Holistic Coach and Consultant
Copyright © 2021
Two-and-a-half years ago, my very first night living on the road, I pulled into a Walmart.
My van-dwelling friend Karl had told me about Walmarts--most of them are friendly to RVs and campers; because then, guess what? The overnighters go in and spend money.
When he first told me, I scrunched my nose with distaste; I had never even been in one. I was loyal to my local hardware stores, clothing stores, and grocery stores, and associated Walmart with destroying small towns.
That first night on the road, I had already used my free-overnight-RV parking app, and Walmart was the only option that popped up; few overnight options were available along that northernmost highway in New York--campgrounds already closed for the season, and I was averse to KOAs.
Any port in a storm--in this case, relatively safe and quiet overnight parking.
The app specified, go in to the store and request permission to park--this is a Walmart corporate policy, even when the store is known to be friendly to overnighters. I walked in, found customer service, and the friendly clerk responded, "Yes, park near the garden center, over that way," and she waved her arm to her right, my left.
"Thank you," I said, smiling, and walked out.
I parked my van named Jane in the designated area, turned off the engine, then sat in silence that was soon filled with a sense of thrill--I was launched, living my first night on the road--and who would have thought, this adventure would include Walmart. . .
While setting up for dinner and bed, I fumbled a bit--where are the matches to light the Coleman stove? Oh, don't pull down the bed yet, I need to get the tea out of the storage bin for the morning. And, did I remember to pack salt? Where did I put my toothbrush?
I managed to be in bed by eight-thirty, and slept soundly. Waking up in the morning, I asked myself, where am I?
I'm in Jane, in a Walmart parking lot.
I prefer campgrounds, surrounded by quiet and nature and dark nights. They're not always available, and often beyond my budget; I am retired, living on Social Security. Faced with the other choice of parking overnight at a truck stop with guaranteed semi-motors running through the night, I choose Walmarts.
As Karl predicted, I began to shop there, too. They have the best price on propane canisters, and sometimes they are the only option for food. I am sad about this, knowing some family grocery store has bit the dust; what to do?
Every time I walk into a Walmart, I have a bittersweet sense--especially when I walk into a friendly, clean Walmart, where the store greeter actually converses with me about local places to hike, or I witness several clerks chatting as though they really are happy to work there. I witness this burgeoning Walmart family making the best of this corporate entity that has steamrolled over small towns--and larger towns.
When a Walmart is not that nice--kind of grungy, and the average weight of a customer is two-hundred-fifty pounds, and the clerks appear tired and depressed, that kind of ambiance diminishes the ease of overnight Walmart parking.
I walked into one of those kinds of Walmarts, my app having listed it as okay to park overnight. But when I asked permission at customer service, the clerk called over the manager who frowned, and said, "No, we don't allow that anymore. Squatters refused to leave, said it was their right to stay as long as they wanted-- they had taken over our parking lot. So we changed our policy. You can't stay here."
My heart fell. It was already past eight p.m., and the app listed no other nearby options. "Do you know of anywhere else I can park tonight? I'm kind of stranded."
The manager turned away to put out another fire, and the clerk told me in a friendly voice, "If you go to the train station, you can park overnight there." He gave me directions, and I left.
I'm familiar with entitlement of the wealthy; here is entitlement from someone living on the road, probably close to the bone. Entitlement in any social stratosphere hurts us all.
I also wonder about the lack of health I just witnessed--the manager reeked of cigarettes and he had few teeth left, the clerk probably weighed over three hundred pounds, and how they turned me away--I was unwelcomed; that cannot be good for their own sense of well-being. In a way, I was glad to have been banished; I would not want to stay someplace so mistrustful, and the huge stacks of junk food at the entrance seemed to invite catastrophic illness. What if Walmart actually stopped selling any product whose first ingredient was sugar? The store would immediately be half-empty.
As I walked toward Jane, I beamed as much goodness that I could muster, to all of us--so we will all turn the tide toward repair and growth and health and love.
Sometimes I pull into a Walmart, and it's obviously okay to park there; an RV city has sprung up in one of the nether-reaches of the lot--shade awnings and picnic tables set up, once even a fellow working a portable table saw, people walking their dogs amongst the vans and RVs, eager to say hello to anyone willing to engage. I'm on the introvert-end of the spectrum, and park with my door faced away from the crowd, hoping for a quiet night.
