Tenting Walmart

Tenting Walmart 150 150 Joy and Matthew Steem

There are many modern conveniences to be found in Walmart camping: flush toilets, reliable Wi-Fi, easily accessible groceries, flat spots, and even outdoor lighting. Indeed, most have a grassy spot somewhere around the building – even if it is just the little cove near the center of the lot that is frequently used for dog deposits of the liquid and solid variety (the latter not always removed by owners, I learned one morning when I woke up to find dog poo smeared all over my tent’s foot print).

If it’s roughing it one is after, probably Walmart will hold little appeal- but for the slightly desperate or adventurous traveler on a budget, Walmart can serve multiple purposes. Where else can one procure a meal for $2.67 or conveniently supplement those putrefying socks that have refused to dry out for the last 4 days? That’s what I thought.

Walmart camping is not all summersaults and lollipops though; it, like life itself, is not for the faint of heart. After spending nearly two months of on and off again Walmart camping during a cross-country road trip this summer, I feel as though I just might have a few words of insight to share with my fellow journeyers of life.

  • Self-consciousness is a hindrance: whenever possible, lose it.

After about 30 years of age, one doesn’t exactly aspire to spending birthdays camped out next to the cart carrel of your friendly neighbourhood big box retailer. Setting up a yellow tent which boasts a bold walrus face on either side amidst the prying eyes of inquisitive and sometimes uninhibited patrons requires some nerve, even when done in the softer light of evening. What I learned though is that in some way, most of us have been People of Walmart at some point in our lives, knowingly or not. People have and will laugh at us, the question is whether we can laugh at ourselves. Lacking self-consciousness is not the same thing as lacking dignity. Unlearning self-consciousness requires a solid degree of confidence: confidence that doesn’t come through possessions or status, but rather commitment to a purpose.

  • Pride is not power: humility is liberating.

To successfully camp out at Walmart feels like a tightrope relationship between humility and humiliation. Perhaps a trick to avoiding humiliation is to embrace humility. Unfortunately, humility, like meekness, is one of those words we often associate with mealy mouthed, subdued, simpering weakness: an unfortunate characteristic of the insignificant and insecure rather than an attribute of the strong. Yet if we think of it in terms of self-forgetting, or not thinking less of oneself but of oneself less, as C.S. Lewis advises, then perhaps its value becomes more easily graspable? Thinking of myself less frees me up from worrying how others might perceive me and enables me to think about more significant things.

  • We find what we look for

Walmarts are kind of like bad smells — sniff around hard enough and you’ll probably find something distasteful. Alternatively, they are also like kind of like a favored coffee shop. The point is if we look for anything with enough determination, we can usually find it. At 11 o’clock at night when 12 hours of road weariness is taking over and that third baked apple pie from McDonald’s may have not been the best of choices, spotting the golden hue of light pollution emitted from the Walmart logo begins to feel a little homey. Rest is near, weary traveler. Finding Walmart is kind of like a lesson in perspectives, we often find what we are looking for. So, what are we looking for?

  • Together is better; self-reliance is overrated

You know what’s better than travelling cross-country and camping for free? Being with your best friend. Friends give us courage and strength; friends can motivate us when we’re tired and mourn with us during moments of grief; they believe in us, see the best in us, and put up with our idiosyncrasies. Friends help us be better people. In our culture of rush, sometimes making time for friendship can seem like a distraction from productivity, from making something of ourselves. Doing something can be less effortful than being with someone. Doing only requires will-power while being requires a state-of-heart. There are some pretty good arguments that Samwise Gamgee is the true hero of Lord of the Rings, not Frodo. Without Sam, Frodo doesn’t stand a chance. Do I respect self-reliant people who go on massive world trekking tours by their onesie? Absolutely, but in my experience, good friends make things better. So unless absolutely necessary, why go at it alone?

  • Personal space is a relative term

Being in the presence of a loved one is preferable to being alone; however, that does not negate the need for personal space. We all find personal space differently; some of us find it in the midst of large crowds, others in the serenity of a park. We live stacked upon each other in cities, spotting the countryside with our sprawling gates and roofs, often in the name of establishing and preserving our personal space. Camping out in my little backpacking tent amidst ginormous fifth wheels and RVs taught me something about space: it’s relative. Weighing in at a whopping three square meters, the inside of that tent felt like a bona fide palace of solitude to me. A sanctuary of sorts. I often wonder how it is possible my tent felt more spacious than my home – my conclusion? My frame of mind and heart.

  • Authenticity is a tricky concept

I take an unwholesome amount of pleasure in shocking others with self-deprecating stories. The camping in Walmart tale has gotten a lot of coverage because people are usually a little taken aback by my shamelessness; I like that reaction of “you did WHAT?!” For me, it goes along with the connotations of being authentic. We find ourselves in a culture that idealizes the concept of “being real”; call it the ethic of authenticity or the cult of authenticity, the point is we are in revolt against superficiality. There’s something about the word authentic that is cool. It conveys confidence and a slight disregard for populist opinion. Where genuine could be genuinely boring, authentic is edgy, vocal, and attractive. I like the idea of being authentically carefree and slightly seditious – it goes along with being bold and unconcerned about convention. These things go along a little less well with being subtle or gracious though. I wonder if this might be because while authenticity can be self-focused (am I projecting something others perceive as “real”), graciousness is more concerned with others (am I honoring somebody else’s story)? Thinking of it like this, it seems to me I might learn something from the way I treat my Walmart camping adventures, and perhaps even life stories in general – understated is probably better. Self-disclosure is great, but it’s not the endgame. Genuine care for others is more attractive still.

All in all? Camping out in Walmarts helped me reflect on my value system: and that’s always a worthwhile endeavor. So thank you for hosting me Walmart. I didn’t expect my adventures in your parking lot to be ones of the heart.


Joy and Matthew Steem

Matthew and Joy Steem are passionate about exploring a vibrant spiritual life: a tradition all too frequently perceived, from both inside and out, as drab and bereft of true joy. Since obtaining grad degrees in the humanities, they have contributed to Off the Page (a ministry of Our Daily Bread), Relief Journal: Art and Faith Unbound, Mythlore, White Gulls & Wild Birds: Essays on C.S. Lewis Inklings and Friends & Thomas Merton (St Macrina press), Converge Magazine, Clarion: A journal of Spirituality and Justice, and Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics.

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