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Campers find refuge at Wal-Mart during Sturgis rally

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Campers find refuge at Wal-Mart during Sturgis rally
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

By John Lee McLaughlin


RAPID CITY (AP) — One or two campers can usually be seen taking up post at Wal-Mart parking lots in Rapid City when the summer tourism season is in full swing.

But the lots morph into extempore whistle-stops during the first week of August every year as nearly 500,000 people make the annual pilgrimage to Sturgis for rally week.

The view offered during an overnight camp out at a Wal-Mart parking lot is little more than dimly lit blacktop, and any camp side streams are replaced by the flow of traffic or rattle of shopping carts at the 24-hour superstores.

But there are definite perks, namely a free night's stay for RVs, easy in-and-out access to major highways and the several hundred thousand square-foot pantry that's open 24/7 just a stones-throw from a comfortable bed.

It's technically not camping, however, which isn't allowed in Rapid City parking lots. It's called "boondocking," or staking out camper space at Wal-Marts and other big-box stores that allow it. Some travelers even plan their trips based on the location of superstores.

Rapid City officials simply call it overnight parking. But there are rules.

"Specifically, there's no camping allowed in the Wal-Mart parking lots," Fletcher Lacock, a community planner for the city, said. "They can't pull out the awnings or set up lawn chairs ... start grilling — you know, camping. As long as they're not doing that, it's overnight parking."

The overnight parking rules vary for each of the two Wal-Marts in Rapid City, according to stipulations set forth in agreements between the retailer and city government, Lacock said.

The south-side store off Stumer Road isn't supposed to allow overnight parking, but campers were seen there last week. On the north side of town, Lacock said it's allowed at the Wal-Mart on Lacrosse Street, despite small orange signs warning otherwise at both locations.

And it's those signs that Lazy J RV Park and Campground owner Marvin Lutz wishes would have more of an impact.

When the camping season is booming, Lutz said he probably loses up to five RVs to Wal-Mart lots. At roughly $41 per campsite, he could be out nearly $200 a night.

"I think they should really not allow them to stay overnight. It hurts every campground owner in Rapid City. I think that's a poor policy," he said. "We've talked to the mayor. He tries to get the police to stay with it but sometimes, they sneak in. They got signs up even, but the police pay no attention to it."

Aside from campground owners, local uproar over the matter has mostly settled since the city officially allowed it more than a decade ago and few, if any, complaints are heard from the community, according to code enforcement official Tom Kurtenbach.

"The Wal-Mart thing probably comes up once every year or two years," Kurtenbach said. "It's pretty rare that we actually get a complaint."

Around 16 campers were parked in a section of the Lacrosse Street Wal-Mart parking lot Tuesday night. None of the rigs were camping per the city's definition, and life in each of the home-on-wheels was only hinted at by a faint golden glow emanating from windows.

Despite the influx of camper traffic from the Sturgis motorcycle rally, not all of the boondockers were there for the motorcycle rally.

Jack Smith, 78, his wife, Jan and great-grandson, Cole, were abound on a family vacation from Redding, California. Smith said he prefers state and national parks or roadside campgrounds but was caught off-guard when more than an inch of rain fell between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. last Tuesday in Rapid City.

Seeing other campers hunkered down at the Lacrosse Street Wal-Mart, he opted to stop in for the night.

"We couldn't get here, there or anywhere, so we pulled up to get out of it," he explained about an hour after the deluge, sitting cozy in a fuzzy grey bath rope. "We wanted to go over to Wal-Mart anyway and do some shopping. We saw the campers and pulled in with them."

Two campers down, 55-year-old James "420 Jim" Stevens was watching TV with his dog. Stevens is in town during rally week as part of his national petition drive to legalize marijuana.

Stevens said he has been booted from six Wal-Mart lots so far in his journey but after arguing some technicalities with management at the past seven locations for an overnight stay, he hasn't had any recent trouble.

"It's worked for the last seven Wal-Marts," he said Tuesday night from the door of his RV, adding he had been kicked out of the local Pilot and Flying J truck stop lots earlier in the week.

"It's the only other place I had to go," he said of his spot at the Lacrosse Street Wal-Mart. "If there weren't any other campers, I wouldn't even have tried parking."

Overnighting at Wal-Marts has become a tradition for Jean Lysight, 70, and his wife, Christiane Brunet, 61, a French-Canadian couple from Quebec who has stayed at different superstore lots for the six nights before they made their way to the rally for the first time.

As they continue west on their tour across the nation, Lysight said they would reserve campsites at Yellowstone National Park and in Las Vegas, where he figures the Wal-Marts won't allow them.

They did try to find a campsite in Rapid City but to no avail.

"We called to rent a campsite but everything was full, so that's why we stayed here," he said. "We're very independent. We have everything we need."

On the flip side, the independence offered by RV camping and the convenience of parking at a Wal-Mart doesn't have too great of an impact on the Rushmore and Rapid City KOA Campgrounds, according to Marketing Director Gwyn Wathen.

But Wathen said there is ripple effect.

"It's not really our customer base because they're looking for an easy quick in, quick out," he said, noting RVers who often set up for an entire season at a campsite. "However, it does still affect our store sales. It can take a toll on your camping supplies and grocery supplies."

He added that Wal-Mart also doesn't have to follow the same permit regulations for campgrounds like sewage disposal or general bathroom amenity requirements, though the chain store does have its own rules to follow.

"Wal-Mart basically gets off scot-free on the camping side of things," Wathen said. "It would still be nice to grab those customers."

Local Wal-Mart management would offer comment on their overnight parking policy and referred questions to their corporate offices.