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(Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Road Rush

Confessions of a Walmart voyeur Add to ...

We take summer driving trips because we love the road - winding curves, clapboard towns, lakes that suddenly appear like blue treasures. And hey, those roadside attractions!

Like the world's biggest hatchet, a house made out of beer bottles, and Touchdown Jesus - a 62-foot foam and fibreglass Christ thrusting up from an artificial pond along the I-75 near Monroe, Ohio (Alas, Touchdown Jesus is no more. It was recently struck by lightning and destroyed).

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And then, strangely enough, there's Walmart, which exerts a mysterious pull over my family on every road trip. As roadside attractions go, it's a weird one, but we keep going. It amazes me - when I dreamed of places to visit with my wife and kids, Walmart ranked somewhere near the Septic Tank Museum and the Accounting Hall of Fame.

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So how did we get drawn into Walmart's parallel universe of cheap stuff and unusual people? It started back in 2002, as we cruised through Maine, on one of our greatest summer trips ever. We had a new Honda Odyssey van and the entire family was aboard, including my mother-in-law, Marjorie. My wife and kids were laughing, and my ultra-light plane was in its trailer behind us, ready for deployment whenever I saw a green field.

My mother-in-law's trip agenda differed radically from my own. For me, the road was about finding the perfect curve and new places to fly. For Marjorie, it was a way to get from one department store to the next. I lost track of how many times we stopped at a Sears or Kmart so she could check out the latest tea set or shower curtain.

Mercifully, we'd gone hours without passing a major store - we drove through a rural paradise of rivers, barns and rolling fields. Then a huge blue Walmart sign hove into view, and my mother-in-law's eyes locked onto it like the crosshairs of a retail hunting system. A new shopping target had been acquired. Resistance was futile.

I was nearly 50 years old, but I'd never been in a Walmart before. Now I was entering the fabled shopping kingdom for the first time, and wondered what it would be like. The answer wasn't long in coming. This operation was all about volume and scale. The parking lot was the size of a decent county, and almost every spot was filled. The store was a huge, metal-panelled presence - it loomed before us like a beached aircraft carrier.

We joined the stream of shoppers and poured through the front doors, where I confronted my very first Walmart greeter, a woman with shellacked hair and the build of a prize hog being fattened up for a 4-H competition. Her blue Walmart apron had extra-long strings, and it took me a moment to realize she was actually sitting on an electric scooter - the machine disappeared beneath her.

We wandered through the aisles. It wasn't hard to see why so many people came here. Prices were low. Really low. My wife bought a pair of jeans for $12. My mother-in-law picked up a plastic shower curtain for $10.

Shrugging off doubts about his sanity, Peter Cheney took a six-day road trip with his mother-in-law. Here is their story, first published in 2006

The store was a gigantic, schlock-filled horn of plenty, spilling over with plastic table ornaments, knock-off car parts, Chinese-made archery sets and giant cans of candy corn. It didn't take long to figure out why things were so cheap. The store was loaded with inventory, but the decor was bare bones, and the staff looked like they'd been picked from old folks homes or physical rehabilitation units. The customers weren't much different. I realized that I chanced upon a people-watching paradise.

Walmart was a sociological sorting machine. There seemed to be two weight categories - morbidly obese, and hillbilly skinny. And I'd never seen so many assistive devices in my life. There were walkers, crutches, canes, splints, and entire squadrons of electric scooters, many of them piloted by people whose weight had killed any further hope of walking. One scooter had been decked out with fringed leather saddlebags and a Confederate flag bumper sticker.

Half the shoppers seemed to be wearing costumes. Within half an hour, I saw a guy who was dressed like Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit, three women in matching pastel ball gowns and a teenage girl wearing a spiked helmet, a goose down vest and what appeared to be thermal underwear. It was August.

We hit the road again, heading east to Nova Scotia. I felt kind of sick, but I'd picked up some bargains - three white business shirts for less than $40. But it was the people of Walmart that really amazed me. It was like a free carnival sideshow. Within an hour, another Walmart showed up. And in we went.

That was the beginning of a weird road trip tradition. Inside Toronto city limits, I never set foot in a Walmart. But on the road, the blue sign pulls us in every time.

Although I'm no expert on economic globalization, I'm well aware of the company's reputation of making profits on the backs of cheap foreign labour and its own low-skilled staff. According to the last Michael Moore film I watched, Walmart takes out life insurance policies on its own workers, reaping a bonus for the corporation if they die.

We don't actually buy much at Walmart any more. It's the human show that has us hooked. When my wife and I headed down to Georgia last March so I could drive some twisty roads and fly my hang glider at Lookout Mountain, we stopped at four Walmarts on the way, and three more on the return trip. That's a lot of Walmarts, but where else can you can see a one-legged truck driver, a 300-pound cross-dresser and a woman wearing a Chewbacca costume all in the same day?

Turns out we're not alone in our Walmart habit. Several friends have confessed that they go there on road trips too. And not long ago, someone sent me a link to a website called peopleofwalmart.com. There, you can browse photographs of hundreds of Walmart shoppers. There are Uncle Sam look-alikes, guys with Bozo the Clown hairdos and people who go shopping in their underwear. Good fun. But nothing beats the real thing - and our summer road trip is just around the corner.

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