Tom Joad & The Haiku Hobo
By Mike Marino (Writer/Journalist)
The times, they were a changin’ in the purple hazed and double dazed days of the spare change Sixties. Political and social change were waging war on the status quo and old icons were being replaced. Even Route 66 was changing. At one time it was the main vein two-lane connecting the Midwest, where I am originally from, through the desert southwest to California, where I was living in Haight Ashbury at the time.
The old road, once proud, was now being replaced section by section by the new interstates and fast becoming a fading memory reminiscent of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” Being the vagabond that I was I was fortunate to have traveled through the deserts on Route 66 by thumb and by micro bus before the last asphalt curtain call.
Route 66 kicks the doors of perception and imagination of open road freedom into fuel injected high gear. Mainstreet USA has carved out it’s own iconic niche worldwide as the ultimate long and winding road by using it’s machete of nostalgia to cut an asphalt path through eight states including the southwest American desert.
More than just a “road”, It’s in your face roadside culture that wears the intoxicating perfume of nostalgia and automotive history. Phillips 66 gas stations, Harvey House and the Harvey Girls, old diners and cafes, motor courts, roadside and natural attractions, along with enough motels bathed in pastel neons to light up the Vegas strip.
Yes, you do get to travel across the country on the old concrete girl, but also back in time along John Steinbeck’s River of Immigrants, as it meanders through the cactus kingdom of the great southwest. The 2,200 plus mile Mother Road is a mother lode of legend and lore, and the desert states it spans has all the innate beauty, ethereal elegance and maddening mystery of Ingrid Bergman.
Hitching rides on the Mother Road always brought to mind the character of Tom Joad and the days of the Great Depression I had only read about. Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” published in 1939 was a mirror of the daunting times of dustbowlers loosing everything, packing up possessions and heading west to the golden coast of California to rich, lush fields with a cornucopia of crops that needed harvesting. The main character is Tom Joad portrayed by Henry Fonda in the film version released in 1940 who along with the rest of the Joads head west along Route 66 from Oklahoma to the promised land of California for a piece of the American dream and instead dead end on a one way street of prejudice and brutality. Both the book and the film were considered socialist propaganda at the time, however, the book won the Pulitzer and the film won Oscars. Hooray for Hollywood and three cheers for Tom Joad!
In the post-war baby boom Cold War era, the new prosperity brought new life to the old road as America headed west on vacation to places like Disneyland, the Grand Canyon, and the Petrified Forest. That’s when family travel was a family adventure and is best exemplified in parody in National Lampoon’s “Vacation” as Chevy Chase and family make tracks for ‘Wallyworld.” The Sixties burst like a lava lamp on steroids and the post-Kerouac rucksack revolution was literally, on the road. Young people from across the country hitch hiked Route 66 or what remained of it as it was fast being replaced by Eisenhower’s Interstate System, section by section, to California and then up the coast, north, to the psychedelic Disneyland of Haight Ashbury.
I was living at age 15 on the beach in Honolulu and by 16 in 1965 had returned to the mainland living on the Sunset Strip in LA. Eventually I moved north to begin my tie-dyed days in Haight Ashbury from early 1966 until late 1968 and had opportunity to thumb it on the Mother Road heading east to visit family, then west again. Sleeping on the side of the road outside Barstow, California or Winslow, Arizona, I can still see the sky full of stars, hear the sweet howl of a coyote in the distance while sitting by my small cook fire sculpted with available scrub and creosote bushes, then settling in for the night playing an old beat up harmonica I found on the sidewalk in North Beach, It was one of the few possessions I carried with me on my treks and to be honest I wasn’t Paul Butterfield, but the coyotes seemed to howl back at it, and that was all that mattered at the time.
I would hitch hike south from the Bay Area on Highway 99 to Bakersfield, hop onto Highway 58 past Tehachapi and on into Barstow when heading back to the Midwest. The northern mountain route could be Siberian at night at the higher altitudes but the desert route offered cool and crisp nights under the canopy of the heavens but not cold enough to transform you into a hypothermic poster child. Route 66 was still heavily trafficked in those days with automobiles and big rigs high balling it to the tune of Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road” gear jamming it all the way from LA to St. Louis in record time. On one trip I was dropped off in Barstow which is located in California on the western Mojave Desert on the river of the same name.
You had to walk through town to the other side before sticking your thumb out again as the local police viewed long haired hitch hikers with suspicion as Bolsheviks or worse, liberal Democrats. Once outside of town an old beat up pickup truck driven by a Navajo gentleman stopped and took me about 20 miles out of town past Daggett and announced, “Gotta let you off here because I live over there,” pointing up a small two track dirt road that headed up into the hills. Thanked him and got ready to put that practiced thumb to work again. It was getting close to dusk by this time and decided better wait until daylight to begin again. Never know who’ll pick you up at night, and I hadn’t even seen “Deliverance” yet.
