Monday, August 31, 2009

Dust Bowl musings

Today, I was thinking about the Dust Bowl. Actually, I probably think more about the Dust Bowl than most Americans, because I’m reminded of it, in a roundabout way, just about every day of the week. As a Route 66 museum and visitors’ center owner, I meet modern-day cross country pilgrims on a daily basis. They are following the migratory route of the Dust Bowlers, but oh, how different from them they are. Today’s travelers say they’re seeking “kicks”, but what, exactly, are kicks?

For one thing, virtually all of today’s visitors have smiles on their faces. Not so with the Dust Bowlers of the ‘30s, whose motivation to move westward on Route 66 stemmed from deep poverty and despair engendered by loss of land and income brought about by climatic factors which had turned their once-fertile land into giant sandboxes and rendered their crops as dead as doornails. The Okies and others who moved west were doing so in order to find fertile earth and thus just enough prosperity to feed and clothe their families. They didn’t have much reason to smile. I doubt they had any concept of “kicks” whatsoever. Modern travelers on Route 66 are searching for something else. They want to get back to their visceral roots. They want to recreate the feeling of true joy that happens when one experiences the freedom of the road. There are very few people around these days who vividly remember the Dust Bowl, but there are still those who remember their own childhood, when travel consisted of a succession of small towns as seen from the back window of a Ford or a Studebaker. Every little town was different from the next then, and some of them held true wonders – a tourist trap where there were real live rattlesnakes to see, a store where one could experience the total ambrosia of a pecan log, a spectacular specimen of neon art. Today’s travelers just know that the old Route 66 is out there somewhere, and more and more are becoming determined to find it. Although the end of their road does not include newfound prosperity, it does contain a heaping helping of enlightenment.

The folks I meet and greet every day are a very mixed bag -- old and young, traveling solo or traveling in people-packed minivans, city slickers and ranchers, Americans and foreigners from (thus far to date) 23 countries around the world. The thread that connects them all is that they are filled with the joy of discovering something brand new or the satisfaction of rediscovering the old. While the Dust Bowlers got their kicks at the end of the road when they could finally return to a feeling of security for their families, today’s travelers are getting their kicks all along the way.

The Dust Bowl families sang:

If the day looks kinder gloomy
An’ the chances kinder slim;
If the situation’s puzzlin’,
An’ the prospect awful grim,
An ’perplexities keep pressin’
Til all hope is nearly gone
Just bristle up and grit your teeth,
An’ just keep going on.

Today’s travelers sing:

Travel my way,
Take the highway that’s the best,
Get your kicks on Route 66!

Every day, I feel greatly privileged to meet and greet these people, and perhaps, with luck, add a few kicks to their journeys.


Beth said...

I don't know if I've mentioned a good book about this to you: American Exodus by James N. Gregory. An excellent read about what led to the migration, what the migrants encountered on the way to California and found when they got there, and how they eventually incorporated themselves into the "mainstream."

Good entry! Hugs, Beth

Anonymous said...

I just read the book The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan.It was a great book. I wanted to see what the Dust bowl looked like today and ran across this blog. being in NJ where our bowl is filled with many things but not dust, the whole concept is fascinating to me.

Laurel said...

I agree, Anonymous. Having moved to Oklahoma from the NYC area, I also developed an interest in Dust Bowl subjects once I got here. It was a fascinating, and sad, time in our history.