Waking Up at Wal-Mart
Julie laughed. Kinda hard.
It was funny because I’d just been on the line with the manager of a Wal-Mart Supercenter outside of St. Louis, asking if they would allow us to park overnight in their parking lot. We’d be sleeping outside “Wallyworld.”
It’s not widely known outside the RV traveling community that many Wal-Mart stores allow truckers and RV’ers to park for free in their lots overnight. They ask only that guests keep out of the busiest parts of the parking lot and maintain a low profile.
For us, it helps keep accommodation expenses down and offers the safety and convenience of having the “World’s Largest Retailer” in our own back yard. Wal-Mart’s “Supercenters” are open 24 hours and monitored by surveillance cameras and security guards. Need groceries or toiletries or a gas tank cap? It’s all just a short, asphalt-paved walk away, available night or day at low-low prices.
It’s a fragile arrangement said to have begun with founder Sam Walton, who invited tired truck drivers to use his stores’ property for rest breaks. Today, the vast majority of the company’s stores continue the practice when local laws and shopping center rules allow it. Many frequent Wal-Mart overnighters, however, note that the number of stores banning overnight parking is growing. In online forums, travelers lament inconsiderate guests, local ordinances and worries about liability that threaten their money saving secret. But for now, most Wal-Mart stores still offer up a piece of pavement for an unbeatable price.
We’ve spent enough time in and around Wal-Mart stores that I’ve begun to notice the details that probably elude most shoppers. The company’s “supercenters” come in a variety of sizes and layouts. You may have noticed that an out of town Wal-Mart is mirror image of your hometown store, but other variations are more subtle. In smaller markets, the stores can be considerably smaller, the runway-sized aisles of the big city stores replaced by aisles barely two shopping carts wide. We even saw a new Wal-Mart in Missouri with only a single entrance from the parking lot while most stores have at least two.
More interesting, though, are the similarities. Across half the continent some things haven’t changed. One is the restroom. In each Wal-Mart store it is unfailingly identical, and the sinks are strange. A single piece of brown molded plastic forms two or three basins with motion-activated water taps located beneath an odd table-like top. Often the motion detector is difficult to activate, but the restrooms are always well cleaned and often downright sparkling.
We’ve also found the redbox DVD rental machines. They’re the soda machine-shaped vending units that accept your credit card and spit out a DVD that will cost one dollar per night. They’re in an entrance of every store we’ve visited. Consider it the in-room movie option for your Wal-Mart overnight. We’ll sometimes rent a movie for twilight parking lot viewing on one of our laptops. While the idea is a good one, our choices of movies hasn’t been so good. Recent screenings have included “Righteous Kill,” “Valkyrie” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” We’ll keep trying.
The next time you pass a Wal-Mart, look for us. Even if we’re not in residence, you’ll probably spot the RV’ers enjoying the simple pleasure of a free night’s sleep. Once you know to look, you’ll see them more often than not.