🕔Aug 04, 2005

It’s a cool July evening when Jack and Diane Caulfield of Bakersfield, California pull into Prince George. As this retired environmental consultant and teacher gas up for the “nth” time this month, they’re debating where to stop. A cheerful attendant looks at their 32-foot RV, which tows a Jeep Cherokee, and at their travelling companions: a second Bakersfield couple driving a similar rig. He handily directs them all to Wal-Mart.

It’s not the first time the Caufields will tuck into a Wal-Mart parking lot. They tour 220 days per year, often camping mall-to-mall. Their Wal-Mart atlas has turned out to be a great investment, even if it doesn’t cover Canada’s 256 Wal-Marts.

We didn’t want to get kicked out in the middle of the night explains
– Maxine

Instant community awaits: as usual, about a dozen other RVs are stationed there for the night. In the morning, Diane will zip into the store for a few items. This, plus refraining from displaying lawn chairs and barbecues out of respect for posted signs which discourage overnight stays, is her way of saying thanks to the world’s biggest retailer and retail employer, which posts $1,174,994 in profit every hour.

“It’s just a nice thing to do,” Diane says, noting that—signs notwithstanding—Wal-Mart unofficially welcomes RV campers at most of its Canadian locations.

Jim and Maxine Cousineau of Big Rapids, Michigan, didn’t know that when they passed through Prince George the previous night in a 38-foot RV, ambitiously named Crescendo. They carried on to a Fraser Lake campground.

“We didn’t want to get kicked out in the middle of the night,” explains Maxine. Adds Jim: “We were, frankly, a little miffed by how difficult it is to find free overnight parking in Prince George.”

Tonight, the Cousineaus settle into the highway-side Smithers Mall, opposite Zellers and Safeway. Their Chevy Tracker, towed behind the RV and proudly festooned with yellow “Support Our Troops” stickers, also stands at the ready. The “Free Overnight RV Parking” sign offered a warm welcome.

“It’s ‘parking.’ You can’t use that word ‘camping,’” says Jim with a mock wink.

“Camping is where you get out the barby and the lawn chairs,” adds his wife.

We were, frankly, a little miffed by how difficult it is to find free overnight parking in Prince George.
– Jim

They’re headed to Stewart, via Terrace. They’ve driven this road before, but weren’t yet aware that Wal-Mart has put down roots in Terrace. “There is?” asks Jim, perking up visibly. “Yeah, we’ll certainly stop and stay there… We’re Wal-Mart fans.”

Welcome to mall-to-mall “camping”—a new wave of tourism which attracts interest despite its best efforts. Northwestern B.C. town councils weigh complaints by campground owners, who suspect these concrete expanses are siphoning off potential clients, against the need to make visitors feel welcome. Last year, a Prince George resident bemoaned the lack of bylaw enforcement in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. Persistent media attention has prompted RV owners to grouse about it in their online communities. And Wal-Mart camping in particular was explored in a recent documentary, This Is Nowhere.

To mall campers themselves, it ain’t rocket science. For one thing, it’s easy: there’s no need to navigate out-of-town sites or find spots large and level enough in the dark. And other roadside alternatives are fast disappearing, says Jim, producing a B.C. government brochure which discourages drivers from parking more than eight hours at highway-side rest stops. But most importantly, it’s free.

“You save money for the fuel, which gets you to the next free camping spot,” laughs Jim. “If you spend it on camping, you ain’t got it to spend in the tank!”

Jim estimates that Crescendo’s tank, which drinks a litre of gas every 3.4 kilometres, consumes the biggest part of their vacation dollars, far outstripping food sourced cheaply from places like Wal-Mart. Why pay $25-60 for campsites offering amenities like electricity, toilets, and hot water— with almost everything at their fingertips?

Seated on the couch in their rolling cocoon named Southwind, the Caufields pause when asked which of all their onboard amenities is their favorite. It’s a tough choice. Including the pull-out sections, their $120,000 RV offers almost 400 square feet of glorious space. It’s more than enough to house the six-disc changer CD player with ample speakers, a laptop with Internet access via a cell phone, and a printer, a microwave, conventional and convection oven, expansive counters, custom-built wood cabinets, flush toilet, shower and small tub, and two air conditioners. Crowning the “great room” as they call it, is a large built in TV/DVD player with satellite reception. Even with the queen-sized bed (equipped with a second TV), a table for four, an additional recliner, there’s plenty of room for the deflated zodiac, a facet-cutting machine for the Caulfield’s growing rock collection, their cat Tiger and his scratching posts. (Endless border hassles prompted the Caufields to leave the parrot home this year.) The gas generator, solar panels, 100-gallon water tank and large waste-water holding tank allow the whole works to “boondock”—RV-parlance for dry camping—up to two weeks at a time.

You save money for the fuel, which gets you to the next free camping spot… If you spend it on camping, you ain’t got it to spend in the tank!
– Jim

“Well, I’d have to say the icemaker, and the double-doored refrigerator. Not many RVs have those,” concludes Diane. She compares her compressed style of living to space-conscious housing in Japan.

