I envisioned nights in nature and remote campsites for a two-week van trip.
In reality, some nights involved picturesque campsites — and others featured asphalt parking lots.
Sleeping outside Walmart and Cracker Barrel was free, convenient, and a true taste of van life.
As I barreled down a highway heading out of Colorado in a 75-square-foot van, I pictured the next 12 nights ahead of me.
I had rented a campervan from the RV rental company Native Campervans, and the Ram ProMaster would be my little home on wheels for the next two weeks. It'd take me everywhere from Joshua Tree National Park to abandoned waterparks in the deserts of California.
I pictured spending nights stargazing in empty deserts, camping and making fires in national forests, and watching colorful sunrises from the bed of my van.
And while all those things happened, I also spent nights in asphalt parking lots outside of Walmarts and Cracker Barrels.
Convenience and budget landed me in a Cracker Barrel parking lot
I spent day four of my trip taking a round-trip train ride from Williams, Arizona, to Grand Canyon National Park.
By the time I made it to Williams, the sun had set. The next morning, I had plans to get up early and head to Jerome, Arizona.
All I needed was a place to park and sleep. While RV parks dotted the town of Williams, they were expensive. The cheapest spot at a nearby KOA Campground was $50 and other RV parks hovered around the same price.
My van didn't need hookups, and I didn't need the amenities of an RV park like laundry or a swimming pool. It felt like a waste to spend $50 just to park for a few hours.
As I sat in my van trying to decide where to sleep, I spotted a Cracker Barrel on Google Maps in the nearby city of Flagstaff.
From interviewing countless people living in RVs, vans, school buses, and cars, I knew that places like Cracker Barrel and Walmart sometimes allow people to spend the night in the parking lots.
Sure enough, in the review section of Google, plenty of people mentioned sleeping successfully in the parking lot at the Flagstaff Cracker Barrel.
I turned on my van and headed that way.
I spotted massive RVs before I saw the yellow-and-brown Cracker Barrel sign. It was clearly a popular place. While it was only 7:30 p.m. at night, the parking lot was already full. RVs with slide-outs filled some spots. People living in their cars filled others. And some were occupied by vans, truck campers, and travel trailers.
Knowing that so many other people were spending the night in the same parking lot was comforting. I pulled into a spot, threw my car window shades on to block out any light, locked my doors, and crawled into bed.
I could hear the sound of cars zooming by on a nearby road. Every now and then I heard a train in the distance and cars honking at each other.
It wasn't a serene campsite like the ones I had envisioned, but it was convenient and free.
Plus, it gave me a true taste of van life. If I wanted to live out of a van full-time, there'd be plenty of times I'd need the ease and affordability of a free parking lot.
Later on the trip, when I found myself driving late into the night and in need of rest, I remembered how easy it was to park at Cracker Barrel.
This time, I headed to a nearby Walmart where a dozen other RVs were stationed, and repeated the process all over again.
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