Overnight in Walmart Parking Lots: Silence, Solace and Refuge

As night falls, the motels and R.V. parks along America’s highways begin to fill up with travelers needing a place for the night.

But to untold thousands of motorists each year — some with a sense of adventure, others looking to save a buck, still more with no other place to go — Walmart is often a willing host for overnight guests.

“It’s not pretty: no pine trees, no bubbling brook, no ocean beach,” Chuck Woodbury, the editor of RVTravel.com, said in a tutorial video intended for casual travelers. “The idea of staying at Walmart is to park for the night, to get some sleep and then move on.”

Walmart’s practice of letting people populate many of its parking lots has made the retail giant’s stores a reliable, if somewhat improvised, destination and a place where an informal culture emerges before and after dark.

This summer, two photographers, Mike Belleme and George Ethredge, spent several nights in Walmart parking lots in the South. The men, who are longtime friends, slept in the back of a cargo van and talked with people who stopped at Walmarts. Here are some of the people they met, and things they saw, along the way.

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The two photographers visited seven Walmarts, including the one in Pooler, Ga.

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George Etheredge for The New York Times

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One generally accepted rule of etiquette for R.V.’s spending the night at Walmart, like this one in Walterboro, S.C.: No lawn chairs in the parking lot.

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George Etheredge for The New York Times

There are standards of etiquette — do not, for instance, sit in the parking lot in lawn chairs — and also online rosters of no-go Walmarts. There is an expectation that you should buy something, but there is no parking fee. There is a measure of solitary privacy, even in a place that is deliberately accessible. Still that doesn’t prevent some people from leaving skid marks in the parking lot.

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Statesville, N.C.

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George Etheredge for The New York Times

A lot of travelers stay in their R.V.’s and don’t interact with other people in the parking lot. They pass the hours by eating, watching television, spending time with their pets or sleeping.

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Walterboro, S.C.

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Mike Belleme for The New York Times

Sometimes, people end up in a Walmart’s parking lot because they cannot think of anywhere else to go, or have made it part of their routine.

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