So, here I am in Walmart at 7:00 am. I walk up and down the infinite aisles of consumer goods and search frantically for the single item I need. If you don’t think that’s funny then you have probably not read my travelogues before. For me, at least, Walmart is hell on earth. In reality, it’s no worse than any other big box store that operates on the principles of conquest corporate capitalism, but symbolically it seems somehow a manifestation of the concept as a whole. America has a broken economy. As a matter of law and policy, our government gives unfair competitive advantage to large corporations at the expense of independent local businesses. That unfair advantage is slowly but surely transforming our landscape from a sustainable organic paradise into a doomed wasteland of civilized hell. We could, of course, stop this from happening. But that would require a fundamental change to the structure of our economy. Since that change seems unlikely to happen in the near future, for the time being at least, we have to learn to live in a Walmart world. Welcome to the American nightmare.
After the fun festivities of the Fairhope Mardi Gras Parade, Ms. B. and I need to find a place to rest our weary heads. We’ve been camping for over a week straight so according to the rules of the game, we should find ourselves a room with a nice hot shower and a big comfortable bed. Unfortunately, that’s not possible. Everywhere is full for Mardi Gras and well beyond our fifty dollar a night budget anyway. There are no nearby campgrounds or any other theoretical possibilities. Where’s that barn full of hay open for wanderers when you need it? It’s the night clerk at the last motel we check that suggests Walmart but it’s something that we’ve heard about before. Apparently, Walmart has a policy of allowing people to park overnight in their parking lots. Word is that you can sleep in your vehicle there without getting harassed by security officers. It may have something to do with a sporting goods sales contract and the concern of fishermen or maybe Walmart is just being nice. I’m not sure, but it seems to be true. We’ve noticed recreational vehicles and trucks taking advantage of this policy before. But do we really want to stay in a Walmart parking lot? It’s late, dark and rainy. We are very, very tired of driving through the strip mall land outside of Fairhope. We need to sleep. Walmart it is.
It’s really not so bad. There are a few rvs in the lot so we don’t feel too paranoid. We find a tree-shaded, out of the way place in the far corner. We move our belongings to the front seat and transform the back of the Subaru into a sleeping shelter. I feel a little like a teenager on a super hot date. We climb inside. We have wine as well as weed. That’s right; it’s a party in the Wally World parking lot. Are we living the dream or what?
The next morning I awake at my usual early hour and long for a cup of coffee. Ms. B. will sleep for hours more so I will have to go somewhere on foot to find some. I see no diners or cafés in the vicinity so the only real choice is the Walmart. Could they possibly have good coffee in there? There’s only one way to find out. As I pass through the automatic doors and enter into the interior, I feel like a covert operator going behind enemy lines.
It’s insane. They have everything and nothing at the same time. Bright lights, happy colors and endless shelves are stacked high with mountains of consumer goods. But it’s almost all crap… the lowest common denominator mass produced by cheap labor on the global market. Their entire business model is dependent upon the economic efficiency of the global transportation system. The global transportation system is only economically efficient because of cheap fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are only cheap because of huge governmental subsidies to the energy industry and because the energy companies don’t pay the fair price for the environmental destruction they cause. In a sane society, the localization of production and distribution would be economically advantageous. In other words, products would cost more if they came from far away. Obviously, we don’t live in a sane society.
There’s a bakery section just inside the entrance. That seems a good place to start on my search for a hot cup of joe. After all, they sell bagels and muffins and other breakfast items, it only seems logical that they would have coffee as well. But no, that is not the case. Instead, they suggest that I try the automotive service department. Automotive? For coffee? Now that is funny. It’s especially funny because I listen to the suggestion and head towards automotive which is located in the very back at the other side of the store. Now I’ve done some crazy, stupid things in my life, but this one here has to be near the top of the list. I (primitive Pat from the Stone Age) cross the entire hostile territory of a Walmart Super Store in order to ask an automobile service technician (oil changer) to sell me a cup of coffee. Can you say irony? How about desperation? And to make matters worse, the technician says no. The coffee in automotive is for employees, not for customers. But that’s all right; I probably don’t want lukewarm Folgers in a styrofoam cup anyway.
