A hotel without room service generally constitutes camping for me. But in preparing to travel to Connecticut for a writer’s conference, the airline fares and prospect of long layovers suddenly steeled my resolve to drive. And if I was driving, why not try something new?
My Honda Element has become something more than a vehicle to me. I enjoy its boxy, homely lines; the fact Honda no longer manufactures the Element creates a feeling of responsibility to curate mine with care; the age of both the car and me makes the prospect of moving on from it seem ominous. Will its rusting frame someday be discovered by the side of a desolate gravel road with my decaying corpse inside, two extinct species from another era?
So an adventure was in order. I knew people often camped in their Elements, so I set out to discover the possibilities. The internet can prove a delight as often as it makes me sad. Sites gave suggestions of how to camp in your car. Others offered tips on where to park and avoid trouble. Then I stumbled on an entire subculture that camps by parking in Walmart lots, generally in their RVs. Walmart actually encourages this in many places, designating areas and posting welcome signs.
One site offered reviews of Walmart lots, organized by state and city. I calculated how far I wanted to drive and started looking for a place to land. The Walmart Supercenter in Tridelphia, West Virginia received sterling reviews, which really come down to location in a safe neighborhood and Walmart not busting your chops about parking there.
The Element’s rear seats recline flat and then detach so you can swing them up and secure them with a carabiner. The Tween and I inflated an air mattress, but we couldn’t get the rear lift gate to close. Plan B. We rolled out some quilts and a sleeping bag, and then I stretched out to make sure I could sleep without having to twist into a pretzel. Beta testing successful, Thunderbirds were go.
Heading out of Oklahoma, all the foliage and grass had turned legion shades of green from the record precipitation. Rivers had surged into adjacent fields and the landscape felt vaguely foreign, too verdant and lush. After years of drought, the new scenery proved jarring.
Outside St. Louis the rain pounded as fierce as a plague of Egypt. I lost sight of the road once, hoping I wouldn’t slam into the concrete barrier that divides the interstate. Finally things settled down, a rain the wipers could keep up with as I headed into the city. Stopping at Schlafly brewery, I enjoyed a cuban sandwich, a perfect Maibock, hoppy and tasting like summer, and picked up some bottle-conditioned beer for friends.
Illinois and Indiana proved enjoyable, but Ohio almost broke my heart. I had been too optimistic in trying to get to West Virginia, and as I finally hit Columbus, I wanted to shut down for the evening. But I still had over a hundred miles to go, so I took a stretch outside town and dug in for the last leg.
The Walmart in Tridelphia was designed to mimic the Cabela’s sporting goods monstrosity across the road, with timber frames and an outdoorsy color scheme. Clearly Walmart had conceded to change their normal cookie-cutter building to gain entry into the upscale shopping area. I went inside to buy some Hostess cupcakes, a reward for sixteen hours on the road.
I scoped out the bathrooms for in the morning; I would need to change and brush my teeth. Then I headed over to the lot marked “RV Parking, No Trucks,” meaning no semi-trailers, but over a half dozen were parked there anyway. I slid between two large RVs and started to set up camp.
Getting everything ready proved quite time-consuming, and I was nervous a Walmart security minion might shoo me away since I wasn’t technically an RV. But the presence of the semis allayed that fear. Finally, sweaty and exhausted, I put on my pajamas and tried to settle down. Thankfully a good breeze filtered in the cracked windows and cooled things off.
I couldn’t get comfortable. The quilts hadn’t rolled out smoothly enough, and the lumps felt like stones underneath me. How old am I getting, I wondered? Some reengineering managed to solve the issue, and at last I could relax.
There under the light posts, I thought about other people sleeping in their cars, not from choice but necessity. Possessions surrounding them, were they simply thankful to have survived another day, or did they dream and plan to escape the want and fear of a backseat home? How close were they to having to abandon even the cramped comforts of the car and make for the street?
I slept surprisingly well, wandered into the Walmart, put on fresh clothes, cleaned up the best I could, and mapped out the day’s journey. I hoped in another lot someone was striking camp and headed to a successful job interview, or to a family ready to welcome her back, or to a permanence that defined contentment for her.