On the road with the Joads, we can almost taste the gravy and hard biscuits

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Kelbaker Road en route to Kelso, California
Kelbaker Road en route to Kelso, California. Photograph: Ken Lund on Flickr, via Creative Commons

In John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, forced off their farm by the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, head west to the promised land of California. Impoverished and immiserated, three generations of them pile on top of a chimerical vehicle they’ve welded together out of a wrecked truck bed and a jalopy. Unsurprisingly, in a novel that concerns itself with the material realities of life, Steinbeck places appropriate emphasis on the cooking and sharing of food –his account begins with an al-fresco meal: a jack rabbit served up to Tom Joad, the eldest son, shortly after he arrives back at the farmstead having been in jail, to discover the land desiccated and the family gone.

Meagre meals

Throughout The Grapes of Wrath there are precise descriptions of meagre meals: gravy and hard biscuits, bread baked with scratchings of cornflour and a long riff centring on the behaviour and attitudes of a couple working at a roadside lunch counter, who all day long deal with the endless caravan of penniless refugees. Steinbeck interspersed his tale with these interludes, which examine the consciousness of people variously located in the economic order: car salesmen, bankers, cops and other officials. He does this unashamedly and didactically, as a way of educating his readers regarding the human consequences of a downswing in the cycle of laissez-faire capitalism. The book was a cause célèbre when it was published in 1939 and Steinbeck was accused of being every shade of a red, from puce liberal to incarnadined commie.

Eighty years after the events the novel depicts we found ourselves driving through the American south-west: a couple of well-padded leftists ensconced in their hired Hyundai, together with a brace of want-for-nothing kids; and, by way of echoing Steinbeck’s didacticism – albeit in a minor key – we downloaded the Grapes audio book so we could play it as we bucketed along through California, across Nevada and a corner of Utah, before looping back towards Los Angeles across the Mojave Desert.

Then a strange thing happened: in the continuously present fictional inscape of Steinbeck’s novel, the Joads were trundling across the California state line and along Highway 40. Meanwhile the Selfs were headed out of Las Vegas south-west along Highway 15; all things being supernaturally equal, the two families would coincide at Barstow. To give this weirdness a swerve, I took a left on to the Kelbaker Road and headed across the undulating plain studded with Dr Seuss Joshua trees towards Kelso.

In his paean to the south-west, Scenes in America Deserta, the architectural critic Reyner Banham wrote: “in 1980 no historical or other explanation can make the station at Kelso look any less improbable than it does at first sighting – the grove, the lawns, the brick paving, the Hispanic building bearing, in fine ‘Railway Ionic’ lettering, the blunt name of a rainswept township in the Scottish border country”. It was 32 years later and 108 degrees in the shade when we pulled into the parking lot at Kelso and switched off the Joads, and yes the immaculate station building with its arched colonnade looked just as improbable. There were still freight cars halted on the tracks, still the green shock of palm fronds and the viridian of well-watered lawns, but once inside it became clear that the station was no longer the same at all.

Taco swell

“The lunchroom and any other facilities,” Banham had written, “exist only to serve the Union Pacific. It’s an oasis of civilisation and style in the middle of nothing, but it’s someone else’s private oasis – not ours.” Banham had felt the presence of Taco Bell wrappers in the Kelso Station rubbish bins surpassing strange. But that was then; now, we wouldn’t be surprised if a Mars probe beamed back images of Taco Bell wrappers crumpled on its canal sides.

Then the station was theirs – now it was ours, and by ours I mean us tourists who descend on a landscape once fertile with possible meanings and reduce it to a fine dust of digitised certainties. The cream-painted and darkwood- floored rooms that once housed a telegraph office, luggage depot and dormitories now housed replicas of these. It was all beautifully done. A plump, pink couple with two plump, pink children came in and sat at the counter at right angles to us. We ordered hotdogs, garden salads, coffees and cokes – so did they, employing the same resolutely English accents. Steinbeck, I felt certain, would’ve had something to say about this: we hadn’t avoided the Joads at all – they were out there in the noonday swelter, skulking from window to window, pressing their emaciated faces to the panes and looking in on this unreality.