Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The ghost of Tom Joad

During the Dust Bowl years of the 1930’s, 200,000 impoverished farmers, primarily from Texas and Oklahoma, migrated west to California for a chance at a better life. Although that’s a large number of people, it’s only a small percentage of the 2,500,000 that moved out of the Plains states between 1930 and 1940.

One of those impoverished farmers was a fictional man named Tom Joad, who was portrayed in the movie, The Grapes of Wrath, by Henry Fonda. Fortunately for Tom, America had opened a new highway in 1926 that made his journey west a lot easier. The road was officially called Route 66, but for many people (even today) it is best known as “the Mother Road”.

If you’re not familiar with the movie, you can get a sense of the desperation and despair that the Joad family experienced by listening to the ghost of Tom Joad, which was recorded by Bruce Springsteen.

The road started at the corner of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, and ended in Santa Monica, California. In total, it ran 2448 miles initially (it was down to 2278 miles by 1947), and its existence created thousands of new businesses along the way. The massive construction of the Interstate system in the mid 1960’s became the death knell for a lot of those businesses, since travel along I-40, and a few other roads, has made the trip west a lot quicker and more convenient. If you’ve seen the movie Cars, you’ll recall that a town called Radiator Springs was especially hard hit, but it has had a recent resurgence due to Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios.

Although nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be, you’ll be happy to know that the original Route 66 still exists, and can be driven on today. Just off I-40 in New Mexico, there are six different segments of the original Route 66 that are easily accessible from the Interstate.

Arguably, the town that pays the best homage to the Mother Road is my new home town, Flagstaff, Arizona. Route 66 still runs through the heart of downtown Flagstaff, and a fair number of the businesses that prospered during the heyday of Route 66 are still in business today. Since its decommissioning in 1985, the road is, by and large, simply a memory. In recognition of those old memories, it seems fitting that at least seven locations in Flagstaff (including the train station and the library) are considered to be haunted sites.

Most of us first became aware of Route 66 due to the adventures of a couple of guys named Tod and Buz , who traveled the road in a new Corvette.

The series ran from 1960 to 1964, and a LOT of people (including the Rolling Stones) have done updates to Nat King Cole’s original version of the song about the road. The liveliest version of the song is the one
that you can hear by clicking on the hyperlink in this sentence, but ALL of the versions are fun to listen to.

When Tom Joad packed up his family in his old Ford and moved west, he didn’t have any guarantees of a better life, nor did he have any guarantees of gainful employment. To a very large degree, Tom and I are kindred spirits, since my wife and I (and our daughter) moved to town without having any solid employment prospects. Unlike Tom, though, my wife and I DO have at least some guaranteed income each month, and we’re all working on some opportunities to supplement our base income.

When you embark on any new adventure, it’s inevitable that things don’t always go according to plan. We had a few anxious moments before we left the Chicago area, and we also had a few moments of hyperventilation once we got to Flagstaff. With the help of friends and family, we managed to get by the rough spots, and are now settling into our new community.

Apart from the sheer beauty of Flagstaff (we’re immediately adjacent to Coconino National Forest, and we’re surrounded by the San Francisco Peaks) the biggest change that we’ve noticed so far is an overwhelming sense of quiet and tranquility. All three of us endured an awful lot of noise on a daily basis in Chicago, so the change in location has already put all of us in a better frame of mind.

I also discovered, just yesterday, that riding my bicycle up and down the hills out here (elevation 7000 feet) is a whole lot different than riding the flat landscape of Chicago. Since 1968, Flagstaff has been host for elite endurance training. In 1994, Northern Arizona University opened its Center for High Altitude Training. Although it recently closed due to budget constraints, 16 of the medal winners at the 2008 Beijing Olympics did at least part of their training for the games in Flagstaff.

I lived most of my life in America’s Midwest. Although there are a lot of things that we all enjoyed about the states that we lived in, the best advice that I could give to a modern day Tom Joan is this:

“go west, young man, go west”.

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