Route 66: Ghost Road Of Okies

PrintPrintEmailEmail

People who have been turned out of their homes make keen historians. Forced from the land of their ancestors and onto the open road without a destination, they have a way of remembering—often to the minute of the day—the trauma of departure. Etched indelibly in their memories are the details: a frenetic packing; a final, hurried look around an abandoned house; a wistful, wishful fondling of familiar possessions that couldn’t be taken with them; then, if they were lucky and had wheels instead of just shoe leather and shoulders beneath their possessions, there was the wrenching moment of the last, silent, no-looks-back drive out to the nearest highway.

Five hundred thousand such refugees fled the Great Plains and rural South in the dust and depression years of the 1930’s. Funneled down the farm roads of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Texas, New Mexico, and Arkansas, many of them could only say that their destination was “West.” They knew, or so it seemed in the choking dust, with the hungry eyes of undernourished children watching them, that things just couldn’t be worse than they already were on the failing farms. All they knew of home—the earth itself—was being slowly destroyed by what seemed to be a monstrous conspiracy between the malevolent forces of nature and the bewildering economics of depression.

The worst of it—the Dust Bowl itself—lay in parts of five states: Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. It included ninety counties of these five states: ninety-seven million acres, of which thirty-two million were under cultivation. Whole families and old clans who had settled the land in these places, often before statehood, were pushed from their homesteads as though they were just nuisance hillocks in a field that had never known any more horsepower than one mule. When they piled and strapped their things on the old patched-together flivvers, all that they had was the hope they knew as California—that, and sometimes enough money to buy the gas to get them there. They were “Okies,” “Arkies,” and “Texies” (in time all would be lumped together in California under the name “Okies”) and the highway they traveled West was U.S. Route 66, the road of desperation described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath as “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 there 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.”

The route, if not the “mother road” itself, had a respectable history even before it witnessed the flight of the Okies. Parts of its northern leg from Chicago to the mouth of the Missouri River followed the 1673 portage route of Père Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in their exploration of the upper Mississippi River. That portion that crossed Missouri in a southwesterly direction to Fort Smith, Arkansas, went along the route of the ancient Osage Indian trail—and also paralleled the line of the first telegraph to penetrate the southwest territories, giving it for a long time the name of the “Wire Road.” In 1849, during the height of the Gold Rush to California, Captain Randolph B. Marcy and Lieutenant James H. Simpson were ordered to “make, and report, a reconnaissance” of a route from Fort Smith to Santa Fe, New Mexico, “in direct reference to the future location of a national road.…” The Marcy-Simpson expedition proceeded southwest across the Indian territories of Oklahoma, through the panhandle of Texas, crossed the Pecos River at Anton Chico, and rolled into Santa Fe on June 28, 1849.

It was another eight years before the remaining section of the route was officially marked and laid out by the government. In 1857, Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale was authorized to survey a wagon route along the 35th parallel from Fort Defiance, some 180 miles southwest of Santa Fe, to the Colorado River and California. Beale’s expedition was distinguished from the Marcy-Simpson expedition chiefly by his use of more than seventy Bactrian and dromedary camels imported from Egypt and Arabia in an experiment dear to the heart of Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War. By the time the expedition reached the Colorado in the late summer of 1857, Beale’s admiration of the beasts knew no bounds: “The harder the test they are put to, the more fully they seem to justify all that can be said of them.… I look forward to the day when every mail route across the continent will be conducted … with this economical and noble brute.” He also declared that the route now completely marked and mapped would “inevitably become the great emigrant road to California.”

Beale overestimated the permanence of the camels, but was closer to the mark in his second declaration. Over the next fifty years, the wagon road from Fort Smith to California would be one of the best traveled of all the overland routes. It was only to be expected, then, that when the automobile began to nose its way into the West, this venerable, well-marked road would play yet another role in the history of overland travel.