Last week, my laptop stopped working. I pretty much need a laptop for this writing life to continue. My smart phone still worked, and I looked up electronic or computer stores; on a Sunday afternoon, the only one open until the following morning was, you guessed it, Walmart.
I walked in, for the first time, not for permission to park overnight, but only as a customer. In the electronics section--located always at the middle-back of the store, commonly near the on-line Pick-Up counter, and also where the second bathroom usually is (van-dwellers know where the bathrooms are, yes), I asked the friendly, youthful, carrot-topped fellow for help. He diagnosed that my plug-in port no longer worked; I needed an Apple store next, and he told me where the nearest one was located--an hour and a half away.
I had become a real Walmart customer.
Then again, I can take only so many Walmart parking lots. Glaring streetlights that block the sense of dawn approaching, early-morning delivery-truck sounds, knowing too well the layout of the stores, and the overwhelming displays of junk food, crowd my soul. Some van-dwellers stay at Walmarts all the time--I don't believe I'm capable.
I strategize my budget to allow for more campgrounds when they are available, seek out national and state forests that offer dispersed camping, and often stay extra nights to refill my nature-tank.
After two nights in a Missouri State Park and soaking up the quiet and forests and dark nights, I'm headed to the St. Louis area for several errands--to visit my "home" YMCA in Festus, the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, the Gateway Arch, and my van is due for an oil change.
Time to dive back in to free overnight parking. After several Walmart-listings that haven't worked out, a Cracker Barrel parking option catches my eye--time to mix it up.
I had a comfortable night at Cracker Barrel, thank you--including access to chicken-fried steak, and mug slogans such as, "You Go Girl! And Don't Come Back!" Hmm, one could take that a number of ways.
But regarding St. Louis, the best-laid plan can have a life of its own. The weather forecast is scary--ice, wind, and record-breaking low temperatures, starting tomorrow night. Ice is one of my nemeses, and I do my utmost to avoid it.
I decide to squeeze one destination in before high-tailing south to avoid the storm--the Mark Twain museum.
Twain's book, The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, has inspired me to seek information about Twain's personal history of how he wrote that book. I could write my own book about reading his book, and where it has led me--I've recently visited Rouen, France, to walk through the history of Saint Joan's trial and burning at the stake, for example.
Twain's childhood home in Hannibal is a ways north of St. Louis; I rarely drive more than a few hours, but the desire to see this museum is enough to burn those extra miles.
The drive takes longer than I'd hoped; by the time I arrive, the museum is open only one more hour. I buy the ticket anyway.
The displays are mostly of Twain's boyhood home and neighborhood, and how they inspired his most well-known works such as Tom Sawyer. I appreciate those books, but nothing like the appreciation held for Joan. One museum-section provides a comprehensive time-line of Twain's life and accomplishments; I'm inspired to learn more, somehow.
But not now; at four p.m. (winter closing hour), I start high-tailing it south; avoiding ice trumps even this Joan of Arc passion.
I leave with some of what I'd hoped for. Of the two docents I spoke with, only one had heard of the Joan of Arc book, but she hadn't read it; that's interesting. Twain wrote a two-volume autobiography; I will read those, still hoping for more about his story of writing about Joan of Arc. And, standing in his childhood home was wonderful.
Since the overnight parking app is often inaccurate, this time, I call ahead. Phones sometimes still work. Confirming I will be welcomed, I drive to a Walmart as far south as possible before the storm.
I shop for several days' worth of food, including organic lemons and avocados. I am in a town with a large enough population to support a YMCA; Walmart is its only food-buying option. I surrender to this monopoly, and also gratefully refill my five-gallon water-jug for thirty-nine cents a gallon.
The temperature is still in the forties; the storm is scheduled to arrive around midnight, starting with rain, then mixed precip, then by morning, snow and ice, with gusting winds. I did not get far enough southwest to avoid the ice--close, but not close enough.
I settle in for the night, especially grateful for the furnace that runs off the diesel fuel, and plan to stay put right here in this friendly Walmart parking lot, until the roads are clear.
It's hard to think about anything other than this weather; gusting winds over forty-five miles per hour, spitting snow and ice, windows iced over in some places a quarter of an inch, Jane rocking in the wind enough to spill my tea, furnace constantly running to keep the temperature close to sixty, temperatures falling through the day, with a predicted overnight low of thirteen degrees.
I've become frozen along with the land. I use my tried-and-true gratitude list: I have a working furnace to generate heat; my phone works and I can call friends; I can write; I have plenty of food and water.
