Camping at Wal*Mart
By Ellen Bielawski
At the proverbial end of the road, there’s…a parking lot.
Anchorage, August, Friday afternoon. Choices abound: the family cabin, backpacking in the Chugach, kayaking ocean or whitewater. Both new and familiar wild places are in easy reach of my home. I choose Wal*Mart.
All summer the question has gnawed at me: why would anyone travel thousands of miles to Alaska, then camp at a big box store? We locals wonder aloud at the herd of RVs resting on the midtown pavement. Our fear and loathing of the wheeled vehicle set is such that we do not ask.
But I am a lapsed anthropologist. I have no excuse for avoiding the culturally insular. Indeed, dangerous as the expedition might be, I have a professional responsibility to explore the big box lot. After all, Wal*Mart is, well, there.
So I borrow a pickup truck with camper on the back, a cheap passport to the unnerving but intellectually enticing RV club. Friends are incredulous. “You’re spending a summer weekend at Wal*Mart?” Some express pity. My mother, who came to Alaska alone in 1946, fears for me. “Will you be all right?” she quavers as she leaves for our cabin.
Despite the risk, I am as determined to conquer the pavement as I was to winter camp with Athabascan hunters last year. I climb up behind the high steering wheel, drive down the Seward Highway to Wal*Mart South (Anchorage is blessed with two Wal*Marts, one in midtown and this one, just off the highway to the Kenai Peninsula) and enter a strange new world.
Where to park? I cruise the lot a few times, finally picking a spot between a gargantuan RV and an SUV with a tiny trailer. It’s a weak, compromise choice, but I have to get my feet on the blacktop somehow. I park with the back of the camper facing south towards Turnagain Arm (not that I can see it past Stephan’s Tool Rentals). I set out the camper steps, then sit down with my door open, my notebook on my knees. Social scientists call this research method “participant-observation.” I call it “hanging out.” All I have to do is watch, then do—whatever the locals do.
Not very much, for a while. The owner of the rig next to mine fills a burrito with beans he’s warmed over a propane stove on the tailgate of his SUV. He watched me make camp—along with my stairs, I put a bucket out below my camper drain spout—then leaned across the yellow line on the pavement. “I’m Rich.” Now he gestures toward a truck and trailer with Michigan plates. “I know them from somewhere,” he chews. Burrito in hand, he strolls over to speak with the disembarking couple. Calls to me, “It was Glennallen, a month ago, we camped at the same place.”
Her name is Rose; his is Woody. His pate is as shiny as the buttons she’s sewn all over her jean jacket. They move coolers from the truck to the trailer.
“Woody’s a fisherman,” Rose says, as if resuming a conversation we’ve been having throughout the nomadic season. “Fishing” explains the coolers, and the debate Rich and Woody are now engaged in, each jabbing at an Alaska road map. Picking spots to fish. Rose and Woody are spending the summer in Alaska, fishing; they’ll winter on Texas’s Gulf Coast, fishing. They travel year round, relying on Wal*Mart lots across the nation—campgrounds for retirees without a lot of income. “Where else can you afford to buy anything in Alaska?” she asks.
I head across the pavement to check out the perks of no-fee camping. A Wal*Mart greeter welcomes me pleasantly as I enter the store. The lights are very bright. The store is open from six in the morning to eleven P.M. The phones work. The bathroom is large and conveniently located. I can purchase innumerable Alaska souvenirs—mugs and caps bearing blurry salmon, eight stars of gold on everything from headbands to socks—at reasonable prices. Nearby fitness clubs offer showers. What’s not to like?
Back outside, late afternoon sun filters through the remains of rain clouds. On the unshaded asphalt , it’s t-shirt weather. The view of the Chugach Mountains is superb. I realize I’ve never seen it from Wal*Mart before. I think fleetingly of friends and family up in those alpine expanses, with their heavy packs and their wind-blown tents. Been there, done that, got cold and wet. Time for supper in the level, propane-heated, bug-free comfort of my borrowed home.
As I warm soup on the camper stove, I can’t help but see directly into the long rig from Iowa parked next door. Its owners have just returned in a small SUV. Now he plays cards while his wife prepares supper.
On the lot, there’s traffic. A Mobile Auto Services truck cruises, offering assistance to newcomers, checking on previous clients. A truck with “The Tree Man” lettered on the side pulls in and parks. No trees for him to doctor here. Turns out, he’s from Outside, living on the lot while he sells his services in suburban Anchorage. He’s home for the night. An elderly couple returns to their camper van from the Dimond Center Mall. He pushes her wheelchair slowly, steadily in the dying sunlight. When they reach their rig, he unlocks the side door and gently assists her inside. Then he folds the wheelchair and parks it. Tough to do in the back country.
