Every time I drive by a Walmart, I glance towards the back of the lot to see who might be parked there. Like many other giant box stores, truck stops, and restaurants, Walmart - loved by some and despised by others - allows weary travelers to use their extra blacktop as a place to camp overnight.
Usually I see at least a few massive, half million-dollar RV’s, towing cars and boats and motorcycles, taking up at least a dozen of the seldom-used spots along the far edge of the lot.
Other times I’m delighted to catch a hippie bus or VW van tucked away under one of the few small trees that dot the expansive pavement with a lick of cool shade.
Traveling alone like I do, I realize car camping can be dangerous. A single woman sleeping in a tent or vehicle along a public road can be a target for troublemakers. If I don’t plan to hike into the backcountry so far out of reach that lazy thugs lose their ambition to mess with me, I chose to camp in designated or pay campgrounds with other (fairly normal-looking) people nearby. My dogs, a honking can of bear spray, and a firearm (where legal) never hurt either.
Last week, I decided to make the pilgrimage back home to Indiana for my Class of ‘89 Chatard High School Reunion. I loaded up my 1989 GMC truck with camping supplies, a cooler full of food and drinks, and my four dogs. I hung my little black dress (for the reunion, of course) in the back window. It felt like old college days, driving down the highway listening to tunes, eating pbj sandwiches, and pausing to let my hounds cool off in a lake or stream.
The first night we called it a day early and found a nice campground.
The second night I planned on a shower and a bed at one of my favorite (pet-friendly) motels in the USA - the locally owned Welsh’s Motel in Wall, South Dakota.
The third night the thunder cracked and the lightning flashed as I rolled my brown bomber into an Iowa City Walmart parking lot. I slipped my truck right between two towering Winnebagoes. As I locked myself in the back bed with Borage, Goat, Chloe, and Jigs, it started to downpour. The steady rain on the roof of the camper shell lulled us all to sleep.
The next morning there was a knock on the tailgate.
“Coffee?” I heard a woman’s voice say through the steamy plexiglass. “We saw you pull in last night. That was quite a storm. We watched to make sure you got settled okay.”
“Oh, thanks,” I said as I pulled on my shorts and sandals. The dogs stepped all over me, slapped me across the face with their tails, and rubbed their black noses back and forth across the windows, trying to see out.
“Yeah, coffee would be great,” I yelled over their whining.
“We have pastries too,” the woman added as she trotted off back to her home on wheels.
Whether it’s true Wilderness, a KOA, Welsh’s, or a Walmart, I love it all.