Charlie Turnbull first read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath around five years before the cycling trip. The novel tells the story of America’s Depression-era Dust Bowl, when migrants from the Oklahoma region travelled west to California in search of work, enduring harsh conditions, discrimination, and poverty in their perilous journeys. Turnbull, an Australian resident, was struck by the book. Though the story focuses on American social issues, it has a worldwide appeal; Steinbeck is known for his examinations of general human nature. Four of Turnbull’s friends, similarly enthused, would later agree to embark with him on a 2600 kilometer journey by bicycle to retrace the route taken by the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath.
The idea began as just a cycling trip, albeit a unique one. The group had little cycling experience, and would replicate the conditions of the Joads by starting with very little money and being entirely self-sufficient, relying on their own talents and the aid of others. They would have no support trailer, and would carry their gear themselves. The project expanded when the group decided to bring filming gear, and create a documentary about their journey: The Bikes of Wrath.
The film was directed by Turnbull and Cameron Ford, another member on the trip. The party also included Leon Morton, Red Chauki, and Oliver Chiswell. Originally, the group had planned to busk for money during their journey. This was later abandoned during the trip, when the instruments became too difficult to transport by bicycle. They began their journey with their equipment and $420, roughly equivalent to what the Joads possessed. Starting in Sallisaw, OK, the group set forth to Bakersfield, CA.
At the beginning of the film, the group of five clearly does not know what they are getting into. Are we being naive, they ask? Their responses are revealing: “I’m kind of just hoping I’ll get fit when I get there,” “I’ve never ridden that long before”—in fact, one of them admits to never having surpassed 20 km. “Yep,” concludes Turnbull. They are being naive.
The first night after they embark, the group camps on the property of a local man they do not know. They are noticeably agitated. “We’re just going out to the back of this guy’s property to camp. And we just met them,” says Chiswell, who appears especially concerned. Watching the group adjust to the uncertainty of their journey is one of the great pleasures of the watching the film. What they at first saw as suspicious soon becomes incredible hospitality from the people they meet along the route. And what’s more, each person offers a look into the lives of rural Americans. The group receives help from farmers, small business-owners, vacationers, and many others. The people they meet ultimately constitute the bulk of their journey, and their examination of American culture.
Many of those that help the group along their way are themselves economically disadvantaged. The film quotes Steinbeck: “If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.” But what of the other side of poverty, what of those who have nothing to give? The group of Australians do not come face to face with this side of America until later in the film, when they meet a man walking along the side of the highway.
The man introduced himself as Joe, a homeless and ostracized schizophrenic, who had been walking along the road for three days, expecting death. “Say 100,000 people were right there just talking trash about you, gathered around you to say we don’t want you here, we don’t need you here, we don’t like your kind here. I can’t deal with it no more. So I started on this death march. I knew what I was doing when I took no water, no food,” Joe told the Australians, who later called him an ambulance.
The interaction with Joe brings the film somewhat back to reality, reminding the viewer (and the cyclists) of the cruelty of American life, and suggesting that much of the hospitality the Australians received along their trip would not be available to everyone. Meeting Joe marks somewhat of a turning point in the film, and though the tone of it remains light with beautiful shots and acoustic guitar, the documentary takes moments to reflect on the American problems the group witnesses.
Their interview with a helpful but problematic land-owner, who resents immigration and the Federal government, is contrasted sharply with the views of a farmer who calls for national unity and openness, or with a generous father who tells them his own idea of American identity: “It’s all [about] being together and working together for the common good of man.”
At one point, while resting outside a convenience store, a local approaches the group and lightly mocks them for voluntarily living the way they are. “Y’all got careers… I do this ‘cause I got to,” he says.
And on the second to last day of the trip, Morton recognized the conditions faced by many Americans in the Dust Bowl and today by fasting for 24 hours. “I want to put myself in those shoes and see what it feels like,” says Morton. “It’s not particularly fun.”
Watching the group’s journey unfold, the people they meet and the America they see, one wonders at the significance of their achievement; did they investigate what they meant to investigate, find what they came to find? They certainly discovered a greater understanding of the Dust Bowl migrants, experiencing the heat, the hunger, and the long road to Bakersfield.
They gained a perspective on today’s America as well, an America remarkably similar. The historical trauma of the 1930s is still evident in the lives of those they meet today, and the same disparities still exist. Filmed the summer of 2015, Trump is only mentioned once, and appears on the group’s TV in their hotel room before they embark. “Do you think the Republicans will get into the…?” Asks Chiswell. “No, I think Hillary will,” is the reply. “Hillary will win for sure.” A Steinbeck quote follows: “He needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ‘cause he feels awful poor inside himself.”
Perhaps the greatest significance can be found in that similarity between the old America and the new, the then and now. And thus the question: has Steinbeckian America fundamentally changed? The answer is still uncertain.
“It’s easy for us because we’re riding to Bakersfield and when we get to Bakersfield we get to go back to our normal lives with money and comfortable beds and that sort of stuff. These people that were doing this migrating, they would get to Bakersfield with no money and they had to keep living,” says Morton after breaking his day-long fast. It is the last day of their journey, and the group of five has seen many parts of today’s America: the united, the alone, the full, the starving. Their thoughts go back to the Dust Bowl migrants of so long ago, to that other America. Says Morton, “I can’t imagine what it would have felt like.”