Pull into a Walmart parking lot late at night and you’ll probably run into a few RVs that didn’t quite make it to their destinations, and roadtrippers who didn’t want to shell out cash for motels, all taking advantage of the chain’s policy, at most stores, to let travelers spend the night for free.
It’s a world that photographer Nolan Conway spent three weeks documenting in a series called Waking Up At Walmart.
Before starting the project, Conway stayed in Walmart lots himself while on the road. The experience brought back an early memory. "I think I was in middle school when I first saw a car that someone was sleeping in—it had a broken window and it was packed full of their belongings," Conway says. "It had a big impact on me. Years later, when I was actually staying at a Walmart, it came back to me, and I wanted to pursue the series."
You never know exactly what you’ll find at Walmart, Conway says. He once saw someone hauling a hundred-year-old trolley, parked nonchalantly in the lot as shoppers walked past to buy disposable trinkets. He's seen people staying in tricked-out RVs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and others staying in beaten-up trucks. Homeless families sometimes stay in the lots, sleeping in their cars.
It wasn’t easy to approach people to take the shots, since the vehicles were essentially their temporary homes. "Someone’s so vulnerable in the car that you don’t want to knock on their window; it’s kind of a scary situation," Conway says. "I’d usually stop about 20 feet away and wave to try to get their attention. Depending on where you are, there could be homeless (and carless) people going around begging from people who are in their cars at Walmart. Sometimes I would be confused for those people and others wouldn’t want anything to do with me."
But he finished the series, and even found some sense of community among fellow nomads living on the road. Now, as he drives across the country working on new photos—and needs a last-minute place to pull over late at night—he still often stays in Walmart lots.