A trek to Narnia in the rain
In which our daring journalist braves bad weather and frozen pasta
Editor’s note: Wenbo is currently exploring the barren wildernesses of Minecraft, Poptropica, and Zoom University. Assuming he emerges unscathed from this uncharted expedition, we expect him to report back in a week. In the meantime, The Tech sent one of its most daring journalists on a walk to a beloved neighborhood institution.
I cannot match our regular columnist’s charm, literary flair, or tendency to date multiple people of the same name. However, I will try to be a good substitute. While Wenbo strolls in the ancient forests of Virginia, I will document my journey from my rustic New England Airbnb into the heart of American consumerism itself. That’s right: I walked to Walmart in the rain, wearing nothing but a trenchcoat and a pair of sneakers.
Snow stains the mountaintops even in April. I wander (per the kind instruction of Google Maps) down the road, around the corner, and into the uninhabited wilderness that is a small town during quarantine. I pass a Honda dealership, with its neat lines of silver cars glistening in the rain. It’s eerie to look at the cars with no driver or passenger, all that metal and glass temporarily abandoned in the rain with nobody to admire it.
I stroll along the sidewalk, watching the cars speed by on the open road. On the side of the road there’s a beautiful little creek with trees lining both shores. I can hear the water tumbling over the rocks, and for a second it feels like springtime despite the cold. There is a lake on the other side of the road. I try to take pictures, but the cars get in the way. Scenery like this always makes me want to listen to The Sound of Music soundtrack.
Walmart is on the horizon. The beige building and giant font are unmistakable. They remind me of home and certainty, of a time when grocery shopping was a chore rather than a luxury.
Back in Texas, we had a chain called Buc-ee’s, a gas station turned materialist paradise known for its clean bathrooms and distinctly southern aesthetic. I remember aisles of souvenir mugs, forests of boxed pasta, a climbing wall of beef jerky in plastic bags. There was a little bar where you could buy salted caramels and overpriced fruit. If Walmart was the unkempt and profoundly unmagical wardrobe of my childhood, Buc-ee’s was Narnia.
But for now, Walmart will be a first-order approximation. I shop like a doomsday prepper with an obsession for fruit. California mandarins, fruit juice, apples, blueberries, croissants, yogurt, frozen pasta. According to the package, the particular brand of frozen pasta that I just picked up is the best in all of Italy. It’s certified and authentic, whatever those words mean. I wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from a fresh plate of pasta alla carbonara from the darkened alleys of Genoa.
Shopping is therapeutic. As a thought exercise, I imagine the day that I will be able to afford the entire shelf of “premium juices” in my local Walmart. Who needs real estate when you can instead purchase every flavor of Lays potato chip known to man? Walking out of the granola aisle, I manage to avoid the temptation of those delectable margarita powder mixes that taste just like the real thing.
The self-checkout machine is a neat contraption for this time of social distancing. I briefly wonder how barcodes work. This reminds me that I should pay closer attention to my Course 6 classes, which in turn reminds me of a long-procrastinated pset for my first week of online classes. I dismiss the pset from my mind, put my groceries in my backpack, and walk out.
It’s not raining anymore, but the sky is overcast and there are hills of snow in the parking lot. I weave my way around the cars and look for a rainbow. On another day it would be a picturesque view for a Walmart parking lot: dark snow-capped mountains against a cloudless blue sky. A man is smoking alone outside the automatic door, in the shade. I realize that I’m completely alone, and the two miles from home suddenly seem very far.
The return trip is a blur. I pass the same creek, the same trees, the same misty silhouettes of mountains. They seem more mundane now that it isn’t raining. I imagine what it would be like to have grown up here, with the beautiful scenery and far-apart houses and wide interstates from Maine down to Boston. At some point a kind stranger slows down and offers to drive me home; I politely decline. At some point I run into an old lady walking her dog, and the dog sniffs at me curiously. It isn’t a long walk, but it makes me miss the feeling of walking around Cambridge on a warm spring afternoon.
And then I see the familiar little house with the green roof; I'm home, where friends are gathered in the living room reading the news and preparing for Friday classes. I have never felt so glad to be home. I walk in comfortably tired, put away my groceries, and rewatch season 23 of The Bachelor.