On the 'Grapes of Wrath' Trail, the Dust Bowl Still Resonates
Retracing the route Steinbeck described in his classic novel 75 years ago, a family finds parallels between today and the 'Dirty Thirties.' This is the first of three parts.
"The highway became their home and movement their medium of expression. Little by little they settled into the new life." —The Grapes of Wrath
The freedom of the open road holds no appeal for my 16-year-old son, Miro. Like many of his generation, he sees cars as agents of global warming and the reason American suburbs can be soulless places with no sense of community, let alone pedestrians. Plus, he gets carsick.
So I confess to some trepidation as our family headed out on a three-week road trip to California last summer. The plan was to fly to Oklahoma from our home in Washington, D.C., and drive west on Route 66, retracing the journey taken by the fictional Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath.
I couldn't believe how relevant the 75-year-old book—with its depiction of industrial agriculture squeezing out small farmers, climate-driven environmental woes, and migrant workers at the mercy of big landowners—felt today.
A road trip seemed like the perfect way to investigate whether history might be repeating itself. The western United States is in the midst of a multi-year drought that many say is worse than the one that triggered the great migration of the 1930s, when a quarter million people fled the stifling dust storms of the Great Plains in hopes of a better life.
I liked the idea of my son, a city boy, getting to see the effects of this faraway drought firsthand, hearing the stories of strangers in small towns and on family farms along the way. But first, I had some sweet-talking to do.
"A road trip?" Miro asked skeptically when my husband, Teo, and I broached the subject. We promised we'd rent a spacious (but gas-efficient) SUV. We'd never spend more than four or five hours on the road in one day. In a moment of poor judgment, I said I'd even let Miro sit in the front seat whenever he felt "squeazy"—his word for feeling carsick when he was a toddler.
He called shotgun for the entire trip.
A Wall of Dirt
The romance of the open road fizzled a bit as we drove out of Oklahoma City on Interstate 40—the highway that's largely overtaken Route 66 there. My heart sank as the all-too-familiar shopping centers and big box stores of every American suburb rolled by in the rearview mirror. Three weeks on the road started to sound like a long time.
Full disclosure: We were cheating a little by not starting our trip in Sallisaw. That's the town two and a half hours east of Oklahoma City where the Joads worked as tenant farmers until tractors rolled in and smashed their house.
Still, we didn't feel too guilty. Sallisaw is too far east to have been affected by the drought that led to the Dust Bowl, and it's doubtful whether Steinbeck himself ever set foot in the town. He wrote about the Joads's journey by consulting a map he'd used on a trip along Route 66 with his first wife, Carol—years before he started writing The Grapes of Wrath. It was Carol who suggested the name for the novel, lifting the phrase from The Battle Hymn of the Republic: "He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."
Once we turned north and arrived in the Oklahoma Panhandle, the mood in the car lifted: We were floored by the immensity of the sky and the flatness of the land. We passed vast yellow fields interrupted only by windmills and water towers. We stopped at a store called the Loaf 'n Jug and the drought was on everyone's lips. No one had ever seen it this dry.
People told stories of weather gone bad, of high winds and tornadoes and dust storms. Last March, 50-mile-an-hour winds and a dust storm closed Highway 287 near Boise City for six hours. One woman with long blonde hair described a wall of dirt that came out of nowhere.
"You can't see anything. It stings your legs and sandblasts your arms," she said. A man in boots and a cowboy hat said, "It's like a tidal wave without the warsh," or like being "stuck in a snow globe for six to eight hours."
The Struggle to Keep Farming
We arrived in the town of Hooker—the heart of the area hit hardest in the Dust Bowl—at around four in the afternoon. A giant grain elevator loomed over the town like a skyscraper lost in the desert.
We'd arranged to meet a long-time wheat farmer named Tom Fischer because his photograph had appeared in a 1984 National Geographic article called "Beyond the Dust Bowl," and we wanted to ask what had changed in 30 years. Photographer Chris Johns had taken a portrait of Tom, then 31, and his grandfather, father, and two sons—four generations of the Fischer family—standing in a field of ripe milo, or grain sorghum. The caption read: They faced the wind and held on.
But Tom Fischer wasn't holding on anymore.
The current drought had turned much of the family's seven thousand acres brown. They'd sold off their herds of cattle. They'd watched the sand pile up along the roads. But drought wasn't the reason Tom and his brothers Dick and Harry (yes, Tom, Dick, and Harry—his grandfather's idea) decided to get out of farming. They quit because the stakes got too high.
