Riding the Joad Road
by Jim Foreman
"The ancient overloaded
Hudson creaked and grunted to the highway at Sallisaw and turned west, and the
sun was blinding.... From Sallisaw to Gore is twenty-one miles; from Gore to
Warner thirteen miles; Warner to Checotah fourteen miles; Checotah a long jump
to Henryetta--thirty-four miles, but a real town at the end of it." So wrote
John Steinbeck in 'The Grapes of Wrath' as he described the fictional Joad family
as they set out on their arduous journey from eastern Oklahoma to California.
When Steinbeck's book was published in 1939, it was acclaimed by literary scholars but damned by the people of Oklahoma. Perhaps the apple of truth fell too close to the tree of reality. Sixty years later, I'm in the same town, pulling onto the same highway and setting out on the same route westward. While they were driving an old Hudson loaded with all their worldly belongings, I was riding a lightly loaded touring bike.
Oklahoma has a number of
historic highways which were all but abandoned with the building of the Interstate
Highway systems. Route 66 being the best known of all historic highways, stretches
405 miles from the Texas Panhandle to where it nips through Kansas on its way
to Chicago. Being a fan of the writings of John Steinbeck, I decided that I
would ride a lesser-known route, the Joad Road, which runs for some 200 miles
from the Arkansas border to the back steps of the Capitol Building where it
joins Route 66. It was originally known as Oklahoma Highway 1, but has since
been numbered and renumbered until it has all but lost its identity. It is now
one of the nearly forgotten routes across the state, shown only as a thin blue
line on most maps.
When I-40 was built across Oklahoma, it bypassed old Highway 1 by several miles, leaving the small towns along it to twist slowly in the wind. They now cling to life as time capsules where the only thing that ever seems to change is the style of the cars that occasionally wander through them. It's now an ideal bicycle touring route. Perched on a hill under a grove of oak trees, at just the right distance west of Sallisaw for a rest stop sits the Cherokee Tribal Court House. Inside its cheerless log walls, tribal members attempt to settle their differences in a forum separate from state or federal laws. Some do, but in most cases they seem to fail. A visit to this historic site can give one a fresh viewpoint of the Cherokee Nation. It's also a good place to fill your water bottles with fresh well water.
I rode into Vian where the only two places of business along main street that appeared to still be open were a lady selling handmade quilts and three girls selling Sno-Cones in the driveway of a closed service station. They had three flavors: red, yellow and blue.
"A quilt like this sells for $300 in stores in town, but I only ask a hundred," said the lady has she held a corner of the quilt for me to feel its thickness and warmth. "I done every stitch in it by hand, don't even own a sewing machine."
"It's beautiful," I said, "but I have no way to carry it."
"Ever hear of the post office?" she shouted as I rode away. "We still got one of them here, you know."
I bought a red Sno-Cone from the giggling girls but it was so sickly sweet I couldn't eat it, so they filled my water bottles with shaved ice and water. I crossed the Arkansas River on the new bridge with the old one standing beside it like a rusting skeleton.
As my day of riding was almost at an end I came to Dewar where the main street was filled with vehicles and people. I worked my way past a police car, a fire truck, several people on horseback and a convertible with three girls riding on top of the rear seat. Just as I reached a dozen or so kids riding bicycles with 20" wheels with crepe paper laced in the spokes, the band at the front started playing and the column began to creep forward. A banner hung across the street, I was caught up in the Dewar Dawg Daze parade. As I rolled to a stop in front of the reviewing stand which was a flatbed trailer festooned with paper and balloons, a guy shoved a microphone in my face and said, "And here we have a man riding a bicycle. Where are you from, Sir?"
The cord from his microphone trailed across the ground to a white van with a sign proclaiming, 'The Big Z. The Voice of Henryetta, home of Troy Aikman.' A man wearing headphones was sitting inside, adjusting knobs on a black box.
"I'm from Oklahoma City," I replied.
"Hear that folks, this man came all the way here from Oklahoma City to ride his bicycle in the Dewar Dawg Daze Parade."
"Well, actually, I just rode in from Sallisaw," I foolishly replied.
"Hey there, all you folks out there in radio land, did you hear that? This man just rode all the way here from Sallisaw on a bicycle."
I doubt that anyone other than the guy turning the knobs, the announcer and some guy standing next to him wearing a cap advertising seed corn and picking his teeth with a kitchen match heard the scintillating conversation.
At that instant, a truck loaded with FFA hogs had a tire let go right in front of us with an ear-splitting bang and a cloud of dust. The mayor and a several others tumbled off the back of the reviewing stand.
