March 28, 2006 -- Aspiring writer Skyler Bartels said he would describe his 41-hour stay in Wal-Mart as "the strangest of times. It was the most exhausting of times."
Instead of heading to Cancun, Mexico, or other warmer climates like many of his fellow college students, the sophomore at Drake University in Iowa decided to observe the Wal-Mart phenomenon.
What began as a dorm-room chat turned into something much more when Bartels floated the idea past his father who said he would finance his son's alterna-spring break.
"He told me about this movie where the guy eats nothing but McDonald's for a month, and he said he would help pay for me to do it. I wanted to try it first to see if people were interested, which they seem to be."
Bartels said the entire stay cost about $160 -- a lot less, he pointed out, than heading to a true spring break hot spot.
Bartels, who checked into Wal-Mart on March 19 and left March 21, said that he wanted to use the experience for a book or documentary film and that he wanted to sleep over at a Wal-Mart again. But his motivations are not at all political, even though Wal-Mart has gotten a lot of bad press lately about poor working conditions and the endangerment of mom-and-pop stores. Bartels insisted that he really liked Wal-Mart.
Bartels slept "mostly in the men's bathroom, actually on the toilet," he said. "In the thinner stalls, not the handicapped ones. It provided a lot of legroom."
Sometimes he caught a nap in the home and garden aisle where the lights are lower during the earlier hours.
"We weren't aware of this," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sharon Weber told the Des Moines Register. "But it's not something we condone. We're a retailer, not a hotel."
Bartels said that he was never discovered and that his paranoia kept him from sleeping for too long. He did meet some unusual people, including a nun with whom he posed for a picture and a military recruiter.
"He spotted me across the store and told me I had the right stuff," Bartels said. "And I asked him, then, of course, what the right stuff was and I think he was taken aback by the question and responded, 'You have good posture and you didn't look sad.'"
Bartels idled away the time by playing with the vast amounts of merchandise sold at the megachain. He spent a lot of time playing a boxing video game called "Fight Night" on PlayStation 2 and watched the movie "Chicken Little" so much that he knows the film by heart.
"When you know you're going to be there all the time, your mind state becomes all about what to do," he said.
He was struck by badly behaved children but was mostly awed by the diversity he saw coming through Wal-Mart's doors.
"It's just fun to talk to whoever and see who will talk to you back," Bartels said. "Usually it's just a 'Hi' or something, but it's worth it."