Tom is 61 now, a tall man with a shy smile, an erect bearing, and a fondness for George Strait's brand of country music. As he took us on a tour of the old Fischer farm just west of Hooker, he steered his truck off paved roads and across fields following a map etched only in his head. The truck's air-conditioning was on full blast as Miro leaned in to hear Tom and his wife, Patsy, tell stories about growing up in a town of two thousand people. They talked about the time Chuck Berry showed up, seemingly destitute, and played at their homecoming dance. ("Who is this skinny black man?" Patsy recalls thinking at the time.)
The inspiration for the trip came last spring, when I'd finally gotten around to reading John Steinbeck's classic––about the mass exodus of people from America's Great Plains to California during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s––after Miro wrote an essay on the novel for his sophomore English class.
They talked about the time a tornado picked up one of their barns and planted it in another spot. About the farmers they'd seen go bankrupt. About how some people in Hooker won't talk to Patsy anymore because she sold her family's farm.
The stakes got too high because the Fischers started irrigating their land. For decades the Fischers grew wheat with only the rain that fell from the sky. In the Panhandle, that was never much. Even before the drought, just 20 inches of rain fell in a good year. Then, in the 1960s, farmers realized they could grow more wheat—and corn and sorghum—if they dug beneath their parched land and tapped the huge pool of water known as the Ogallala Aquifer.
Tom drove us to the Fischer "home place" and pointed to the tiny white house where he grew up. He said his father and uncles were reluctant to go into debt to grow corn. But Tom and his brothers and cousins convinced them to get in on the irrigation boom. So they borrowed money and dug wells and leased as much land as they could. They worked long days and rarely took a Sunday off. They were part of a movement that transformed the Panhandle. Nearly every field we passed had a jungle gym of irrigation pipes and pumps.
But pretty soon the brothers realized that the new methods of farming were just putting them deeper and deeper in debt. The turning point came when the Fischers's banker asked for a meeting with the brothers in 2000. They were in danger of losing their land. Patsy called it their "come to Jesus" moment: "If you have any reason to believe there's something else you can do, you should do it," Tom recalled the banker saying.
"We're Pumping the Ogallala Dry"
Over the next several years, the brothers moved on to other pursuits. Tom took a job as a bus driver 20 miles north of Hooker in Liberal, Kansas.
Today few family farms survive in the Panhandle. Only the agricultural conglomerates can afford the technology that allows farmers to defy the dry years by pumping water from the Ogallala. It's a lesson straight out of The Grapes of Wrath: As farming becomes mechanized, you either get big or get out.
"My dad always said the day of the small farmers is going to be gone, and it is," Patsy said.
Unprompted, several people in the area told us they worry that "we're pumping the Ogallala dry." It's like a bunch of thirsty drinkers sucking on straws from just one glass of lemonade. But they also pointed out that groundwater is what's allowed farmers to survive during the drought.
"The old-timers who lived here during the 'Dirty Thirties' say if it wasn't for the irrigation we'd be worse off than it was in the Dust Bowl days," Tom said. Thanks to the Ogallala, this drought hasn't prompted an exodus like the one in The Grapes of Wrath. Locals are grateful for that, even as they worry about what draining the aquifer at unsustainable rates could mean for future generations.
The sun was low on the horizon and a hot wind whipped against us as we said our goodbyes to Tom and Patsy. We drove south, through fields of wheat, to spend the night at a Super 8 motel in nearby Guymon. Miro and Teo looked exhausted but happy as we lugged our suitcases across the parking lot and climbed the stairs (no elevator) to our room.
As I sank into bed that night, I realized I'd been disappointed to learn that Tom Fischer, a third-generation wheat grower, had quit farming and never looked back.
It seemed sad that his sons would never be farmers, but he said that was okay with him. After three back surgeries and two knee replacements, Tom said the only thing he missed about farming was the smell of the fresh-tilled dirt. He loved driving a school bus. Plus, now he could spend time with his family. He'd even gotten to go to George Strait's farewell concert in Dallas. And to him, that felt a lot like freedom.
Next: We veer off the interstate to discover iconic remnants of Route 66, the road to California.
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Read the other installments in this series:
Part 2: Rediscovering Route 66, America's 'Mother Road'
Part 3: Drought Impacting California's Migrant Workers