It had worked before. Paul and Jane were getting used to it as an affordable (or rather, free) option for sleeping (not especially comfortably) when traveling.
They had discovered that you could utilize the Walmart parking lots pretty much anywhere as decent enough campgrounds. Sleeping in a Scion xB was pretty ridiculous but not a deal breaker.
Even with all but the driver and front passenger seats crammed ceiling high with two people’s stuff (transportable, must have possessions inclusive of two teddy bears), with blankets, sleeping bags, a pillow, maybe a sweater, some beer, a piss pot and a little perseverance, two friends could get snug as bugs in a rug. You have to hide like bugs, too, to make out like no one is in the vehicle.
A first time off of Ben White Boulevard in Austin, this Walmart parking lot camping operation checked out well for the couple.
From Paul and Jane, observe just a few precautionary measures designed to establish rapport with the night shift and any other camping/non-camping late night shoppers, and to neutralize any suspicion about the arrival of your car on the lot:
- Don’t show up earlier than midnight.
- BUY SOMETHING, like food, water, drinks, a pillow, a toothbrush, a toy. “Damn it, we should have bought the cheapest car sun shade,” laments Jane.
- Get your “bathroom shit” done in the store’s fine (often newly cleaned or in progress) restrooms so you don’t have to use that cast iron pot later in the Scion. Brush your teeth if it can be done discreetly. Poop. Pee. In real bathrooms.
- On cold nights, you should consider spending time warming up in the aisles that are not frozen food, meat or produce. It is going to be a long night out in the car, and you need some time in a place with heating. Get the blood flowing by walking. Go down aisles with lots of boxes, with televisions and electronics, or blankets and sheets, junk like that. Bounce the balls. Get warm in a little store fun, and besides, doing this fake searching through the departments makes you look like determined shoppers.
- For good measure, on the way out play the claw machine by the entrance/exit. That looks mega innocent for some reason. “If you’re lucky you could win a new snuggle buddy,” chuckles Paul.
These are some of the things that made Paul and Jane's first Walmart camping at Ben White so successful.
Next consider lot logistics:
- It’s all about big walls; park near them and obscure especially your windshield and side windows.
- If you don’t have a ton of stuff in your car, “if you’re not homeless and trying to move to Austin with no real connections and all your luggage enjoys the best spots in the car,” sleep in the back seats or trunk with blanket coverage.
- Get under shade or shadow; look for tree cover.
- Avoid exposure from the towering lamps.
- Don’t position your vehicle too close to the cart corral, delivery trucks or working employees. You don’t want them to catch on to you.
- If you see a truck with lights doing security, the lot is cashed, pull out. Abort mission and hit another Walmart.
- Use big camper vehicles and other obvious camping cars as shields. It can be a safety in numbers thing on the lot. “You’re not the only ones,” explains Jane.
Thus, on that first night of Walmart rest, the couple followed these rules and they were lucky to get a great wall with tons of other campers providing cover. A small guy in another car on his back under a rug even sat up and looked into Paul’s Scion and gave the peace sign before falling back to sleep. It made sleeping on the lot that much easier.
“It was like we had found hotel row,” laughs Jane. “Nighttime cart boys did not get us. We got up in the morning and had McDonald’s egg sandwiches and coffee.”
“Then for some days in Austin,” shares Paul. “we experienced warm February weather fit for real camping at a real state park, McKinney Falls. We stayed there some nights and had a barbecue with a couple friends.”
Then they stayed at the place of those friends. That is, they overstayed, got called “couch roommates,” and were kicked out. The couple then went to hotels, Holiday Inns, but they were too costly.
“The dirt cheap places like Motel 6 too often are bug-itchy, jumping with wild-eyed wonders, and smoked out,” Jane notes. She recalls one night during their homelessness when she and Paul settled for a Motel 6. They made their reservation outside, through a bulletproof window, after the receptionist got back from a twenty-minute shit break. On their way to the room, a sad woman solicited both of them without saying a word. Another man tapped a cane across the pavement and led a girl by every door, knocking to see if anyone would answer. “Places like that have a fair reputation for being thirty-minute turnaround joints and anything but restful sleeping quarters.” Needless to say, Paul and Jane wrote off Motel 6 and the like.
“We were running out of money and unfortunately more winter days kept coming upon us. We had no choice but to consider another go at Walmart camping, in our bags, with us toasting the car before snoozing as best we could,” explains Paul.
