A “Grapes of Wrath” Moment…

For some bizarre reason, camping at Bennett Spring State Park in Missouri reminded me of something from “Grapes of Wrath.” There isn’t really any logical connection. Bennett Spring is a nice modern comfortable state park, with camping, fishing, and lots of conveniences, certainly nothing like what dustbowl migrants experienced, even with the greatest stretch of the imagination. Still, when I went to the booth to ask for a campsite, I couldn’t help but think of a scene from the book.

Maybe it was because Bennett Spring was so crowded, full of RVs and families, parked one next to the other, almost in neat rows. It recalled the organization in refugee camps. Of course, people camping here have nothing in common with refugees, and most everyone was in a decked out RV with lots of amenities. Campers were enjoying the summer afternoon, fishing along streams stocked with trout from the park’s fisheries–an idyllic scene of happy outdoor enthusiasts at a very popular summer destination. The park adminstration staff were vey nice and helpful, giving us the choice between several sites that were still open. We chose one where we could at least set our tent off into a slightly wooded spot. It was comfortable enough. Nothing to complain about.

We had our shelter for the night and we cooked our meal, but my thoughts kept returning to the scene in the novel where after some frightening experiences in makeshift migrant camps, the Joad family finally gets into a “government” camp. Perhaps it WAS the crowds. Afterall, my preferred camping style is backcountry or primitive tent camping, and the typical campsites we frequent have small groupings of tent sites, nicely spaced. The density of campers here was somewhat shocking. And it seemed like the folks who enjoyed camping in this type of setting were different from the folks we meet at more rustic campsites.

Despite the physical proximity here, people were much less friendly. Not that they were “unfriendly.” But it was almost as if the anonymity of the city was replicated in this beautiful natural setting. We were used to camping in places where people say “hello” when passing, or make some small talk about the location or bear activity or weather, something to acknowledge each other’s presence and the shared interest. Here, more often than not, folks looked away in order to avoid eye contact.

It made me wonder about the effects of crowding and population density on human interaction. Social sceince researchers studying the effects of population density, suggest that when people are confronted with a large number of strangers in everyday life, they tend to withdraw and take less interest in the community. That withdrawal and anomie can even cause aggressive behavior when density passes a certain point. More scenes from “Grapes of Wrath” flashed through my mind.

THE GOVERNMENT CAMP

Published in 1939, John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” drew attention to the hardships faced by the “Okies”: poor farmers who fled the Dust Bowl area headed west in search of work. Between 1935 and 1940 over one million people set out on Route 66 for the “promised land” of California. As the migrants arrived, they congregated in “squatter camps” along the side of roads, on the banks of canals or close to a town where they could obtain water and supplies. Unhealthy living conditions caused soaring mortality rates and many migrants were suffering from malnutrition. To make matters worse, these displaced Americans were ridiculed and shamed by their fellow citizens, as if their hardships was somehow their own fault.

Hard-working community-minded people at the core, the migrants were changed in different ways by the indignities they suffered.

“Weedpatch Camp,” as it is called in the book, was actually based on the Arvin Federal Government Camp in Bakersfield California, which Steinbeck visited while working on his novel. The Farm Security Administration had begun setting up camps for migrant workers because, with a few exceptions, the camps managed by the farmers were not much better than the dangerous “squatter camps.” The government leased land, built sanitary units, showers and laundry facilities, and marked out spaces for tents.

“Weedpatch” was a safe haven, and most importantly it gave the migrants back their self-esteem. It cost $1.00 a week to live there. Entire families went out daily to work in the fields, orchards and the packing sheds when they could find work. Camp residents also governed and policed themselves, and were responsible for keeping the camp clean. It was far from a paradise, but for the families who settled there, it was a vast improvement over the “Squatter” camps and their life on the road.

The government camp gave the Okies back a sense of community. With their dignity restored, they were able to again form the social bonds that helped them overcome their tradgedy and rebuild their lives.


[ For more information: read actual reminiscences from residents of Weedpatch ]


2 Responses to “A “Grapes of Wrath” Moment…”

  1. Garden Weasel says:

    The description of the overcrowded campsites with all the children having fun reminded me of my own childhood. (Except that our “campsite” was a blanket on the beach at Coney Island). You had to get there early and find the place you wanted to camp out on. Whoever got there early would put out the blanket and as the day progressed it would get so crowded all around you had to worry about getting stomped on. And there was always arguments about the kids kicking sand on you and your blanket. It was fun and I know that kids still like to have fun.

  2. Blue Coyote says:

    Sounds like you guys had plenty of fun out there despite the crowds…
    But Coney Island is a beach in a city, so crowding isn’t unusual.

    What was odd for us, was that this state park is in the countryside, and it is actually quite large in acreage. It just seemed that the way the campgrounds are set up, people are packed in… We didn’t have time to explore on foot, but just by driving around we could tell that there was a lot of land area in the park and if folks were a bit more spread out it might have been nicer (though maybe it is SO popular that there really wouldn’t be room that way either?)

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