The Road of Flight.
16 Sep 1997 23:27:14 -0700
RV Park; McLean, Texas :: 16 SEP 97
Grapes of Wrath
Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66-the long concrete path
across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from the Mississippi
to Bakersfield-over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into
the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible
desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich
66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and
shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership,
and the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that
howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to th eland
and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people
are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from
the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road,
the road of flight.
Clarksville and Ozark and Van Buren and Fort Smith on 64, and
there's an end of Arkansas. And all the roads into Oklahoma City, 66 down
from Tulsa, 270 up from McAlester, 81 from Wichita Falls south, from Enid
north. Edmond, McLoud, Purcell, 66 out of Oklahoma City; El Reno and Clinton,
going west on 66. Hydro, Elk City, and Texola; and there's an end to Oklahoma.
66 across the Panhandle of Texas. Shamrock and McLean, Conway and Amarillo,
the yellow. Wildorado and Vega and Boise, and there's an end to Texas.
Tucumcari and Santa Rosa and into the New Mexican mountains to Albuquerque,
where the road comes down from Santa Fe. Then down the gorged Rio Grande
to Los Lunas and west on 66 to Gallup, and there's the border of New Mexico.
And now the high mountains. Holbrook and Winslow and Flagstaff
in the high mountains of Arizona. Then the great plateau rolling like
a ground swell. Ashfork and Kingman and stone mountains again, where water
must be hauled and sold. Then out of the broken sun-rotted mountains of
Arizona to the Colorado, with green reeds on its banks, and that's the
end of Arizona. There's California just over the river, and a pretty town
to start it. Needles, on the river. But the river is a stranger in this
place. Up from Needles and over a burned range, and there's the desert.
And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and
the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there's
Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the
good mountains, and 66 winds through them. The suddenly a pass, and below
the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses,
and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it's over.
The people in flight streamed out on 66, sometimes a single
car, sometimes a little caravan. All day they rolled slowly along the
road, and at night they stopped near water. In the day ancient leaky radiators
sent up columns of steam, loose connecting rods hammered and pounded.
And the men driving the trucks and the overloaded cars listened apprehensively.
How far between towns? It is a terror between towns. If something breaks-well,
if something breaks we camp right here while Jim walks to town and gets
a part and walks back and-how much food we got?
Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your
ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of
your hand on the gear shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor
boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses; for a
change of tone, a variation of rhythm may mean-a week here? That rattle-that's
tappets. Don't hurt a bit. Tappets can rattle till Jesus comes again without
no harm. But that thudding as the car moves along-can't hear that-just
kind of feel it. Maybe oil isn't gettin' someplace. Maybe a bearing's
startin' to go. Jesus, if it's a bearing, what'll we do? Money's goin'
fast. And why's the son-of-a-bitch heat up so hot today? This ain't no
climb. Le's look. God Almighty, the fan belt's gone! Her, make a belt
outa this little piece a rope. Le's see ho long-there. I'll splice the
ends. Now, taker her slow-slow, till we can get to a town. That rope belt
won't last long.
'F we can on'y get to California where the oranges grow before
this here ol' jug blows up. 'F we on'y can. On'y a four-ply tire. Might
get a hunderd miles more outa her if we don't hit a rock and' blow her.
Which'll we take-a hunderd, maybe, miles, or maybe spoil the tube? Which?
A hunderd miles. Well, that's somepin you got to think about. We got tube
patches. Maybe when she goes she'll only spring a leak. How about makin'
a boot? Might get five hunderd more miles. Le's go on till she blows.
We got to get a tire, but, Jesus, they want a lot for an 'ol
tire. They look a fella over. They know he got to go on. They know he
can't wait. And the price goes up.
Take it or leave it. I ain't in no business for my health. I'm
here a-sellin' tires. I ain't given' 'em away.
I can't help what happens to you. I got to think what happens
How far's the nex' town?
I seen forty-two cars a you fellas go by yesterday. Where you
all come from? Where all of you goin'?
Well, California's a big State.
It ain't that big. The whole United States ain't that big. It
ain't that big. It ain't big enough. There ain't room enough for you an'
me, for your kind an' my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country,
for thieves and honest men. For hunger and fat. Whyn't you go back where
you came from?
This is a free country. Fella can go where he wants.
That's what *you* think! Ever hear of the border patrol on the
California line? Police from Los Angeles-stopped you bastards, turned
you back. Says, if you can't buy no real estate, we don't want you. Says,
got a driver's license? Le's see it. Tore it up. Says you can't come in
without no driver's license.
It's a free country.
Well, try to get some freedom to do. Fella says you're jus'
as free as you got jack to pay for it.
In California they got high wages. I got a han'bill her tells
Baloney! I seen folks comin' back. Somebody's kiddin' you. You
want that tire or don't ya?
Got to take it, but, Jesus, mister, it cuts into our money!
We ain't got much left.
