Route 66 (or Election ’12): The Road to Hope, Dreams and Desperation

February 3rd, 2012 § 0 comments

I wanted to be back on the road, reconnect with the countryside and carry on with exploring the Southwest with the kids. I consider Las Vegas as an unenlightening interlude on our roadtrip. But, heck, it was something different and short-lived. Like a one-night stand, you can say.  On that same vein, we steered toward the border of Californication. Ya know what I mean. That’s what happens when you’ve been slumming it for 24 hours. And that sure was a great album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (I’ve got to pull out the CD again…or download it on iTunes. It’s been way too long.) I still remember parts of that cover song:

“Destruction leads to a very rough road

But it also breeds creation

And earthquakes are to a girl’s guitar

They’re just another good vibration

And tidal waves couldn’t save the world

From Californication…”

We blew in and out of California, touching into the Mohave Desert to catapult us onto a well-traveled path. Route 66 was taking us for a ride. What images does that evoke? For me, it contains tail-finned markers of cruising across America on a road that connected one Main Street America to another. In my mind, I travel past diners, motels, mom-and-pop general stores with soda fountains where teenagers hang out after school. Between long stretches of road, there are drive-ins and car washes and gas stations with old-fashioned pumps and friendly attendants with a big cloths tucked in their back pockets, ready to hand-wipe your windshield and chrome bumper. I think of Dr. Feelgood’s over-the-top rendition of Route 66.

In fact, this historic thoroughfare represents the best and worst of times in American history. Following World War II, thousands took to the road in their quest for upward mobility and left the industrial East for good jobs in the suburban ideal of southern California. In essence, moving from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. That was a huge shift from the Great Depression, when farm families displaced from the Dust Bowl made their way west along Route 66 to California, following what John Steinbeck called “the mother road”:

“66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land 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.” (Grapes of Wrath, pg. 108) 

February 1936. Oklahoma sharecropper and family entering California. Stalled on the desert near Indio, California.


November 1936. Young family, penniless, hitchhiking in California. The father, 24, and the mother, 17, came from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Their baby was born in the Imperial Valley, California, where they worked as field laborers.

As I looked through the Library of Congress’s photo archive of images taken by Dorothea Lange documenting the travelers of Route 66 and other routes leading west during the Great Depression, faces begin to emerge from the travels through the barren terrain that linked one sparse city with another. Men, women, families walked on foot through these endless stretches in need of survival, or loaded all their possessions into one car, as they moved westward in desperation.

February 1936. Oklahoma dust bowl refugees. San Fernando, California.

Their faces show the same look of exhaustion, emptiness, almost an acquiescence to whatever fate has to give them. At the same time, they were persevering and adapting. What else could you do if you have children? Or no options? What I came across is a window into a life that is no different than squatter camps that I encountered in the Philippines, in what is called Smokey Mountain, a large garbage dump where tens of thousands of people scavenge for their livelihood. It’s estimated that 30,000 people live near the site, making their living from picking through the rubbish. Or in the border areas of northern Thailand and southern Bangladesh, where women are compelled to sell sex for a few dollars to support their households, putting themselves at risk for HIV/AIDS or community banishment. Or in Jakarta where street children are hired by syndicates to beg at intersections and forced to turn in their money only to be given barely enough to eat.

Humans are forced into such harsh conditions, and somehow that survival instinct kicks in. They battle to live. Yet there are so many people with an overabundance of everything, and the thought of spreading the wealth to a greater number of people so that no one has to live like this has not been realized. What’s up with that? It’s a pretty simple concept. Yet the simplest of things are the most difficult to see. This isn’t an issue of religion, or pushing one’s morality upon another’s, or drumming up support for a politician or political viewpoint. It’s about humanity at its simplest form. It’s an individual’s right to dignity, and we have the obligation to make sure others have that very basic dignity. Look at any one of these faces, whether it be the migrants of the Dust Bowl, or the scavengers of Smokey Mountain, or the child beggars of Jakarta or the Burmese sex workers of northern Thailand. They could be one of us, and we’re more connected than ever before, with borders blurred in this shrinking community we call the world.

Although all the images that have appeared so far in my blog have been photographs by my husband, John, who has kindly allowed me to showcase some of his incredible work, the images in this segment were entirely taken by Dorothea Lange. Many of these people traveled on the same road that I found myself on now, and even now I could sense a feeling of emptiness, but full of past content. So much has happened along this route.  I thought I would take a moment to reflect on those who traveled westward out of survival. Because any of these people could have been me and you.

1935. Dispossessed Arkansas farmers. Bakersfield, California. 


February 1936. Migrant family looking for work in the pea fields. California.


February or March 1936. Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Florence Thompson, 32, is shown with four of her seven hungry children in a tent shelter. Nipomo, California.

What’s my point with all of this? Let’s take a step back and realize that, bottom line, the extreme wealthy don’t need so much wealth. Sure, it’s nice to live in luxury, to have it good and enjoy life to its fullest. And those who have that probably worked damn hard to get to it. Or at least their predecessors did. Or someone in their family. Or they got lucky in the stock market. Or lottery. WHATEVER. But there’s got to be a better way to have this wealth distributed so that those people who have such a hard time surviving, who cannot feed or clothe or shelter their children, can have some reprieve. Does anyone deserve to be in that situation? If they do, then they should most likely be in jail, and life in jail probably is a helluva lot better than in the streets.

It’s election time. Oh boy. I wouldn’t say we have entered the age of enlightenment in this phase of American politics.  Most of what we see and hear so far is how one candidates is messing up, or how one is tripping up another, or how a candidate is trying to put out his own fires that started  burning long before he entered the campaign trail. Or whatever nominal items that detract from what the purpose of government: to protect the people and catch them when they’re falling. We should be focused on finding someone who is not defending the rights of an individual to hoard as much money and be protected, but who is defending humanity and the rights of people who are caught before they hit rock bottom. What sort of legacy, what sort of example do you want to leave for your children? For the next generations? That they want to watch their own ass, or that they want to help others? I’ve said my piece. I’m hopping back on the trail again and looking for signs of hope and purpose. We’ve come so far.

February 1936. Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children (same subject as previous photo.)


All photographs by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.

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