In 1934, as America was suffering from the worst economic depression in the country’s history, an unimaginably destructive drought overtook the prairie states, centered particularly in Oklahoma, the Sooner State, whose motto is labor omnia vincit–work conquers all things. All things, apparently, but drought. As the dried-out soil turned to dust, apocalyptic clouds of the stuff would collect, literally choking whole towns, clogging the air with black debris. Traces of these clouds could be found as far away as the nation’s capital. Weather reports at the time read more like biblical passages. According to one report from June 1936 in the Monthly Weather Review, based in Colorado: “The storm…blotted out the sun as it moved southward. Sand drifts were piled up that stopped trains and automobiles, grounded airplanes, and enveloped regions little affected by previous storms.”
The dust spurred migration as whole families embarked on a mass exodus across this quasi-desert. Millions of families left their homes, dispersing across the country, many of them heading west, to California, with the promise of fertile soil and work. John Steinbeck, of course, documented this movement with the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, where Pa Joad, heartbroken at leaving his home, finds hope in a yellow handbill advertising potential fortune in the sunny Golden State. Woody Guthrie, the drought’s poet laureate, recounted the reality that faced these travelers:
Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin’ home every day,
Beatin’ the hot old dusty way to the California line.
‘Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin’ out of that old dust bowl,
They think they’re goin’ to a sugar bowl, but here’s what they find
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
“You’re number fourteen thousand for today.”
Yes, what awaited the weary pilgrim was nothing more than the sad truth that life itself is cruel, and second chances a myth. Leaving the barren wasteland that the middle of the country had become led only to devastation of a different sort. Jobs in California were scarce, and the wages for the ones that did exist were so low, the work might as well have been pro bono. There is no promised land, no greener pasture, and worst of all, no meaning to their absence. The world is pointless chaos, then silence—a short period of trouble followed by a much longer lapse in consciousness.
I hope things go better for you in California, Jeff!