Wednesday Walk: Moochdocking
A new way to camp, a very old restaurant, and splitting up Sears
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As is typical every Wednesday, I’m bring you a smattering of topics that I hope will make you a bit more curious about the world around you and give you something to think about later. I call these Wednesday Walks, as it’s the type of conversation we might have walking down a path in the woods. Shall we take a stroll?
A New Term
Next month, we’ll be celebrating two years of RV ownership. I still consider myself a bit of a novice when it comes to the motorhome. Like any specialty, there’s an entire jargon all its own to learn: black tank, gray tank, chock blocks, toad, fifth wheel, etc.
I got to experience a new RV vocabulary word this past weekend: moochdocking.
I’ve talked in the newsletter before about boondocking, which is sleeping somewhere that’s not a campground and doesn’t offer hookups. Sometimes this means a really wonderful night’s sleep, like at the edge of a vineyard or an alpaca farm. Others, it means sleeping in the parking lot of a Cabela’s or Cracker Barrel.
Moochdocking is like boondocking in that you’re sleeping somewhere that’s not a campground, often without any services, but it involves sleeping in an RV in the yard of a family member or friend.
This weekend, we loaded up the RV and headed to the Berkshires to spend a few nights in my cousin’s backyard. He has about 4 acres and at one time was a big camper himself, so he has a 30 amp hookup for electricity right in his yard. He also has a patio with a fire pit next to the RV location.
We had a great time roasting s’mores with his family while he strummed on his guitar and we watched the sun set behind the mountains. It was better than any campground experience I’ve ever had!
And now that I’ve done it, I’m quite the fan of moochdocking. It’s all the benefits of staying at somebody else’s house with none of the fears that you’re intruding too much on their space or navigating sharing bathrooms or kitchens. We had lots of time to visit, but then at bedtime, we had our own place to sleep, eat, and hang out. It was really the best of both worlds!
I Have a Type…
As we were driving around the Berkshires, I found myself getting unexpectedly giddy as we drove by a building in Williamstown. Here it is- does it look familiar?
This is actually a classic Howard Johnson’s restaurant!! Hey, I’m excited!
I actually passed it three times on our trip this weekend, but didn’t get the chance to take more than a photo from a passing car window. The first time, I was driving the RV and I didn’t want to subject my family to stopping to photograph another old roadside relic. The second time, my cousin’s wife was driving us to shop in Williamstown, but I was on the wrong side of the car to capture a photo. On the third go round, I was on the right side of the car and snapped this with my phone out of the window. I caught the biker riding by in frame, but I kind of like how the picture turned out.
The location in Williamstown originally opened in 1940, among the first big wave of expansion for the chain. According to The Berkshire Eagle, HoJo’s had expanded to 170 restaurants by 1941 (from 1 in 1929), but shortages brought on by World War II led most of the locations to cease operations. Only a dozen were still operating by 1943.
After the War, the Williamstown location reopened in 1946 and would operate as a Howard Johnson’s until 1989, much of that time owned by franchisees (and brothers) Frank and Ernest Brundage.
Part of why I was so excited was because this location is so similar to the former Howard Johnson’s which is closest to me in Concord, MA (and which I tour in a video for members). While the overall shape is still present in Concord, much of HoJo’s distinct markings have been stripped from that location.
Not so in Williamstown. Aside from the roof no longer being orange, the location still looks distinctly HoJo. In fact, the cupola appears nearly unaltered from its original state, with a Simple Simon and the Pieman weathervane still atop a copper roof. Even the clock is still present and working!
Another quirk that made me excited is that both the Concord and Williamstown locations are sited on Massachusetts Route 2, which is a major East-West artery that connects the Berkshires to Boston. There’s some nice symmetry to me that both locations are about the same age, on the same road, and just separated by about 100 miles.
Similar to the old Friendly building in my hometown of Willoughby, Ohio (which I’ve written about before), the Williamstown Howard Johnson’s has been converted to a professional building. It currently houses a Mountain One bank branch, a wellness office, and a jewelry store.
If you’re curious to see photos of how this building looked in the HoJo era, Highway Host has a gallery of old images.
I love that these old buildings that are so distinct can still be reused in some fashion but retain some of what makes them iconic. Even if most of the motorists driving by have no idea of the history, I still get very excited when I see a relic of a time gone by like this at the side of the road.
Some More Sears News
I can’t seem to get enough of Sears lately, which is funny because I didn’t give the chain much thought before writing about one of the last stores left in the country (and the only one in New England). Since then, I have been tracking the Sears redevelopment story more closely and find the whole thing fascinating.
This latest Sears news comes out of South Burlington, VT. According to WCAX, the old Sears Auto Center at University Mall will be transformed into six separate businesses. Yes, six. The article cites a need for services proximate to nearby housing developments and quotes from a local official:
has written about the need for smaller footprint businesses as opportunities for entrepreneurs to start a small business. This was commonplace on Main Street in the early part of the last century, but with the advent of strip malls and shopping malls, became less common.
“‘Part of creating a lively and functional downtown is to have space that is in that 1,000-3,000 square feet where a smaller business, whether it’s a local business or something more regional in nature, has the opportunity to set up shop,’ said Paul Conner of South Burlington Planning and Zoning.”
“All these Mom and Pop shops… that stems from having to run from the country with a wheelbarrow and sell stuff out of your wheelbarrow, which became a cart, which became a store, which became a business.”
In the case of South Burlington, VT, it sounds like this is part of a larger reimagining of the entire mall, but the story also stood out to me when I read it because my first thought was, “wait, this has already happened.” I just had the wrong Burlington.
The Sears in Burlington, MA closed in 2018 and the Sears Auto Center here was also turned into a small strip mall of its own, subdivided into 12 stores and known as “The Village at Burlington Mall.”
While the new stores are mostly national chains, including Sweetgreen and AT&T, it does seem like there’s a trend afoot to downsize some of these big boxes into small and medium boxes.
I wonder how many Sears Auto Center sized buildings are out there sitting unused that could be made into something better if subdivided into smaller pieces. I know nearly every mall around here is littered with empty auto stores- perhaps this is a path forward?
At any rate, it caught my attention and seemed worth sharing. I hope you still enjoy reading random Sears news like this, because there always seems to be some new angle on those stores.
What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below- I love hearing from you!
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Other Wednesday Walks
If you’ve missed past issues of this newsletter, they are available to read here.