Another couple, denizens of a 5th-wheel-style trailer leveled next to Rich’s SUV, has family members in Anchorage whom they are visiting. Ed and Ruth were campground hosts at Cooper Landing, one of the busiest fishing spots on the Kenai Peninsula, all summer. “You know, there’re lots of single women traveling on the road, just having a good time,” Ed tells me. “Mostly the people in Alaska are really good: it’s really safe. But I’ve thought of getting a shotgun anyway, without ammunition. People tend to get scared off if they hear you cocking a shotgun inside your rig.”
I didn’t bring mine, but I feel comfortable as night falls, even though I’ve never spent a night alone in a city parking lot before. Bears and blizzards are more my style. So far, my fellow campers display a detached sense of community—keeping an eye out for each other, discreetly. A TV screen flickers in one rig, its antenna raised like whale flukes, tiny in proportion to the RV’s behemoth body. I take a late night stroll around the lot, alone. Rich has departed for the evening in his vehicle, leaving his small trailer behind. So has another lone man, from Arizona. Have they gone dancing? Is that why they park here in Anchorage, for the nightlife a city offers, a respite from their travels in wilder Alaska? “No hookups” takes on new meaning for me.
The sound of a generator wakes me Sunday morning, carried on a wind that rocks my camper gently. I need the bathroom, and the morning paper, another perk of pavement camping. Returning from Wal*Mart, I bend to pet a dog that nuzzles my knees, but her owner calls her back. He is Dick Francis. He’s talking with two other men, beneath a caribou rack tied on his Montana camper-van. “We were just saying that women don’t like to hunt and fish,” he says. “Do you?”
Three pairs of eyebrows rise simultaneously. In their collective experience, there are not enough women who enjoy the outdoors. “You see those rigs coming up here,” Dick says. “He’s driving and looking really happy; she’s sittin’ with her arms crossed and frowning.” Dick is in Alaska this summer to hunt, fish, and work the busy construction season. Keith Campbell came north with Dick, and the dog, Lady. He’s sailed the Inside Passage twice on small boats. This year he wants to see Alaska’s mainland.
Tom Kelly, the third man, is having his great Alaska adventure. Introducing themselves to me, Dick and Keith also shake hands with Tom. “You haven’t met?” I ask.
“Nah, we been talkin’ for three days but we haven’t met,” Tom laughs.
An hour and three rain squalls later we’re still chatting on the pavement outside Dick’s rig. Dick’s smile disappears into his tanned, seamed face when he laughs. Today is his last free day before a two-month job at Fort Richardson in Anchorage’s east side. Keith’s thick gray curls escape from under a blue corduroy Alaska cap. When I mention my mother, he asks, “Does she dance? I’m looking for a dancing partner while I’m here.”
Most of Tom’s forty years have been bound by what he calls a Midwestern mentality. “Same job, same people, same house. People expect you to be you. Change is not what’s expected.” But when his son said, “Dad, I don’t think you are ever going to go up there,” Tom quit his job and drove to Alaska. A month ago, he stalked bull caribou north of the Brooks Range and killed one with his bow. He kept the backstrap and rack, donating the rest of the meat to the Fairbanks food bank. He shows me a picture of himself with a fish hook through his chin and blood matting his new beard, grinning an impossibly wide grin, the happiest of men. “I kept right on fishing,” he laughs. Then moans, “I gotta get out of this parking lot. It’s driving me crazy!”
Other rig owners have “For Sale” signs posted. One battered truck and one classic black sedan look abandoned to the side of the RV parking area. “Is there zoning here?” I ask.
“Nah,” the men say, “but if you got a bucket outside…”
I do, of course. Is that why my Iowa neighbors, who can see the gray water draining into the bucket from my sink, are so aloof? To each his own, I think. My camper drips, but their rig generator woke me up this morning.
I trek back to Wal*Mart for some research in the “Books” aisle. A new question has emerged. I pull out a copy of Catch and Release: The Guide to Finding an Alaska Man. Sure enough, it omits all mention of hanging out in Wal*Mart parking lots. I make a note to send an addition to the editors.
As the rainy day passes noon, I wrap up my expedition with one last stroll around my village. Ed and Ruth are gone for the day, their trailer locked. Bill and Terri plan to camp here all week, until their daughter flies in to meet them. Woody and Rose take off for Talkeetna, “unless the weather stays this bad. If it does, we’ll camp at the Wal*Mart in Wasilla.” The Chugach have disappeared under low clouds flowing like thick cream.
Dick and Keith invite me for a last cup of coffee, this time out of the rain, at the McDonald’s inside Wal*Mart. Tom ambles by, observing that I’m in danger of becoming a “lot rat.”
“Better than being a house rat,” I respond.
After coffee, I take up my sink-drain bucket and lock the camper door. My restless spirit is primed after this weekend among road wayfarers. Now that the Alaska Highway is paved, I could just keep going, onto the next Wal*Mart and the next.… I jump into the truck cab, slide Dire Straits into the cassette player, sing “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug” and head off down the road.
Ellen Bielawski is a co-editor of Travelers’ Tales Alaska. She never camps at Wal*Mart unless looking for a story.