If you don't know these worlds existed, you can't begin to guess what happens when they collide. Even a master in the art of traveling by RV, who knows the lingo and is fully immersed in this popular subculture of the Walmart life, didn't grasp the situation when he discovered that his $1.2 million luxury motor home and the 40 grand inside were gone.
"I was stunned. I called my wife and said, 'Somebody stole my coach,'" said Larry Socha, recalling how he ran some banking errands with his 90-year-old mother the Saturday morning before Memorial Day, returned to the Walmart parking lot in Glen Ellyn where he had spent the night, and discovered that his luxury 40-foot, 22.5-ton RV with the safe full of cash and the 25-foot trailer for his Mustang GT had been towed.
Those of you who don't live this lifestyle probably have some questions, starting with, "How does something that valuable end up in the parking lot of a Walmart that is known for low prices and Internet videos mocking folks wearing inappropriate clothing?"
Turns out, many Walmart parking lots are havens for RV owners looking for a free place to spend the night. Some websites even refer to Walmart as "America's Campground," which irks owners of actual licensed campgrounds in America.
"Whenever Walmart allows free overnight camping, it not only results in lost business for local campgrounds but lost transient occupancy tax for local cities," emailed Paul Bambei, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. He noted that campgrounds pay for licenses, pass health and safety inspections and offer services not found in parking lots.
Walmart spokeswoman Kayla Whaling made it clear that Walmart parking lots are not campgrounds.
"While we do not offer electrical service or accommodations typically necessary for RV customers, Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers. Consequently, we do permit RV parking on our store lots as we are able," reads a Walmart statement. "Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on availability of parking space and local laws. Please contact management in each store to ensure accommodations before parking your RV."
Socha, who drove his 2000 Prevost Marathon XL from his home in New Jersey to visit his mom in Glen Ellyn and attend his 50th high school reunion, has parked at several Wal-Marts during his travels and also supports campgrounds. He parked at Walmart this time not to save 30 or 40 bucks but because it would have taken him more than two hours to drive to the nearest campground and back.
He said that last year he left the same RV in the same Walmart parking lot for three or four days during a visit as his dad was dying. He said he didn't even see the signs this time reading: "No truck parking. Unauthorized vehicles will be towed away at owner's or operator's expense & liability. Towing enforced at all times."
On the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day, Socha parked his RV at Walmart, unloaded his car, visited his mom and then returned to spend the night in his RV. He said he doesn't pull out his awnings, roll out the grill or dispose of his dirty water or sewage.
"That's wrong. Those are the people who ruin it for others," says Socha, noting that his vehicle's waste tanks are large enough that he can live inside for five or six days without having to empty them. He ran some banking errands with his mom that Saturday morning, and when he returned that afternoon, all his stuff was gone and he had to pay an $872.50 towing bill to get them back in time for his school reunion.
The manager did knock on the door a couple of times before calling for the tow truck, Whaling said. Socha did find the store on a website that lists free overnight parking, but Whaling said Wal-Mart doesn't keep a list of what stores allow parking or how many people do park.
A Walmart customer and stockholder, Socha said he was upset that Walmart denied his claim to have the company pay his towing bill.
"Will I stop shopping there? No, I'm not a jerk," Socha said. "I learned a lesson."
He said he just wants to warn others and perhaps push Walmart to be a little more sensitive and communicative about this issue. There's no use fighting over $872.50, which he said is basically "a tank of gas," but he said he wouldn't mind an admission that the situation could have been handled better.
If he did drive the 1,670-mile round trip from his New Jersey home to the Glen Ellyn Walmart to accept an offer of reconciliation or financial considerations, the trip in his RV, which gets 5.5 mpg on the highway and 3.5 mpg in the city and has a 165-gallon fuel tank, would cost him about $1,214.