By DAVID REESE
A steady stream of motor homes comes and goes at the Wal-Mart parking lot in Kalispell.
As soon as one motor home leaves, another takes its place. They huddle together in a corner of the gigantic parking lot, under the street lights next to the constant stream of traffic on U.S. 2. They'll be here for the night, maybe two, and will stay for free, compliments of Sam Walton.
These people are among the thousands of people each year who camp at Wal-Marts across America. Camping — or should we say sleeping in RVs — at Wal-Mart is no new practice, although the phenomenon seems to have become in vogue for a certain portion of the motor-home set. The following is cult-like, and the followers worship what Wal-Mart stands for: low prices, and the American dream of free enterprise fulfilled by Sam Walton.
The typical Wal-Mart camper pulls up in a residence on wheels, a home with the full complement of appliances, furnishings and conveniences. They sport bumper stickers claiming "We're spending our children's inheritance," although not all the RV owners have gray hair and blue Dacron jumpsuits. Even young parents with children in tow emerge from motor homes and make a beeline for the front door of Wal-Mart. Bill and Dolores Copenhaver spent a night last week at the Kalispell Wal-Mart, on their way from Mesa, Ariz., to Glacier National Park. This was their seventh stay at a Wal-Mart during the trip. "We've been guests of Wal-Mart for many years,"
Bill Copenhaver said over coffee at their mobile home's kitchen table last week. "But it's not a matter of economics. We spend more in the store than what we'd pay at a campground." The first time he and his wife stayed at a Wal-Mart was in 1967. They find it convenient and practical, and the first thing they and many more like them do when they pull into a store parking lot is grab their wallet or purse and head inside to buy cosmetics, clothes, a toothbrush or car battery.
"Anything you run out of, it's right in there," Dolores said, nodding toward the store and the stream of shoppers that pours in and out of it. Another RV pulls alongside and sets up as she talks, its generator humming faintly outside the air-conditioned comfort of the Copenhaver's motor home. A few nights earlier they had stayed at Bozeman Wal-Mart, where 18 motor homes filled the outskirts of the parking lot. "That was the most I'd ever seen," Dolores said.
When the Copenhavers arrived at Flathead Lake, they pulled in at the Polson Wal-Mart and spent a few nights. (The Copenhavers were denied overnight camping at Missoula's Wal-Mart because of a local ordinance that bans overnight camping within the city limits.)
Some of the Wal-Mart campers stay at other store parking lots, like K-Mart or Costco, but none have the following that a Wal-Mart does. In Kalispell, Wal-Mart manager John Halicki says the free camping is provided merely as a convenience to customers, and he discourages stays of more than one night. "We remind them that our friends and neighbors own RV parks, and anything longer than one night they need to go to those locations," he said. Even with a newer-model motor home that likely cost around $100,000, the Copenhavers would rather park at a Wal-Mart and save on camping fees — even though they spend more than that in the store.
"At least you can walk out of there with something you can hold in your hand after spending $40," Dolores said. They use a Rand-McNally map that lists all of the Wal-Mart locations around the country. Jane and Raymond Wishon have been on the road for two months, camping at Wal-Marts — or Wally World as they call them — four out of seven nights a week, and recording their experiences in their personal Wally World journal. They buy everything they need at Wal-Mart, including their breakfasts at the McDonald's located inside the front door. Randy Vining is traveling the country with the Wandering Individuals Network, a singles RV travel group. Like many of the campers at Wal-Mart, he is a diehard advocate of the Wal-Mart way.
This is an excerpt from a poem Vining wrote about Wal-Mart called "Sam Walton's Great Idea":
Kids will be born in a Wal-Mart hospital, Wal-Mart schools will teach 'em
They'll be married in a Wal-Mart chapel where a Wal-Mart preacher will preach 'em We'll lock our felons in a Wal-Mart prison, a Wal-Mart army will defend us
An when we travel to outer space, Wal-Mart rockets will send us
Our working careers will be only 10 years; leisure will be the norm
We're turning the page to a gold age thanks to Sam's brainstorm
Everyone will work for Wal-Mart; we'll wear our blue vest proudly
And on the holiday that marks his birth, we'll sing his anthem loudly."
Campers don't mind the heat radiating from the pavement, or the nights punctuated by incessant traffic along the roads to most Wal-Marts. To them, this concrete meadow could be anywhere. "You just pull the blinds and you don't see a thing," Bill Copenhaver said. "It's amazingly quiet." There are unwritten rules among campers. For instance, they don't park close to the store where they'd take up parking spaces and they don't run their generators at night. "That's a no-no," Copenhaver says.
Any complaints they get aren't from Wal-Mart management; usually they're from local campground hosts who complain about lost revenue or that it's "unsanitary," he says. Halicki, who has managed Wal-Marts around the nation, said the Kalispell store gets more campers than he’s seen at other stores. “That has a lot to do with location, of course, being so close to Glacier National Park.” He also says that he’s never had a problem with campers, who tend to hang out by the fairly deserted “North 40” end of the parking lot. “They take great care of themselves,” he said. “We have nothing but the best staying here.”
Some neophyte Wal-Mart campers will come in and ask for permission to camp, Halicki said, “But the majority just pull in and set up. They know the routine.”