The Bikes of Wrath
This film combined two of my passions: cycling and literature. It is the story of 5 young men from Australia—from the hinterlands—such as one grew up on an egg farm—who fell in love with The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and decided to come to America to ride bikes from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to Bakersfield, CA following the tire treads of the Joad’s old jalopy. On its own the travel documentary is not that interesting as they mostly adhered to Route 66 or the ghost of it, mostly riding beside heavy traffic on divided highways. The beauty of the film lies in the happenstance, the random encounters with folks living Joadlike in the interior of Middle America.
If an American had attempted this film they would have failed. It took an outsider to bridge the huge chasm that now separates most of America, between Republican and Democrat. Ironically, Trump is rarely brought up. The film was made in the summer of 2016 when the campaign was going on. It was a forgone conclusion that Hillary would be elected—I’m not sure the guys would have thought that by the end of their trip. They met enough people who echoed the same sentiment: they have been forgotten—to guess that perhaps Trump might have a chance.
But the film is not about politics, at least not contemporary politics, but about socialism and the fight for the “little” man in Steinbeck-speak. It has been years since I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath and I was surprised how much the snip-its read aloud in the film resonated with today. The huge disconnect between Washington DC and the problems of Middle America, the poor farmer struggling with draught and foreclosure, the heavy burden the rich has loaded onto others. The crazy people with guns loaded scared of the Deep State.
Yes, there is that. But also, empathy for the outsider, the immigrant. Okkies remembering how hard they had it, how they were despised and treated as less than human because they were down on their luck. The boys explored all of this through the lens of their cameras and face-to-face conversations with hosts, store clerks, busking outside a gas station. (Before they sold their trailers and guitars. Sheesh, these guys were green when it came to bike touring.) Using bicycles helped them to put themselves into the shoes and circumstances of the Joads. Their mission was to do the trip in thirty days and using basically the same amount of cash the Joads started with.
At first they experienced big-hearted America, an outpouring of generosity, the ability to embrace the stranger no matter what your beliefs or where you come from. But along the way they encounter a homeless, mentally ill guy trying to “walk to his death,” they run across racists and gun-toting delusionals. They are all harmless and willing to share their stories. It is these realities as well as the fact that they have to pick up the pace if they want to make it to Bakersfield that forces them to suffer—not a lot, but to put more of a Joad perspective on their adventure. They push themselves to ride harder, more miles, eat less, and ultimately to sell off their stuff—except for cameras.
This documentary is part travelogue and part the human experience, the ability to survive despite the odds. They make it to Bakersfield and are interviewed on the radio—and by coincidence a woman hears them and invites them to her house to share with them a letter written by an aunt who experienced the Dust Bowl and journey West as an 11-year old. As a viewer you feel included on an incredible trek back in time to see once again the forces that made this country and what at the same time drive it apart. Hatred and suspicion for the outsider, the ability to welcome the stranger and fire shots over their head. We are a complex story.
The bike parts of The Bikes of Wrath are there also. 1) the over-packing 2) leaving late and arriving in the dark 3) an under-appreciation for how far things are 4) headwinds 5) flats, blow outs, falling ill—and simply falling. I can’t tell you how many times they filmed the guys climbing onto their bikes and then tipping over. Continuing the litany: 6) the hunger 7) exhaustion 8) unpredictable weather. One of the funniest moments from a theater crowd that could possibly relate, was when the boys started out staring into the face of an on-coming thunderstorm and thought they might beat it out. Two miles later they turn around and sail back to the overhang of an old barn. There were many low-mileage days.
You really feel a sense of exultation when they “arrive,” at a sign outside of Bakersfield announcing they are within the city limits. The place looks like crap, but they did it and they have a story to tell.Thier next project: Floatin' with Huck.