Vital Signs

At the end of a long day’s drive, heading home from a wonderful vacation, there’s nothing quite as reassuring as the friendly yellow smiley face that tells you it’s time to circle the wagon and camp for the night. You pull up beside the curb, switch off the ignition, stretch out and relax in the shade of the big blue sign that promises “Always the best price!” And as far as camping goes, who could argue? After all, it’s hard to find a campsite that’s cheaper than free.

Welcome to Camp Wal-Mart, with more than 3,000 locations to serve you nationwide! With its 24/7 operations and expansive parking lots, Wal-Mart apparently realized it could make more friends (and more cents) by letting folks in self-contained campers spend the night (and perhaps spend some money while they’re at it) than by chasing them off at the risk of alienating potential customers. (The lots tend to be pretty empty at night anyway, so it can hardly interfere with the regular retail traffic.)

And since the mega-retailer opens two new stores and buys up $1 billion worth of U.S. real estate every week (according to New York Times columnist Barbara Ehrenreich), campers can count on an unlimited supply of new locales to ease the tedium of travel.

As a seasoned Wal-Mart camper myself, I can attest that they are almost always quieter than truck stops (where refrigerated rigs intrude on your slumber all night long), and they’re conveniently located near interstate highways from coast to coast. The views vary from semi-urban to downright grim, and you’re unlikely to experience the kind of camaraderie sometimes found in the national forests (or even commercial campgrounds). On the upside, however, they’re almost invariably situated in commercial strips where coffee, tea and juice are readily available soon after sunrise.

I recently spoke with a camper who’d just parked in the lot at Asheville’s Tunnel Road Wal-Mart.

“Where you from?”

“Ohio.”

“Do you camp in these places often?”

“No, this is my first time.”

“Where did you hear about it?”

“My sister-in-law told me they always stay at Wal-Marts when they’re headed down to Florida.”

Having established that, I ventured into the realm of opinion, asking, “How do you like the facilities?”

“Flat. Real flat,” he said, nodding his head in affirmation and making a sweeping gesture, palm down.

I asked Sharon Weber of Wal-Mart’s national Media Relations Department if permitting RV sleepovers is, in fact, company policy.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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