Thankfully, Ms. B. is awake when I return to the vehicle. So we re-arrange our belongings and drive to a real café on Main Street in downtown Fairhope. It’s nice to be back in a sensible world. The café is independent and it’s attached to a book store. There are art galleries in town and a good sized museum. The restaurants and shops bustle with activity and the waterfront area is pleasant for a stroll. All in all, the town of Fairhope is my kind of place. Unfortunately though, it’s also quite expensive. We have a wonderful day wandering around but when night time comes, we still have to find a place to stay.
We’d rather not stay in Walmart again if we can help it. We still have a cheap motel night on the agenda. Everything’s full around Fairhope for Mardi Gras but Mobile is only an hour or two away and that’s a big city. There has to be some reasonable accommodation on its outskirts. Let’s try that. And so begins our nightmare journey.
Thank God, Buddha, Allah and Shiva that Ms. B. is driving. Indeed, she deserves a pat on the back, a big hug, a gold star and several bonus points for her efforts. I shudder to think of the outcome if I was behind the wheel. It’s dark when we leave Fairhope and it starts raining shortly after we get on the highway. My eyes don’t work well under such conditions because of an unusual sensitivity to light. Blinded by pinpoints of color, I can’t see the darkness in between. I’m wearing my glasses but it doesn’t help. I sure hope she can see where we are going.
Of course we have no GPS or phone app. to lead us to our destination. For that matter, we don’t even have a particular destination. All we really want is a cheap roadside hotel room. You would think such a thing would be easy to find. The basic plan is to head towards Mobile on the secondary highway until we reach the inevitable strip mall land. But that is not what happens. Once we get beyond the area near Fairhope that is booked solid for Mardi Gras, the landscape becomes barren and empty. I think we are surrounded by swampland but I’m not sure because the rain has picked up and now it’s even harder to see. It feels as if we drive right into the center of a dense, dark, storm cloud. We can sort of see the far off lights from the city of Mobile but the immediate world is nothingness, rain, and bleak darkness.
Traffic grows heavier and the rain intensifies. We accidentally merge onto a bigger highway and find ourselves surrounded by massive trucks. The rain now falls with apocalyptic intensity. It splatters the windshield and machine guns the roof. The windshield wipers are going full tilt. The giant trucks crowd around us. The Subaru seems miniature in comparison. It shakes and rattles in the tumultuous tailwinds of the surrounding mechanical behemoths. I have a paranoid notion that the bicycles will shake free, fall from the car rack and cause a massive interstate pile up. That would be a real nightmare.
How long do we drive through such crazy conditions? It’s hard to say exactly but it seems like an eternity. We get lost. Somehow or other we mistakenly loop the entire city and end up back near the beginning. We pass through the city’s major industrial zone. Indeed, it sort of seems like the entire loop around the city is one big industrial zone. Spewing smokestacks, endless factories, and lumbering giant trucks have completely taken over the territory. Ugly is ugly as ugly can be; an ugliness so extreme it almost seems a surreal exaggeration from an imagined cartoon. But it’s not. It’s real. And if the corporate empire has its way, a whole lot more of this ugliness will be spreading across the country. I don’t want to live on a hydro-fracked planet. I don’t want to live in a hydro-fracked world. How can we escape this craziness?
Eventually, we escape this circle of hell that Dante forgot to mention and find an interstate that goes away from the city. We only have to go a short distance on this new highway before we see an exit for strip mall land. How happy we are to see all those same familiar corporate chains. True; we were hoping to find an interesting, independent cheap motel. But considering the madness we just went through and the storm that still rages around us, a cage with golden bars will just have to do. It costs us more than sixty dollars for a night but at least we have a hot shower, a big bed and a roof over our heads. We order ourselves some food product by delivery, click on the television and settle in for a long night of comfort. That’s right my friends, we are still living the dream.