road -- only "boondock" at a Wal-Mart every now and then to save some cash between longer stays at more traditional campgrounds.
"We're not going to pull in and spend $25 for one night when we don't need anything," says Mary. "We have everything we need on board. And Wal-Mart benefits because we buy from them. We buy all our prescriptions from Wal-Mart. These burgundy rugs are new, they came from Wal-Mart."
This is why Wal-Mart not only accepts the nocturnal nomads but encourages them, with a special store-oriented edition of the Rand McNally road atlas, which sells for about $5. Need a lube job, a quart of ice cream or a 24-hour pharmacy? No problem. With a flip to the index, the great outdoors becomes a lot less, well, outdoorsy, thanks to a handy chart that ensures you not only end up in a Wal-Mart, but in the right type of Wal-Mart to meet your needs.
Happy campers and a rollicking register: Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton would be proud. Rumor has it that the late billionaire was quite the RVer himself, and planned his family vacations around visits to discount retail stores. Today, his company's computer database is second only in size to the Pentagon's. On the vast Wal-Mart Web site, wedged between statements about gun sales and sweatshop allegations, is its policy on RV parking: "Wal-Mart permits recreational-vehicle (RV) parking on our store lots, as we are able. The ability to accommodate RVs is determined on a store-by-store basis, contingent upon available space, local regulations and ordinances."
Who bans the boondockers? Some places in Florida, mostly, where Disney dollars are to be had and there are just too many snowbirds for a parking-lot party. But in Georgia and other corridors to sunshine, 30 or more motorhomes will pile up in the "Wally Worlds," as the big-box stores have affectionately come to be known among RV enthusiasts. Vermont's Wal-Marts fall somewhere in the middle, with a few campers parked here and there.
That may change, though, on June 28, when more than 2000 Airstream RVs roll into Burlington for the Wally Byam Caravan Club International 46th annual rally. "RV owners are travelers -- they've seen it all," says Vermont Convention Bureau executive director Scott McIntosh. "We are making sure that their stay in Vermont will be one to remember."
The morning after my visit with the Breuers, the Southwind still stands at the northern end of the Wal-Mart, but their red Jeep is missing; perhaps they're off to Ben and Jerry's and the Cabot cheese annex in Waterbury, where plenty of free samples await. On the exact opposite end of the lot, though, Jesse Schroeder and Mary Langer are still asleep in their cream-colored conversion van decorated with Canadian flag stickers. Two beach chairs hang off the back and two rusty bicycles are tied to the front grill.
After I knock on the van door, Jesse, 25, spends a few moments turning the bed into a tapestry-covered sitting area. Cut-out pictures of crop circles decorate one wall; in the corner, a head of broccoli sticks out of a crate hand-painted with flowers and the words "Fruit and Veggies." There's a minuscule fan clipped to a window, a tiny two-burner gas stove and oven ("I bake bread in that thing!" Mary boasts) and a stack of newish, plastic storage bins marked "trash," "paper" and "recycles" that seem a bit out of place. Turns out they came from Wal-Mart.
"We hate Wal-Mart as a corporation, we totally despise them," says Jesse, who is not shy about biting the hand that feeds him -- or at least gives him free lodging and cut-rate conveniences. He saved enough money working at an RV store in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to buy this van and head to Mexico with Mary, who left behind her job at a health-food store. "But because of their policy of allowing us to stay," Jesse adds, "we do end up spending money there."
Or, as in their case, getting their money back: At one point they bought a TV/VCR combo at a Wal-Mart. After a few weeks of watching videos, they took it back because, hey, "it didn't work."
"It was just a frivolous material item, and they're good, no questions asked," Jesse says about the store's returns policy.
After touring Mexico, Jesse and Mary took a boat from the Yucatan to Tampa, Florida. On an even tighter budget than the Breuers, they refuse to spend money on campgrounds, seeking refuge instead at rest areas, truck stops and good old Wally World. You might say these Canadians, who have been on the road for six months, are modern-day Alexis de Tocquevilles, seeing America in a whole new light: the fluorescent light of a Wal-Mart, late at night.
"We prefer the Supercenters that are open 24 hours, 'cause if you're bored, you just go in and check shit out, window shop and laugh at all the stupid stuff," says Jesse.
"Some of them even have a little bit of organic food," adds Mary. "But their commercials are very misleading. Wal-Mart associates are not very happy at all."
Despite the fact that Williston has a non-Super Wal-Mart, Schroeder and Langer have made the area their home for more than three weeks: Church Street, Muddy Waters, thrift stores -- where they've bought old college textbooks for reading material -- and "really friendly people" in Burlington have cast a spell.
But of course at some point they'll move on. "If there's a Wal-Mart there, we'll stop, but otherwise we'll keep going, because it's all the same, like Burger King, fast-food joints, all the same stores," says Jesse.
He looks thoughtfully at Wal-Mart. "These things will die. They'll have their day, like every big retailer does," Jesse opines. "And then we're going to look back and point out these big places and say, 'What were we thinking?'"