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Traveling Light: 1936

Traveling Light: 1936

August 1936. "Example of self-resettlement in California. Oklahoma farm family on highway between Blythe and Indio. Forced by the drought of 1936 to abandon their farm, they set out with their children to drive to California. Picking cotton in Arizona for a day or two at a time gave them enough for food and gas to continue. On this day they were within a day's travel of their destination, Bakersfield. Their car had broken down en route and was abandoned." Medium-format negative by Dorothea Lange for the Resettlement Administration. View full size.


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It's a hard early fall afternoon for this family

The caption says they're between Indio and Blythe. This is roughly the route of current I10, which I seem to vaguely remember is the route of old US 60. About the only place between them is Desert Center (Amboy is 60 or 70 miles north on the route of old US 66).

We know it's fall because they've been picking cotton in AZ, and about the earliest cotton harvesting starts anywhere in the US is mid-to-late September. More likely it's mid October or later.

Note that the sun is to our left rear. As the sun is always south of us, especially so late in the year, we must be facing roughly north. Since the sun's also to our left and quite low, it must be late afternoon. All of which means Ms Lange posed the shot on the wrong side of the road for going to Bakersfield, probably because of the light. I did consider the possibility that the negative was reversed, but I don't think so because I *think* I can just make out a wedding band on the lady's hand when I blow the picture up a lot.


I doubt it, Amboy isn't really between Indio and Blythe, too far North.

I'm not sure what Highway ran West to East through Indio back then but I think it was Highway 99 (replaced the 10) but I could be wrong about that too.


My parents would have been the same ages of this couple...and not much better off. I ache for them... my guess is that the boy was out-growing shoes regularly.

(Might this be in Amboy, CA looking toward Blythe?)

re:Being Barefoot

We adults may wince at seeing the little boy standing barefoot in the gravel, but I remember well going barefoot most of the summer as a kid in the 1960s, by choice, not necessity. By July, our feet were pretty tough. We didn't think twice about standing on hot pavement or gravel.

This is not to take away from the poignancy of the photo or the desperate situation this family was in, just an observation about little boys and bare feet.

Being barefoot

was often the case for children in the Depression era. My mother has her first-grade class picture from 1936. It's only a guess, but that young boy looks to be about 6 years old and would have been a first-grader in that same year - if he ever was able to go to school. In mom's picture many of the boys were dressed in over-alls but were barefoot. Mom said that they most likely had a pair of shoes back home; they would not wear them in warm weather, however, so as to make them last. Then they would be able, perhaps, to hand then down to a younger sibling when the outgrew them.
But if this boy had a pair or shoes or not we will never know.


I know that little boy is now probably living comfortably somewhere as a great-grandfather but he still brings tears to my eyes. Such a sweet trusting little face.

I'm guessing the photographer gave them a lift after taking the picture.

This picture should be shown to every high school History class with the words,"So, you think YOU'RE deprived because you didn't get the latest iPhone....?"


I don't care if it is 1929, 1936 or 2012, if you are at the side of the road, with a wife and two kids and all your possessions in a suitcase and paper bag, your terrified!!! You question every decision you have made about moving west, not to mention life itself. This is the most tragic photo Shorpy has published.

Depression-era children

Davidk, you are absolutely right.

My parents grew up during the depression. Mom was born in 1934, and her siblings spread from 1926, to 1942.

My uncle Billy once told me how hungry he always remembers being when he was a young lad. When he was 9, he said he had really bad sores on his tongue because all he had to eat for a week were walnuts off of the neighbors tree.

After the shoe factory in Mexico, MO closed down, my grandfather lost his job, but was fortunate enough to find work on a nearby farm.

His pay? $6 a month, and a 4 room house (he and grandma had 5 kids at that time) with electricity.

Webmaster Dave, this sure is one powerful picture. I can really feel the desperation, as well as the determination of these folks.

Imagine the coping skills one would have to muster up every day just to keep from breaking down.

View this

Another "View this photo" if you think you had a bad day.
Really puts some things into perspective.

And War came 5 years later

Dorothea Lange was a brilliant photographer. They look like a young couple, perhaps in the mid to late 20's. For America, WWII began in December 1941. Odds are this young man was among the 10 million inducted into the U.S. military. If so did his wife and children stay in California or go back to family in Oklahoma? We can only hope he made it home.

Wow, this one is haunting!

I love the look of this photo, the Father in profile, his face unseen but his expression clearly one of fear and apprehension.

Their long shadows, cast in front of them like their uncertain future.

This looks like an early morning shot, before it got too hot, Indio and points East are hell in the Summer, 115 is not uncommon.

This was California in its prime, before the hordes of people and cars, when it could still be called Paradise (Not Indio perhaps), I wish I could visit this place, but not under their circumstances.

I'm sure they did okay, some kind person or persons surely gave them a ride.

Powerful photo

I can only hope this family made it safely to their destination and that life turned out alright for them!! What hopelessness they must have felt.


I am fortunate to have lunch frequently with two guys at work who are also regular Shorpy followers, and we always return in conversation to the topic of the difficulties of the past seen from the perspective of the present. While we would never dare to minimize the sufferings of the poor in past decades or centuries, we can't help feeling that it's wrong or somehow ill-conceived to expect that the folks back then would have experienced things as we would today. If our privileged children were forced suddenly to become newsies, for instance, or even to work in the mines like Shorpy himself, they would no doubt collapse in grief and terror. But did those kids back then manage to endure their own lives? Yes. And did they hate their lives? No. Everything is so very relative. And we today are so very cushioned and spoiled.

Stranded with children

I love the fact that you post so many pictures that remind us of some of the struggles our ancestors faced, and how nice we have things, now. Being a mother, I can imagine what a fearful experience it would be to have little ones and not know where your next meal would come from, or where you would find a safe place to lay them down to sleep. I sure hope they got where they were going and that they were able to find work and a reasonably comfortable place to live. Next to the side of the road, a tent with a water faucet and outhouse nearby would have seemed like a nice place!

Tough Times

By itself the photograph is not much, but add the description and it is very powerful.

Present difficulties pale in comparison.

Hope everything turned out all right for them.

Looking at that little barefoot boy with his cap is touching.

Hard Times

That is one of the more tragic photos from the Great Depression that I have seen. It is in many ways emblematic of a dreadful time for so many people. I wonder what became of them.

August in Indio

Temperatures must have been in the triple digits, with the wind blowing like crazy! And that poor little boy standing on the gravel in bare feet--I hope to God someone gave them some water and a ride.

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