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A Lot To Mourn

A Lot To Mourn

Whitehorse loses a popular and peculiar camping spot
By Rhiannon Russell
Jan 22
2019
From the January/February 2019 Issue

In June, Margie and Anjum Zia left their home in Indiana for a months-long trip to Alaska. Driving a Coachmen RV that looked like a tour bus and towing a gold-coloured sedan, they overnighted in national and provincial campgrounds, RV parks, and parking lots along the way. When they rolled into the Walmart lot in Whitehorse, the number of RVs there took them by surprise. “We said, ‘Hey, what is this, an RV park?’” says Margie.

Every summer, the city’s Walmart has hosted dozens of RVs, trailers, campers, and vans each day, as a convenient pit stop on the Alaska Highway. The hulking vehicles line the parking lot’s outer edges and fill up its back rows. Some travellers treat the place like their own personal campsite. A woman sits in a lawn chair on a patch of grass next to busy Quartz Road, reading a book. Two planters full of flowers flank the front steps of another RV, with a mini American flag sticking out of each pot. A dog bed is laid in front of one RV, with a leash tied to the front steps—a makeshift front yard. A spare tire cover reads: “Home is where you park it.”

Walmart is the Yukon’s most popular campground, or so went the joke around town. Owners of RV parks around Whitehorse, charging $30 to $40 per night, bemoaned the loss of business. Walmart’s decimation of Main Street is well-known; now they were elbowing in on campgrounds too.

But in a surprise move, the Whitehorse location prohibited overnight stays as of September “following several customer complaints about unsafe parking conditions and debris in the parking lot,” a Walmart Canada spokesperson said in an email. (Each individual Walmart determines its own parking lot policy.)

Who would want to set up camp on concrete in a corporation’s parking lot, instead of experiencing the beauty of the wild North?

Melanie and Ward Young, friendly grandparents from Arkansas, drove into the Whitehorse lot in August on their way back from Alaska. They’d been on the road nearly two months, spending long days driving remote highways, with their rescue dogs Bella, Heidi, and Skittles. “When all you want to do is pull in and camp for the night and pull out the next day, you don’t want to hook up to cable, you don’t want to use the internet, you just want a place to sleep for the night,” says Melanie, a retiree, sitting at the kitchen table inside their cozy 26-foot Coachmen fifth wheel. She says it also helps that the parking lot is free and easy to navigate with a big vehicle.

The couple doesn’t plan their accommodations in advance. When Ward gets tired, Melanie pulls out her phone and opens an app called RV Parky, which displays nearby RV parks, campgrounds, and Walmarts. An icon indicates if the local store allows overnight parking.

Sure, they don’t get to see the local sights, or soak up the Northern wilderness (Melanie is a hiker), but that’s not their goal every day. Sometimes, they just want somewhere to crash. When they reach a place they’d like to spend a few days exploring, they’ll shell out the money for a spot at an RV park and let the dogs roam.

There are unspoken rules of decorum when you camp in a parking lot: clean up after your dog, don’t run your generator, don’t litter, and don’t stay for long periods of time. “People are abusing that something terrible,” says Ward, sipping a can of blackberry Canada Dry, his glasses perched on the top of his head. “It should be a one-night thing, when you’re travelling through.”

The Zias agree, tsk-tsking people who take advantage by setting up barbecues and opening their slide-outs. On this trip, they’ve slept a few nights in Walmart parking lots. They rave about the cleanliness of the store in Wasilla, Alaska. “It was, like, beautiful,” says Anjum.

The couple speaks of the store’s founder, Sam Walton, with reverence. “Anytime we call home or something, we say we’re guests of Mr. Walton’s,” says Margie with a laugh. She has white hair and wears a pink Valdez, Alaska, windbreaker, a cigarette in her hand. “He loved RVs too.”

“He was a very humble guy,” Anjum chimes in. “I read about him.” They’ve considered visiting the Walmart Museum in Arkansas to pay their respects. They don’t say if they plan to spend the night in its parking lot.