09 Jun Why I Sleep in Walmart Parking Lots

My original plan for my 30-state, 66-city book tour was to seek refuge every night in a camp ground. I’ve spent sixth months converting my Sprinter van into a way cool camper — no motels for me. Problem is, 1) camp grounds are distant from most cities — which means I often can’t get to them before they close at night. 2) They are often so remote, they don’t get cell phone reception, which I need because I’m doing a lot of work from the road, finalizing the tour logistics. And 3) they are expensive. I met a couple from Germany who brought over their custom Sprinter camper for six months of touring. They said they were surprised by the cost of camping in America. Private campgrounds start at $30 a night. State campgrounds start at $20. That adds up fast.

The couple told me that in Europe, you’re free to park just about anywhere on public land, including local parks and greens. No so here. We Americans are real particular about who parks where. Local municipalities have all kinds of ordinances to keep overnight parkers out of town. As a result, there is a large subculture of stealth campers in America. People like me, with vans, have the easiest time. They simply park discreetly on a public street, then shade the windows, and keep a low profile. Obviously, you don’t drag out the camp stove and have a weenie roast in the city park.

The RVers — people with big rigs — maintain active online networks with advice about where to park. The best known free camping is Walmart parking lots. Most Walmarts stay open 24 hours, so there’s your first tip: park where there are other vehicles coming and going all night. Walmart unofficially welcomes RVers. They don’t want to turn their lots into campgrounds but they do want to make their stores look popular. And, by encouraging the RVers, Walmart is picking up added business.

I never imagined that I’d be camping in Walmart parking lots. I don’t like anything about Walmart. But, under my current circumstances, I can’t deny its convenience. I like that the store is open 24 hours, which means I can buy anything I need and use the bathroom at any hour — and feel relatively safe. Also, Walmarts are close to freeways. On any given night, a Walmart lot willl host a couple of long-haul trucks, two or three big RVs, a Uhaul (with somebody sleeping in the front seat), and a little camper van (yours truly). It’s an ugly, sure, but it’s free. I try to find a grassy island with a tree (they’re always small). For recreation, I walk Cleo in the long, narrow grassy medians between lots or bordering the road. Cleo isn’t picky, except she needs grass to do her business.

Two nights ago I was in the parking lot of a 24-hour Meijer, a Columbus, Ohio, version of Walmart. But tonight I’m at the Crosley mansion, in Cincinnati. That’s a perk of meeting preservationists: some organizations let me stay at their historic property. I’m parked in the mansion courtyard and have the entire place to myself. Cleo and I took a vigorous walk around the estate this evening and she was very happy. In Baton Rouge, we camped at the old governor’s mansion.

I do stay with friends too. Sometimes these are people I’ve known most my life, like the Perrys in Atlanta and the Vetos in Macon. And sometimes these are new friends, like the couple who adopted me and Cleo in Pittsburgh because they absolutely refused to think of us camping in a Walmart parking lot. When I say, “It’s not so bad,” most people don’t believe me.