When they tried another huge Walmart in Austin, its lot eerily and fortuitously harbored a mist and was full of these massive, saggy (what the couple called Jurassic Park) trees combing down over cars, like willow trees. And there were many big obvious campers on the lot with sun shades in front of them.
But the problem was that the other campers were not close enough together to form a block, and none appeared to invite additional company. There were no decent walls for nestling.
Masses of somewhat sketchy (meaning antsy or squirmy) employees were getting out of cars and heading in for the night shift.
Overhead lamplight unfortunately pried into every space on the lot, even under the trees. Paul could not situate the Scion well enough upon arrival. Too many people around. The couple argued and said fuck it, they would better position it after shopping a bit.
“We also had annoying midnight hunger.” There was an open McDonald’s on campus.
“We went in to accomplish our routine,” Paul says, “and we saw a crazy number of Walmart night employees, who had arrived for receiving, stocking and things, congregated first at the McDonald’s.”
The two got the impression that it was kind of the employees’ routine to set a genial and contented tone for the night shift by grabbing a big soda, burger and fries. Chatting a bit, the employees got a good laugh started. Paul and Jane got into the McDonald’s line for soft pretzels and soda.
Then a cop showed up, one whose gig was obviously the Walmart night shift. He was slick and good looking, big chest, cop standard fare.
He started talking to a young Walmart employee, asking if he spoke Spanish.
The employee reservedly mumbled, “Just a little.”
The cop then cheerily and positively attempted to recruit him. Because apparently the cops were looking for more police who could speak Spanish.
“You could get a good job, man. Look into it. They need people in this area who speak Spanish.”
The cop spoke Spanish.
“I observed this coercive talk play out while eating my pretzel and gulping down my soda,” remembers Paul. “Jane was just sleepy. She had eaten her snack. I remember thinking that that cop was like a nice actor.”
The tired couple finished and went right out to the car. They say they felt quite trashed by the food and how tired they were, and they shivered from the cold. The weather was crappy. They decided on the best Jurassic Park tree-covered spot and moved the Scion under the leaves. But the damned parking lot lights still were too much in Paul’s eyes.
“Furthermore, all the spots under the trees were equidistant from the horrible cart corral that a young guy was working, ushering carts into it with a bit of noise.”
The two got as low down in the front seats as they could. They had junked up the windshield and dashboard with clothing and they tried their best to bury themselves in their wormlike sleeping bags. For a night of twisting and turning and cold toes. Trying to keep their heads low, they had some shirts and blankets obscuring side windows and they imagined they had done their very best to obscure themselves.
“I was more nervous than last time on account of the stupid lights,” says Paul, “but I did finally start drifting off to sleep when . . . .
KNUCKLE KNOCK . . .
“Holy fuck! It was like 3 a.m., I think, and there was that cop from the McDonald’s congregation with the cart corral boy right behind him, smiling a silent laugh, and they both had brilliant flashlights.”
Paul woke Jane and then composed himself and opened the door.
The cop said, “Walmart management thanks you for shopping this store and kindly asks that all customers who have arranged to camp here overnight make plans to relocate. Thank you so much.”
“Yes, officer, we will relocate right away.”
Then they drove off sleepy as hell. On the road they were both startled into insane alertness, and Paul and Jane were fighting each other, driving the roads not knowing where to go next, and they were also falling asleep.
“Could you blame us that we tried yet another Walmart parking lot in Austin that night?” asks Jane. “Two cops can’t bust the same campers in the same night, can they? Did they all talk? ‘Look out for a white Scion xB.’”
Well, when the couple pulled up to the next Walmart lot, again there were no good walls. There were huge noisy, lit-up delivery trucks like snarling monsters, and when they found a nook they noticed that a pickup was driving what seemed to be security through the lot. So they said screw it and got back on the road, sleepy and crazy. It was 3:50 a.m. Or maybe 4.
“But then we remembered all the twenty-four-hour coffee shops in Austin for the students and many of them had big parking lots. So we pulled into the most hippie one we could find, with the biggest, darkest lot and we slept some hours and then got up and read books and had coffee and ate cookies,”Jane smiles.
“But god that cop was polite. It was freaky, it was so douchey, but so memorable,” recounts Paul. “I can still feel that knuckle knocking on the glass.”
“I guess you can’t really camp at Walmart.”
Jared T. Fischer is a writer from Baltimore, MD, currently stationed in Austin, TX. He runs a literary blog called Wu Wei Fashion Mag and also has another blog that he updates daily. His work has been featured at What Lit, Thought Catalog, Baltimore City Paper and Purple Pig Lit.