‘NEEDLES welcomes you to California’, a big sign shows as the Joad Family passes by in their truck. In the 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbecks The Grapes of Wrath, they halt and look at what can be seen of California. “There she is, folks—the land a milk an’ honey—California,” Pa Joad finally says, as the family stares at the city of Needles. The unattractive sight turns their faces blank with dismay. “Well, if that’s what we come out here for…” Connie sullenly says, and they look at each other in disappointment.
In the 1930s, tens of thousands from Oklahoma and other inland states migrated West, to escape the severe drought that became known as the Dust Bowl. Hoping to find farm work in California, they traveled Route 66 that led across the country all the way to the Pacific Ocean. After passing the tough mountains of Arizona and crossing the Colorado River, Needles was their first sight of the Golden State. Expecting to see lush orange groves and green valleys, they stumbled upon desert.
Steinbeck called Route 66 the Mother Road, but also “the path of a people in flight”. Today, it has become a road of leisure. Historic Route 66 still leads you through downtown Needles. And it still offers a deplorable sight. Needles is not a ghost town. Yet. But the view of abandoned gas stations and derelict remains of motels and cabin camps suggests otherwise.
John Ford (director), Nunnally Johnson (screenplay), The Grapes of Wrath, 1940, 20th Century Fox
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939