What Happened Next

NOTE: Six months ago, I was invited by the National Steinbeck Center to participate in an epic roadtrip across the United States, retracing the journey of the Joads, a fictional migrant farming family featured in John Steinbeck's powerful story of economic and environmental ruin, "The Grapes of Wrath." This is one of the posts that I wrote and published on the Grapes of Wrath 75 blog as part of that incredible artistic project. I am now in the process of creating artwork in response to the journey, and will post some updates about my creative work.


We were looking for things as we made our way westward. Things amidst the wind that had significance or struck us as beautiful, found by accident, or through any manner of incidents along the ditch, the prairie, the sun blotted cliff.It took some adjustments at first because we were hesitant, but by the time the state border into Arizona had been crossed, our Journey team had truly merged into a single seeing, listening, and feeling unit. Through the tremendous compassion and intelligence of my companions, I watched as the fine grain of the human condition sprang into focus before our very eyes.

Flagstaff, geographically the highest point of elevation through the entire Route 66, was a story of contrasts: we were in high elevation, newly fallen snow caped the surrounding volcanic mountains, and with each inhale, our lungs ached with the cold.

Nestled in a forest of Ponderosa Pine trees and alligator junipers lies the Pioneer Museum and Coconino Center for the Arts, which was where I recorded the stories of three extraordinary medical professionals from the community, whose life experiences shaped their attitudes towards compassion, hunger, and our own inevitable deaths. It was a sobering, yet freeing moment for me to encounter these people at this particular juncture in the Journey, where we also conducted our first artist workshop (lead by P.J.) that incorporated all eleven members of the Steinbeck staff, the artists, and the film crew with Flagstaff residents, and came away with each other’s histories and artistic abilities even more deeply etched into our hearts.

The RV, mini-van and our companions in the Penguin truck crept past ancient cliffs the color of cinnamon and rust, where amidst the century plants, the Joshua trees and ocotillo, lay a dusting of bright yellow desert wildflowers.

From Kingman to Oatman (where we waded through a small sea of burros roaming wild on the streets) we sought and found, knowing that California was just over the last jagged crest of mountains.

It was hard to resist stopping at high above at Sitgraves Pass, where we finally got our first glimpse of California’s central valley unfurling before us, its irrigated orchards and fields, green with promise and read aloud from the novel, word for word. Would you believe that I could actually feel us all relax, one tremendous sigh, as we descended from the twisted mountains into that familiar light and air, greeted by the long-sloped shoulders of the autumn hills and great valley oaks?

What does home mean to you? I had never realized how intimate that palette of the central valley was to me, where the sunlight was indeed golden and the sky a washed out hazy blue. We hitched up off the 66 onto Highway 99, a visual inversion that made me smile, into Bakersfield. How fitting it was that due to our arrival in mid-October, with the stone fruit and grapes harvest finished, the migrants have moved on to the next town— some returning to the California Mexico border, some to other towns to wait until word spreads of more work.

We had made it to the end of the book, actually living out an astonishing exploration of the novel chapter by chapter, and in the process aligning real life and people to Steinbeck’s words. We were in the middle of it all, as the road opened before us and every single day things were forgotten, blown, and yearned for. Every day we fell in love with some strange new person in a different town.

Night, night, night until the following morning.