Jim and Maxine’s RV is equally opulent—and six feet longer. They point out that theirs is dwarfed by the $1-million units they’ve seen. “There’s no end to the amount of money you can pour into these things,” says Jim.

As much as half the time, the Caufields and Cousineaus opt for campgrounds—where they enjoy barbecues, and socializing with other RV travellers and of course, scenery. Non-driving, non-socializing hours are frequently spent reading or watching TV.

Of course, RV vacationers come in many stripes. The Caufields and the Cousineaus are well on their way up Highways 16 and 37 respectively when Ed and Marlene Taylor, a 60-something Prince George couple travelling with their 12-year-old granddaughter, set up at the Smithers Mall. A full-sized pickup truck sports their relatively modest camper, which is topped by a canoe. It has no TV, but is set up to offer showers—outside. Ed steps out for a cigarette, and before long, Marlene emerges with their silvery Cairn terrier named Buddy.

These seasoned RV travellers have travelled all across Canada. “Buddy’s even peed in Newfoundland,” jokes Marlene. They’re Highway 37-bound, for two months of camping, canoeing and fishing in B.C., the Yukon and Alaska. This will be their first and last mall campout for a good stretch, which suits Ed just fine. “My wife is a mall person. I’m a wilderness person,” he grins affably. “When you’re travelling with your wife, your granddaughter, and a dog…”

To the Taylors, the mall camping hubbub in Prince George boils down to campground owners who are mistakenly bundling unnecessary services into their RV camping rates, and then watching RV travellers go elsewhere.

Marlene and Ed are interested to learn that Wal-Mart has recently been eyeing real estate in Smithers, and about the response: a well-organized groundswell of opposition which collected 585 signatures in their petition’s first seven days alone. Smithers Wal-Mart opponents have made comprehensive submissions to the Town of Smithers, packed a council meeting, raised funds, and distributed cheeky “Just Say No to Wal-Mart” buttons. The group has also launched a website,, advocating a visioning process and alternatives to big-box development.

The Taylors have little to say about Wal-Mart. “I prefer to shop at Zellers,” confides Marlene. “It’s Canadian-owned.”

There’s nothing like coming back to your own bed at night… If you don’t like the weather, the scenery, your neighbours: you just turn the key and leave.
– Jim

For the self-contained Cousineaus, the Caufields and to a much lesser degree the Taylors, free camping is essential to their traveller’s quest for freedom and independence. More onboard amenities just redefine that quest: into freedom from risks associated with the unfamiliar, and independence from local services besides fuel.

“There’s nothing like coming back to your own bed at night,” says Jim. “If you don’t like the weather, the scenery, your neighbours: you just turn the key and leave.”

The confirmed Wal-Mart campers are well aware of the controversy surrounding their host. Wal-Mart made the news in July when the City of Vancouver rejected its development proposal, and when a former company executive filed a suit against Wal-Mart, claiming he was terminated for reporting the abysmal working conditions in Central American factories utilized by Wal-Mart and refusing to comply with Wal-Mart’s demand that he certify factories in order to get Wal-Mart’s goods to market.

“Its main appeal is one-stop shopping,” observes Diane, however, pointing out that Wal-Mart successfully offers a wide range of generic products—although in her view, at the expense of variety and quality. “If you want an unusual hardware part, you’re not going to find it at Wal-Mart,” adds Jack, adding that locally owned hardware stores are particularly vulnerable to Wal-Mart competition.

Maxine offers examples of four grocery stores, and several convenience stores, in Big Rapids that were made “history” by Wal-Mart’s new super centre. “It’s a real shame: the mom and pop stores can’t compete with them.”

Jim raises the spectre of low-paid Wal-Mart employees who never qualify for benefits because they can never get enough hours.

“But I use Wal-Mart, so I can’t knock ’em,” he says.

Jim and Maxine Cousineau clearly love having visitors, and the conversation drifts from camping, and Wal-Mart, to subjects close to their heart: the apparent degeneration of parks on both sides of the border, and irritating new park fees. The paradox of ordinary Americans like Jim turning to Canadian online pharmacies for affordable prescriptions, while Canada’s rich or desperate turn to the U.S. for emergency surgeries. And of course, the war in Iraq which could, Jim fears, claim his friend’s draft-eligible son. Jim believes this war was hindered from the start by leaders overly concerned about international law, who botched an opportunity to win from the get-go with decisive bombing campaigns reminiscent of World War II.

“Well, yes, a lot of people died in World War II as well. They say Iraq is about oil, and I guess it is… All I know is, it’s a mess,” he says. “But we’ve come a long way from discussing Wal-Mart, haven’t we? I don’t know that there is a solution to that.”

Ten hours later, he checks the oil level in his own rig. Satisfied that it’s still safe, he turns the ignition key, turns his mind to the road leading to the next Wal-Mart, and leaves Smithereens and their scenery behind.

© Larissa Ardis

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