How can I reframe this experience? I've begun describing my life as a semi-hermit living in a cave on wheels. I think of the Tibetan nun who lived in a Himalayan cave for seven years; I can go another day inside my cave on wheels. Here's the reframe; I'm on a retreat, inside of Jane, inside of my sacred cave.
Then I wonder, how did she heat her cave? I'm going to research that.
This reframing helps; I spend the day in various states of creativity--writing, painting, cooking, conversing on the phone with friends.
About six in the evening after complete darkness has arrived, while preparing Jane for the night by covering the windows with insulation, the furnace overheats. I turn it off, then on, and it overheats again.
Jane currently sits on a parking lot covered in ice that one could skate on. I've slept overnight in colder temperatures before, with a working furnace--but tonight, what am I going to do?
I text my van-dweller friend, Karl; shall I use the Coleman stove set up on the floor as a heater, or keep Jane idling all night with her heater on? He texts back that running Jane is the safest, but to not go to sleep when the engine is running. Get Jane warmed up, heat water and fill containers to put in my bed, then sleep for as long as I'm warm, then repeat the process.
Ouch. A motel is about a quarter mile away; but how would I walk to it? I have crampons, but the wind and cold and me walking through this desolation? If I stay in Jane, the worst-case scenario is I lose a night of sleep; I can live through that.
I call my other brilliant how-to guy, Gary, and ask if it would be dangerous to try the furnace again. No, it isn't. It stays on without overheating when set at the lowest temperature, forty-eight degrees. I can "live" with that--I can sleep with that. I put on three thick layers, the one closest to my skin is a thick cashmere sweater--the word cashmere alone warms me up--and settle in.
In the morning, I force myself out of the snug bed, and brew tea, as usual. While water is heating to a boil, I peel off the window insulation, and sun pours in--good; solar heat will help melt all the ice. The roads are still icy; I will not risk driving until the view out my window is of dry roads.
Besides, it's now Sunday--even if I decided to brave the highway, places to repair the furnace won't be open until tomorrow morning.
Back on top of the bed, nested in blankets, hats, fingerless gloves and sweaters, I give myself another pep talk, as I catch myself thinking unproductively, what if the furnace overheats again? I feel frozen again--not temperature-wise, but as though I cannot make the next move, whatever that is. I give myself a psychic shake; if it does, I'll deal with it--I already have the plan of running Jane for heat, and then sleeping as long as possible. Besides, tonight's low is predicted to be nineteen degrees, and wind is now mild--already easier. And, so far, so good; the furnace stays on at forty-eight degrees.
More pep-talk: I lived in Scotland for a year, and recall most houses were heated in the winter to about fifty degrees--my frugal nature was at home in that country. Much of the world lives in this range of winter temperature; I'm uncomfortable, only. I'm spoiled with how warm I usually am.
The frozen state dissipates, and I flow into this moment; I discover today's abundance through more creativity--writing, painting, playing the fiddle, and cooking.
As I move, I generate more physical heat; as I create, I generate more heart heat.
At the peak temperature of the day, I put on my crampons and walk toward the Walmart entrance. Closer to the building, the lot is dry, and I take off the crampons.
Here is today's outing--a walk through Walmart to fill my two-gallon jug, and to buy some Hatch green chiles. I have a hankering for that kind of heat, too.
Back at Jane, I open the side door to water the tree with my dishwater that has been sitting in a bucket on the side-door inner step--it has a film of ice on it.
I'm starting to grasp microclimates within Jane--my bed is warm with body heat, by the door is freezing, sun beating directly in through a window is as good as a furnace.
Monday morning, I wake up before six, and leave the window coverings on until the sun is up, so the furnace doesn't work so hard--it's still running, tolerating the forty-eight-degree setting, thank you. I drink tea and set my alarm for when Thermo-King opens, where I hope for repair.
As light arrives, I pull back the insulated curtain to get into the freezing front cab, to start Jane and begin defrosting the windshield. I can't see yet through the layer of ice on the cab windows; when I remove the insulation from the back windows, I can see enough of the road to confirm that I will drive today.
After moving Jane off the adult-sized lego set used to level tires, my micro-climate education continues; on the side with solar radiation, the blocks are free and clear; on the other side, they're frozen into over an inch of ice. I get out my hammer to crack the ice and dislodge them, then toss the blocks onto the cab floor on the passenger side, set my GPS for Thermo-King where I am expected in an hour, and drive away from the true port in the storm that Walmart has been for three nights.
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