Setting sail on foot in the high seas of desert sun and sand was not for the Eddie Bauer chic. A good pair of worn hiking boots, an old flannel shirt, denim pants and a canvas pack does not a fashionista make, but traveling light and sturdy was a holy mantra. A good hiking stick has as many uses as the Swiss army knife while hiking the desert, woodlands or the roads of America. It aids in providing an extra boost while walking up steep inclines and can have the effect of shifting into low gear when traversing downhill to you don’t pull a Jack and Jill and go tumbling down the hill. The desert is alive with wildlife that can be dangerous to your health. Yes, you are trespassing in the home of the rattlesnake and scorpion, so a hiking stick can be used, deftly, to deflect an attack, well, most times anyway. If you are hiking the woodlands you can tie a good piece of string to the end with a safety pin attached along with anything you find to use for bait when you come across a small stream, river, lake or pond and you’re well on your way to having a small bass or feisty bluegill on the fire spit before you know it. The stick can be propped over a campfire to hold the kettle over the flame to boil that bouillon and most importantly, it’s a companion and your best friend when traveling alone.
Water is worth more than gold in the desert so a good canteen or lighter weight bota can be a lifesaver. Finding water in the desert along Route 66 can be miles apart when hiking those long lonely stretches and it’s a search that will test the Indiana Jones in all of us. One technique I learned was to construct a simple solar still using a small sheet of plastic, a mes skit cup or other collector, and with a little patience and good karma, you can extract water. There are many blueprints on line and in the library but basically, you dig a hole in the sand and in the bottom of the hole place your cup or jar. Place the plastic over the top of the hole you just dug making sure the bottom of the plastic in the hole goes directly over the collector opening. Putting a small stone in place will make the plastic peak downwards over the opening. Weight the sides of the plastic down on the outer rim of the hole and wait for the Mother Roads mother nature to take her course calling upon the forces of condensation. I flunked science but in a nutshell condensation will form on the plastic, run down it as it gathers and droplets will then fall into your container. Don’t expect Niagra Falls either as it will take time but you will get enough to keep you alive. If you are hiking in monsoon season in the desert and have a piece of tinfoil you can fashion the foil into a funnel running into your canteen or bota. Yes, basic cistern low tech, but it works.
The landscape bordering Route 66 is a panoramic painting of cactus and succulents including what I call “the peoples plant” or the prolific prickly pear. It has a beautiful bouquet of purplish fruits and it’s familiar ping pong paddle shaped pads combine as a wild source of food and drink. Bear in mind that these plants are not the spineless variety found in the produce section of yuppie supermarkets and the spines can be brutal to extra care and caution are advised to make sure you remove even the minutest ones, or pay the consequences. I shared a campfire one night with another roadhead who was traveling west to my east but shared a campfire that night at our own individual paths juncture. He was a former rodeo clown from Spokane, and he wasn’t clowning around when he told me that he had heard that early Spanish explorers and the Native Americans of the region used to fashion the prickly pear pads into an organic bota. I’ve never seen one nor made one but rumor has it that it can be done. I
If you’ve made one let me know about it. Camp cooking along the side of the road can be a rustic four star affair, depending on your outlook and state of mind. The desert is sparse in wood so at times getting enough kindle can be a problem so to circumvent that I picked up an old collapsible Sterno stove.
Sterno, known as “pink lady” to the bums and winos of skid rows everywhere, is liquid fire in the desert and the trusty little contraption can claim the title of the Mini Cooper of camp cookery. It’s a classic. Another appropriate appliance for arid region cooking is the humble hobo stove. I first encountered one while hiking along the Oregon coast near Seaside. Two other wanderers had me join them for a scrounged seafood and seaweed dinner and amazingly cooked it over an old coffee can. The design is simplicity itself. Take an old metal coffee can, Folgers will do, Maxwell House, it doesn’t matter. With the lid removed punch holes in the bottom of the can, which will now be the top of your cook stove. From the lip of the open end, cut a line through the metal the length of your pinkie finger then 2 and half inches apart, cut another similar line so the metal flap is still attached but will open and close. The reason for the flap is that once a fire is in the can you can control the heat output by closing the flap or opening it all the way for air to stoke the fire to get the water boiling fast. Buckminster Fuller couldn’t have designed a more efficient apparatus.
I made my own stove and it’s use in the desert is particularly welcome. First, it allows for minimal amounts of small wood and tinder, of which there is precious little of to begin with, and secondly, you can put a covering over the bottom end and as you hike along during the day you can gather what wood you need later as you travel and it makes a great carry container for that purpose. Campfire cooking in a can. Besides if camping off the side of the road, which may be illegal in some areas, it helped keep the flame of the fire from being seen from the road by passing police cruisers, as you could get arrested for vagrancy.
Another trick learned was to make sure you always had a ten dollar bill on you, tucked in your shoe for safety. Most laws stated that if you had ten dollars, you weren’t a vagrant and couldn’t be arrested for the high crime and misdemeanor of poverty.
Today I travel the old stretches of Route 66 that still exist today, only now by car. I still camp, but at rustic campsites and on occasion in a concrete wigwam motel. Towns like Tucumcari try to carry on the two lane traditions and there is enough nostalgia to go around to keep the light of the Mother Road alive.
Even when I race along on the interstate portions, I still look off to the side of the road to see who might be camping over there, hidden in the blanket of desert beauty at night. The sky full of stars over their heads and the distant coyote howl to sing them to sleep to the strains of an old harmonica playing Red River Valley. Tomorrow, they would get up and hit the road again. haiku hobos by choice or circumstance. If you’re traveling in the desert and some soul has a thumb out, at least wave as you drive by for encouragement if you don’t care to stop. You never know, it could be the ghost of Tom Joad.
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