28 April 2011

With over 18 months of intense preparation and anticipation finally behind us, today we are officially on the road, untethered, and free to go wherever our whims might take us. The magnificent world awaits!

And so why do we, on this extraordinary occasion, find ourselves parked for the night outside the Tire & Lube entrance of a Walmart Supercenter? The short answer, of course, is that it’s convenient. And free. The long answer is long.

The roadtripper’s instinct is to move as quickly and directly away from the familiar as possible. Our ultimate destination from the next few days of traveling is Salt Lake City, an intriguing layover on our course towards the Pacific seaboard. We’ve given ourselves four casual days to make the drive, but the instinct is to keep stacking miles between us and our past. The distance, and the novelty of new places, will help our new reality take hold.

We certainly hadn’t planned on ending up here; we originally had our eyes on a series of state parks along the North Platte river just south of Kearney. But as the sun sank low on a gorgeous drive through the hills of north-central Kansas, we knew we wouldn’t make it before dark. It’s a shame, really, because it was a beautiful 70° night made for camping. But Walmart is a perfectly satisfactory, and in many ways, preferable accommodation, given the circumstances. Sure, we could have pulled into a park after sundown, paid the required (~$20) camping fee, quietly groped out a spot in the dark, and been able to wake up to a pleasant campsite that we’d immediately have to leave. Or we could pay nothing, sleep while it’s dark, wake up and keep trucking.

It’s surprisingly not well-known that it’s common practice for RVers, truck drivers and carcampers to stay overnight in Walmart parking lots. Most Walmarts have an open policy for overnight parking, and indeed tonight the manager-on-duty just waved her hand at us, requesting only that we keep to the far, low-traffic side of the lot. It’s a symbiotic relationship, really, since most overnighters will take a stroll through the aisles and pick up a few provisions (tonight I bought a nifty 12V-to-dual-USB charger, a bottle of wine, plus all the raw ingredients for Jessa’s corn & black bean salsa.) The common sense rules are just to keep a low profile and not look like you’re camping. No awnings, no chairs, don’t unhitch, lock your doors. Fires are also a bad idea.

Many RVers would call this boondocking (camping without hookups of any kind: no electricity, no water, no sewer, no cable TV), but I think that term should only apply to actually camping in the wilderness—you know, in the boondocks—and that Walmart stays be called overnight parking. Either way, RVs are made for this sort of thing. Here’s a quick lesson in the off-the-grid flexibility of our Airstream:

Electricity

Our trailer is equipped with two 12V batteries. They’re essentially car batteries (well, boat batteries is a bit more accurate) and by exercising some extreme energy conservation, we should be able to stretch them for several days of productivity. We can’t (yet) run any appliances off our 12-volt power, so there’s no TV, iMac, microwave, or A/C when we’re off-the-grid, but we do have lights, fans, stereo, fridge/freezer, furnace, stove, oven, and water heater through battery power, propane, or some combination of both. And using a car-type inverter, we’re able to charge our Apple devices for continuous connectivity.

Water

We have space for 39 gallons of fresh water onboard the 1337stream. A built-in water pump can pressurize our lines nearly as good as any city water supply (and apparently, for some parts of the country, even better). This is really more than enough water, though, since our waste tanks and battery supply ought to give out long before we face a fresh water drought. We’ll have to experiment with the tradeoffs, but we’ll probably only travel with partially-full white tanks.

Waste

Conveniently, we have a shower and toilet on premises. Even in our one day of travel, the omnipresent toilet has been remarkably handy. Whenever Jack cries out from the backseat we no longer have to rush to find a public restroom, just a place to pull over. There are two separate waste water tanks: a gray tank for sink and shower runoff, and a black tank for the toilet. I’ve treated both with a dose of borax and laundry detergent to keep things slippery and as pleasant as possible and I’m optimistic about its efficacy.

Without shore power and other hookups, we’re forced to do without TV and access to the iMac’s huge media library, and we have to closely monitor our water and electrical use. In some ways this might seem a burden, but we’re hoping to use these limitations to our advantage: by scheduling our sleep with the sun, by substituting TV for books and songs, and by reducing our impact on the world by being smarter, more informed consumers of its resources.

And so, it can be argued, that it’s actually nice to start out here, just outside the Tire & Lube entrance of a Nebraska Walmart Supercenter: by simultaneously surrounding ourselves with the disgusting excess of goods available to us and by facing just how much of it we can do without.