Paul Kalisz lives and pays his taxes in Kentucky when he’s not dragging his new 5th-wheel around behind his new medium-duty pickup, touring the country. He says he doesn’t much park in Wal-Mart lots even when he is on the road. But then he got wind of a proposal Montana lawmakers were considering, telling him where he could and could not park his rig, and, dang it, that trampled his American freedom to park wherever he damn well pleased. And in Montana, of all reputedly freedom-loving places. He started spreading e-mails to warn fellow travelers of the outrage, threatening to take his tourist dollars and bypass Montana if Montana passed the bill. It is, he says, the principle of the thing.
House Bill 314, sponsored by representative Peggy Morgan (R-Billings), would effectively make it illegal to park an RV overnight in a Wal-Mart parking lot for free, which is exactly what lots of RVers, for kind of sadly predictable reasons, like to do.
“It restricts me,” Kalisz says over the phone, and he sounds like he really means it.
Kalisz heard about the bill the way a lot of RVers heard about it—the same way a lot of RVers hear about everything: in online forums, hosted by the Escapees Club, based in east Texas. The Club services full-time RVers with everything from voice messaging and permanent addresses (for voter registration) to camaraderie and advocacy. Mark Nemeth is the Escapees’ “RV Consumer Affairs Specialist,” among other duties, and would have you believe the bill is a public safety hazard, citing the specter of long, tired days on the road, probably dark and lonely and narrow roads, exhausted drivers exiled to an unpredictable borderland beyond Wal-Mart’s 24-hour glow.
Besides, he says, parking lot RVers usually just pull in late at night, sleep, and pull out early, never set up camp, never leave a mess, are perfectly self-contained and unrequiring of services, and usually drop some cash at Wal-Mart besides, so where’s the harm? (Some of which assertions may be taken with a shot of salt by viewers of High Plains Films’ This is Nowhere documentary about Wal-Mart’s parking lot RV culture).
Nemeth credits the e-mail heat generated by Escapees with tabling the bill and a companion measure introduced in the Senate.
Morgan says it was actually the issue of Wal-Mart’s property rights that shelved the bills, but both, in any event, are now “dead from the ashes down,” according to Senate sponsor Dale Mahlum.
“All we wanted to do was establish a level playing field,” Morgan says, referring to commercial campground owners who testified their support. Such a leveling would have steered RVers into the local economy, or collected a $3 state fee on parking lot overnighters—in the unlikely event that department stores like Wal-Mart (which did not testify) chose to license their parking lots as campgrounds.
In an unappreciated turn, that revenue would have gone into the budget of the Montana Promotion Division.
But hell hath no fury like a spurned RVer with a Hotmail account.
Morgan estimates she received over 500 angry e-mails in the course of a few days.
“I’ll tell you what,” she says, “they’re rude. There’s nothing wrong with the right to say what you want, but I definitely feel that these people are probably the meanest, nastiest people I’ve ever had any dealings with in my life.”
And, Morgan did not add, y’all come back soon now, y’hear?