As I stare off into the distance of the Walmart parking lot for the 5th time this week I easily think to myself, “I spend a lot of time alone.” No, I'm not reproducing some sort of Cagney and Lacey utopia. I'm spying on the boondockers.
I had always seen people who park their recreational vehicles in the Columbus Blvd, Pier 70 parking lot, but I had no idea why. I saw them as gypsies and they always looked like they were having a very good time at life.While most people plan vacations in snazzy hotels and travel by plane others are boondocking or dry camping. A step up from mattresses on cinder blocks and randomly stained bed spreads die hard boondockers will park their gear in the strangest of places.
Boondocking is camping overnight in a space that is free. There are no water, sewer or electric hooks up. Truly roughing it comes to mind.
In researching this phenomenon, I had no idea of the networks and communities that either vacation or actually live their life from parking lot to parking lot. Casinos, Walmart, Winco, any large scale 24 hour surveillance parking lot can be used. These lots are often a stop off to a point that is more scenic. Boondocking on the nation's public lands is usually the ultimate goal. The National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Public Utilities are good places to check with to find more natural spaces to be primitive in your camping style. You are allowed to camp, apparently, on public spaces as long as you aren't blocking any roads, destroying foliage and if there are no signs that prohibit camping.
The Walmart at Pier 70 erected signs at the end of October 2010 that read, “Effective immediately, No Parking. Violators will be ticketed at owner's expense.” They put these signs up in a small lot that's on the outskirts. Where I'd previously seen all the gypsy-like set ups.
In my second week of staking out the parking lot, on a particularly windy day, I was able to speak, off the record to a self proclaimed Walmart employee fixing the signs as Mother Nature was denying them. I asked the man about the camping and he told me that the police had come and chased them all away due to random illegal activities. He mentioned prostitution and drugs.
From that point forward, when I would stake out the parking lot, I would station myself in this forbidden lot hoping to be approached to move myself from the area. No one ever came. I did notice on every trip to the lot that buses and large rigs were always occupying space there, even though signs posted pointed to the contrary.
The RVers just seemed to move from that outer lot into the inner lot of Walmart. Most who use these lots aren't there to roll out the BBQ grill and build a make shift patio. True boondockers consider this trashy and advise against it.
There are many websites on this topic. Even a listing of the best Walmart parking lots to stay in. One poster on an RVing blog mentioned that she will shop at Walmart before turning in for the night and tape her receipt to the windshield as if it were her overnight parking allowance.
I'm sad to say that the current sweep of the Pier 70 lot has left it rather sparse with boondockers. Not many creatures are spending the night save for the cat-side of Walmart, towards the water, where maybe 50 cats live. One night there was a 16 footer, a rental from Cruiseamerica.com, with an Asian family on board. They were parked about 100 feet from the door and stayed in the lot for many hours with the lights out.
The idea that it's a safe place seems sort of elusive as I spent so many nights looking around at the odd debauchery that seemed to occur in the lot. Parking lots in general seem pretty shady so the fact that people are staying there for the security is ironic.
For some, this is more than vacation, it is their way of life. Gene Teggatz from http://edteggatz.blogspot.com/, is a full time RVer and owner of a list server that connects and socializes those that boondock. Tips and hints are shared for this practice. He tells me “It would appear that with the difficult economic times, a number of people
are using an RV and parking it in a commercial parking lot for a night and then moving to another lot. Some are even in a rotation between various stores.” He also suggests getting permission from the Walmart store manager before attempting to spend the night.
Teggatz helpfully informed me that of all the Walmarts, “about 10 percent of the stores are 'no parking stores.'”
There's even magazines dedicated to it like Escapees. Escapees is a bi-weekly magazine and an RV club. These people believe they are not only truly living off the grid but that they are also mobile in addition which makes them even more subversive.
In mid-October 2010, an article appeared in the Portland Tribune profiling Danny Williams and his wife. They were homeless, well some might still consider them as such, until they bought a 21-foot 1970 Winnebago for $260 and now spend their time between parking lots. Most community action agencies for the homeless do not consider these vagabonds as not having a home because they have a roof over their heads.
Though not a fan of traveling myself, I have to admit the idea of sleeping in an RV in general has become more appealing to me. As I imagine pulling up to a sparsely populated beach and digging in for the night, I guess I could add to the fantasy a quick overnight in a Walmart parking lot. To rest until I reach that beachy destination I would heavily consider it. If I were to park in the Pier 70 lot, I'd be sure to get a nice view of the Ben Franklin Bridge with the sound of the community of cats mewing me to sleep. See you in the lot.