As the radio announcer was explaining that what the audience had heard was a tire and not an explosion, I made my way out of Dewar. A hot shower and a swimming pool was waiting at a motel only four miles away.
The next morning, I pedaled past the row of ticky-tack chrome and glass places shoving Egg-McSomethings in styrofoam boxes through drive-up windows. I was looking for a real country restaurant like William Least Heat Moon describes in 'Blue Highways'; it had to have at least three calendars on the walls. At the west edge of town, I found it nestled between a place boasting its junk as antiques and a service station marked by a wooden sign that simply said, 'EATS'. The screen door with a small bell announced my arrival as it banged shut behind me. This had to be the place; not only three calendars but two sticky fly strips hanging from the ceiling and a sign over the register that read, THE BANK DOESN'T SELL HAMBURGERS AND WE DON'T GIVE CREDIT.
Half a dozen Bartles and Jaymes look-alikes cuddling coffee cups in calloused hands clustered around two tables shoved together at the back. Six heads wearing caps advertising farm machinery turned to watch as I made my way to a red plastic covered stool at the counter and laid my helmet on one next to me. Without asking, the waitress with a 1960s hairdo and well into her oestrogen replacement years slid a steaming cup of coffee in front of me and said, as she poised a stub of a pencil over her order book, "Better order your eggs scrambled, Honey. The cook's drunk."
"Henryetta to Okemah nineteen miles..." and nothing but hills. Only two gears needed, the highest or the lowest. The Joad's old Hudson surely boiled grinding up each of them. Finally three water towers began to grow above the trees. Major wars dated when each was built. The smallest around WW-I, the middle one WW-II and the final one which looks like a golf ball on top of a tee denotes the Viet Nam war. Strangely enough, it's the one bearing the fact that Okemah was the birthplace of Woody Guthrie. His famous song, "This Land Is My Land" was the theme song of Viet Nam War protesters across the nation. A small sign indicating a museum dedicated to Guthrie stands in front of a building just off main street. It was closed. The epitaph, "Comminist Draft Doger" is spray painted across the sign in red.
I climbed the hill out of town; six miles to Castle, eleven to Paden and seven more to Prague. I came to a shack beside the road. Bolts sticking out of a concrete slab where the pump once stood were bent over and a stick driven into the pipe. One end of the porch hung down like a drooping eyelid. I leaned my bike against the peeling yellow paint smeared on in a futile attempt to fool travellers into thinking it pumped the same quality gas as the big company stations.
I could almost hear the ghostly voice of the owner who had tried to scratch out a living selling stale candy bars and drip gas for a dime a gallon. "Well, I don't know what the country's comin' to. I jus' don't know. Here's me tryin' to get along, too. Think any of them big new cars stop here? No, sir! They go to them yella-painted company stations in town. They don't stop no place like this."
The cracked windows were coated with years of dirt and the door hung open on a single hinge. The place was littered with empty oil cans, broken bottles and a bucket with the bottom rusted out. A smashed candy case lay on the floor and the door of an old refrigerator hung open, beckoning some child to crawl inside and hide for the rest of their life. I closed the door and turned it against the wall.
I rolled into Prague, settled by immigrants and named after the home from which they fled to escape political turmoil and the ravages of war. A gilded shrine to Saint Stanislov, the patron who led them to Oklahoma, stands on the lawn in front of the Catholic Church at the south edge of town. The town is also famous for the Kolache, a fruit filled sweet roll, served as everything from dessert to breakfast. A five unit motel at the south edge of town would be my home for the night. The room reeked of stale cigarette smoke and the lumpy bed smelled of beer, sweat and vomit. Reminded me of jail. At least the shower was hot and I could watch three snowy channels on the black and white TV, the quality no doubt improved by the aluminum foil on the rabbit ears antenna.
"Prague to Meeker is thirteen miles; Meeker to Harrah is fourteen miles; and then Oklahoma City--the big city." At Harrah the highway spread to four lanes and the traffic became heavier. Pawn shops, service stations and hamburger stands lined the sides of the road. A stop light hung in the middle of the highway, the first I'd seen since Sallisaw. I rode to the steps of the capitol building; my trip through the past had come to an end. The Joad family went on to California. I rode home.
The blue highways of Oklahoma can carry you back through time to when life was less hectic, less stressful and less demanding. A bicycle tour along Oklahoma's forgotten highways can be an experience never to be forgotten. In an automobile you touch the pavement but on a bicycle, you touch the people.
© Jim Foreman