April 1, 2003
Boondocking at Wally World
Seeing America, one parking lot at a time.
Visit the unpicturesque far edge of a Wal-Mart parking lot on any given evening and you’ll likely witness a strange nocturnal scene: an encampment of recreational vehicles surrounded by its elderly residents, who sit in folding chairs enjoying the night air and basking in the pale glow of the overhead sodium arc lighting.
This seeming exurban purgatory is actually a phenomenon called boondocking—RV camping in the raw acreage of a big-box lot. And Wally World, as Wal-Mart is known by its squatters, is the boondockers’ clear favorite. Fully one-third of American RVers—many of them part of the estimated 2.8 million “full-timers” who live year-round on the road—are said to have settled on Sam Walton’s asphalt at one time or another, as much for the copious diversity of products available within (including an RV supplies section) as for the store’s de facto approval of such stays.
Filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis began pondering a film on urban sprawl several years ago, but until he heard about the Wal-Mart campers he was having trouble thinking of a compelling narrative. “Then it dawned on me,” he says from his home in Missoula, Montana. “These people take their homes with them so they can avoid culture shock. They fully embrace urban sprawl and the modern American landscape by putting their house in the place that most epitomizes urban sprawl. These people are the experts.”
Night after night Hawes-Davis haunted the parking lot of Missoula’s then lone Wal-Mart, located in a former cow pasture. “We let the travelers come to us,” he says. “It was kind of addicting. You’d never know who you’d meet.” The resulting documentary, This Is Nowhere (named after a 1969 Neil Young album), is a tragicomic portrait of an unlanded gentry in search of a mythical America that is fast giving way to the concrete realities of mass-market placelessness.
The boondockers in Nowhere are a fairly homogenous group: mostly older, white, well-to-do (“their houses cost more than mine,” Hawes-Davis says), conservative couples. In their own way they all seem to be metaphorically reenacting the conquest of the American frontier—one man is even a latter-day prospector, who searches for gold with a metal detector—speaking wistfully of freedom, the bounty of nature, and ancestors in covered wagons.
Hawes-Davis’s film rather subtly reveals a number of ironies about this itinerant lifestyle. One man, reading in the parking lot about the Lewis and Clark expedition, notes that although the explorers walked 25 miles a day, he hadn’t even made it to the back of the Wal-Mart. “Every day we look out and we have different scenery,” notes one woman, gesturing toward the looming Mount Sentinel, foregrounded by Wal-Mart. Another camper admits to being disturbed by the “prototype” quality of so many American towns. “The whole U.S. is becoming one Wal-Mart next to one Costco next to one whatever,” she says. However: “I do like the convenience.”
“The idea of just being able to cruise—to take off—is very appealing,” Hawes-Davis says. But he is also disturbed by the creeping sense of placelessness, the idea that the campers couldn’t remember which towns—or even states—they had visited, that they tracked their route according to special discounted Rand McNally Road Atlases marked with the locations of America’s 2,700 Wal-Marts. When asked what he saw of Missoula, one camper reports, “We didn’t get a chance to go downtown, didn’t see Missoula, didn’t meet the neighbors.” Minutes later he guided his lumbering beige home—Corian countertops and all—up an interstate on-ramp, bound for the next parking lot shimmering on the horizon.