When Wal-Mart feels like home

Early June 2011

You know those days when you need gas and an oil change so you drive ten miles into a small Tennessee town, buy a lottery ticket at a Wal-Mart while filling the tank, and win $10,000?

That asterisk stands for "On Steroids".

No? It’s ok, me neither, though I did win seven dollars while spending two in the same situation. Two long driving days from New Orleans to Memphis to Nashville, where I am now have got me thinking of some of the peculiarities of on the road living, such as how it happens that Wal-Mart begins to feel a little like home.

When you have never spent more than a few days without friends and family close by, fifteen days of sleeping in a boiling car, briefly meeting strangers, and straining relationships at home and on the road takes its toll. Every night I need to find a safe but out of the way place to sleep, and every day I need a place to brush my teeth, clean myself up, and start the day right.

I never thought I would say this, but the answer is Wal-Mart. Its parking lot is generally well lit—both annoying for sleeping and great for security— and large enough to find a quiet out of the way spot. Often, the Wal-Mart has a security guard who is not too prying, but makes regular rounds. In the morning, Wal-Mart has a spacious bathroom never busy at 7 AM, and only a few people glance at you funny for carrying around a toothbrush.

A generic, uninteresting shot of inside Wal-Mart. Morning John is not the best photographer.

Before figuring out how to find farmers markets, Wal-Mart also provided a cheap, healthier alternative to greasy spoon diners. I would not recommend actually shopping at Wal-Mart, but it certainly serves a purpose to those who travel since it is almost impossible to be more than 10 miles away from one.

The absurd number of Wal-Mart’s in close proximity provide a virtual guarantee of a place to sleep, a reasonably pleasant bathroom experience, and occasionally a bite to eat. The last thing that makes Wal-Mart feel a little like home is the layout. Every Wal-Mart is virtually the same, a rarity when everything and everyone around you is different. After brushing my teeth, I nostalgically wonder over to the toy section and recall my childhood fascinations in a way that is akin to opening a long dusty attic box and finding an old friend.

The famed toy aisle. As if mocking this article, this Wal-Mart had no nostalgic toys.

Now to be clear, Wal-Mart is a small business destroying, worker exploiting, environment hating, taxpayer subsidized price cutting monster bent on the complete homogenization of the country. However, I am shocked to find that as a traveler, a little bit of homogenization is not so bad sometimes. Other areas I have found to be similarly cathartic are forests and parks, since the trees are quite similar.

As bad as I feel complementing Wal-Mart, the strangeness of my reaction to seeing it on the road seemed worth reporting on.

Saving money is also another big part of road living. For the first 15 days, I spent $606 dollars, a bit off budget. Half was gas, and a fourth was food. The other fourth was parking, tickets, and a fan to keep me a little cool at night. In order to be able to make the full trip, I’d need to make some cuts:

If I had this car, gas would be even worse. A little preview of The King's mansion.

1. Gas

A moot point. Though gas is around $3.50 down south, I’m doing more driving than budgeted for (3200 miles so far already). Only ways to save gas would be slowing down and driving less, which I am not willing to sacrifice,

2. Food

Even though $150 for 15 days ($10 a day) is great for food, I could do more.

Breakfast: For breakfast, a loaf of bread, jam, and bottled water fill me up for a week. The water is free from fountains and restrooms, the bread costs about $3 for a reasonably healthy and tasty kind, and the jam is around $2. $5 for seven meals is great, and necessary. Since the sun heats the car and forces me awake by 6:30, I get hungry when normally I’d be sleeping.

Lunch: Occasionally, stores like whole foods have a wide range of free and healthy samples. They have free ice water, cheese, meat, and bread. For a dollar or two, you can thank them by buying a cookie. Alternatively, this meal is the easiest to be skipped or moved aside by a snack.

Dinner: This one is the hardest. The best way around this I have found is Couchsurfing, since generous hosts already eating tend to offer you food. I did not pay for a meal once while in New Orleans, relying on my hosts and the free places they knew of.

Beale Street in memphis is loaded with delicious establishments. I had to try a BBQ bologna sandwich, a great choice.

3. Other

Parking: Never pay for parking. There is always a shopping center nearby that will not be able to tell if you are patronizing their store or not. Getting towed is pretty unlikely.

Tickets: You want to do stuff, but you don’t want to pay for it. Not a whole lot you can legally do here. You can try sneaking in, but if its something you enjoy the proceeds tend to go to support the thing you care about in the first place.

4. Stiff your family and friends

As much as you know exactly who would love that Elvis Presley mug, the best souvenirs are found, not bought.

Coming up this week: The Country Music Festival in Nashville, an interview with country music up-and-comer Katie Armiger, a review of Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, a Mississippi Space Center gallery, and plenty more I have yet to discover.

The Bonus picture: The bird heard the word, that the water around New Orleans is rising.

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