Well, I ain't no charity. Take her along.
Got to, I guess. Let's look her over. Open her up, look 'a the
casing-you son-of-a-bitch, you said the casing was good. She's broke damn
The hell she is. Well-by George! How come I didn' see that?
You did see it, you son-of-a-bitch. You wanta charge us four
bucks for a busted casing. I'd like to take a sock at you.
Now keep your shirt on. I didn' see it, I tell you. Here-tell
ya what I'll do. I'll give ya this one for three-fifty.
You'll take a flying jump at the moon! We'll try to make the
Think we can make it on that tire?
Got to. I'll go on the rim before I'd give that son-of-a-bitch
What do ya think a guy in business is? Like he says, he ain't
in it for his health. That's what business is. What'd you think it was?
Fella's got-See that sign 'longside the road there? Service Club. Luncheon
Tuesday, Colmado Hotel? Welcome, brother. That's a Service Club. Fella
had a story. Went to one of them meetings an' told the story to all them
business men. Says, when I was a kid my ol' man give me a haltered heifer
an' says taker her down an' git her serviced. An' I hear a business man
talkin' about service, I wonder who's gettin' screwed. Fella in business
got to lie an' cheat, but he calls it somepin else. That's what's important.
You go steal that tire an' you're a theif, but he tried to steal your
four dollars for a busted tire. They call that sound business.
Danny in the back seat wants a cup of water.
Have to wait. Got no water here.
Listen-that the rear end?
Sound telegraphs through the frame.
There goes a gasket. Got to go on. Listen to her whistle. Find
a nice place to camp an' I'll jerk the head off. But, God Almighty, the
food's gettin' low, the money's gettin' low. When we can't buy no more
Danny in the back seat wants a cup of water. Little fella's
Listen to that gasket whistle.
Chee-rist! There she went. Blowed tube an' casing all to hell.
Have to fix her. Save that casing to make boots, cut 'em out an' stick
'em inside a weak place.
Cars pulled up beside the road, engine heads off, tires mened.
Cars limping along 66 like wounded things, panting and struggling. Too
hot, loose connections, loose bearings, rattling bodies.
Danny wants a cup of water.
People in flight along 66. And the concrete road shone like
a mirror under the sun, and in the distance the heat made it seem that
there were pools of water in the road.
Danny wants a cup of water.
He'll have to wait, poor little fella. He's hot. Nex' service
station. *Service* station, like the fella says.
Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand
old cars-wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road, abandoned. Well, what
happened to them? What happened to the folks in that car? Did they walk?
Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible
faith come from?
And here's a story you can hardly believe, but it's true, and
it's funny and it's beautiful. There was a family of twelve and they were
forced off the land. They had no car. They built a trailer out of junk
and loaded it with their possessions. They pulled it out to the side of
66 and waited. And pretty soon a sedan picked them up. Five of them rode
in the sedan and seven on the trailer, and a dog on the trailer. They
got to California in two jumps. The man who pulled them fed them. And
that's true. But how can such courage be, and such faith in their own
species? Very few things would teach such faith.
The people in flight from the terror behind-strange things happen
to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired
~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
The preacher said, "She looks tar'd."
"Women's always tar'd," said Tom. "That's just the way women
is, 'cept at meetin's once an' again.
"Yeah, but tar'der'n that. Real tar'd, like she's sick tar'd."
Ma was just [out] through the door, and she heard his words.
Slowly her relaxed face tightened, and the lines disappeared from the
taut muscular face. Her eyes shar- pened and her shoulders straightened.
She glanced about the stripped room. Nothing was left in it except trash.
The mattresses which had been on the floor were gone. The bureaus were
sold. On the floor lay a broken comb, an empty talcum powder can, and
a few dust mice. Ma set her lantern on the floor. She reached behind
one of the boxes that had served as chairs and brought out a stationary
box, old and soiled and cracked at the cor- ners. She sat down and opened
the box. Inside were letters, clippings, photographs, a pair of earrings,
a little gold signet ring, and a watch chain braided of hair and tipped
with gold swivels. She touched the letters with her fingers, touched
them lightly, and she smoothed a newspaper clipping on which there was
an account of Tom's trial. For a long time she held the box, looking
over it, and her fingers disturbed the letters and then lined them up
again. She bit her lower lip, thinking, remembering. And at last she
made up her mind. She picked out the ring, the watch charm, the earrings,
dug under the pile and found one gold cuff link. She took a letter from
an envelope and dropped the trinkets in the envelope. She folded the
envelope over and put it in her dress pocket. Then gently and tenderly
she closed the box and smoothed the top carefully with her fingers.
Her lips parted. And then she stood up, took her lantern, and went back
into the kitchen. She lifted the stove lid and laid the box gently among
the coals. Quickly the heat browned the paper. A flame licked up and
over the box. She replaced the stove lid and instantly the fire sighed
up and breathed over the box.