Al skillfully guides the Joads’ truck along Route 66, listening carefully to the engine for any trouble that might cause a breakdown. He asks Ma if she fears that California will not live up to their expectations, and she wisely says that she cannot account for what might be; she can only account for what is. They stop at a service station, where Al argues with an attendant who insinuates that the family has no money to pay for gas. The attendant laments that most of his customers have nothing and often stop to beg for the fuel. He explains that all the fancy new cars stop at the yellow-painted company stations in town. Although the man has attempted to paint his pumps yellow in imitation of the fancier stations, the underlying decrepitude of the place shows through. While the family drinks water and rests, their dog is hit by a car, and Rose of Sharon becomes frightened, worrying that witnessing something so gruesome will harm her baby. The attendant agrees to bury the dog, and the Joads continue on their way. They pass through Oklahoma City, a larger city than the family has ever seen. The sights and sounds of the place embarrass and frighten Ruthie and Winfield, while Rose of Sharon and Connie burst into giggles at the fashions they see worn for the first time. At the end of a day’s travel, the family camps along the roadside and meets Ivy Wilson and his wife, Sairy, whose car has broken down. Grampa is sick, and the Wilsons offer him their tent for a rest, but before long the old man suffers a stroke and dies. The Joads improvise a funeral and bury their grandfather, despite the fact that it is against the law. Later, they convince the Wilsons that both groups would benefit from traveling together to California, and the Wilsons agree.
The last clear definite function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—this is man.
People who live in the West do not understand what has happened in Oklahoma and the Midwest. What began as a thin trickle of migrant farmers has become a flood. Families camp next to the road, and every ditch has become a settlement. Amid the deluge of poor farmers, the citizens of the western states are frightened and on edge. They fear that the dislocated farmers will come together; that the weak, when united, will become strong—strong enough, perhaps, to stage a revolt.
A waitress named Mae and a cook named Al work at a coffee shop on Route 66. Mae watches the many cars pass by, hoping that truckers will stop, for they leave the biggest tips. One day, two truckers with whom Mae is friendly drop in for a piece of pie. They discuss the westward migration, and Mae reports that the farmers are rumored to be thieves. Just then, a tattered man and his two boys enter, asking if they can buy a loaf of bread for a dime. Mae brushes them off. She reminds the man that she is not running a grocery store, and that even if she did sell him a loaf of bread she would have to charge fifteen cents. From behind the counter, Al growls at Mae to give the man some bread, and she finally softens. Then she notices the two boys looking longingly at some nickel candy, and she sells their father two pieces for a penny. The truckers, witnessing this scene, leave Mae an extra-large tip.
As the Joads set out for California, the second phase of the novel begins: their dramatic journey west. Almost immediately, the Joads are exposed to the very hardships that Steinbeck describes in the alternating expository chapters that chronicle the great migration as a whole; the account of the family provides a close-up on the larger picture. Thus, in Chapter 13, at the gas station, the family encounters the hostility and suspicion described in Chapters 12, 14, and 15. The attendant unfairly pegs the Joads as vagrants and seems sure that they have come to beg gas from him. As Al’s reaction makes clear, this accusation comes as a great insult to self-reliant people with a strong sense of dignity. The apologetic attendant confides in the Joads that his livelihood has been endangered by the fancy corporate service stations. He fears that he, like the poor tenant farmers, will soon be forced to find another way to make his living. Steinbeck is far from subtle in identifying capitalism and corporate interests as a source of great human tragedy, a form of “ritualized thievery.” Corporate gas companies have preyed upon the attendant; the attendant, in turn, insults the Joads and is initially loath to offer them help. The system in force here works according to a vicious cycle, a cycle that perpetuates greed as a method of sheer survival.
These rather bleak observations cast a pall over the Joads’ journey and point to even darker clouds on the horizon. Soon after arriving at the gas station, the Joads’ dog is struck by a car. The dog’s gruesome death stands as a symbol of the difficulties that await the family—difficulties that begin as soon as the family camps for the night. Before the family has been gone a full day, Grampa suffers a stroke and dies. Because Grampa was, at one point, the most enthusiastic proponent of the trip, dreaming of the day he would arrive in California and crush fat bunches of vine-ripened grapes in his mouth, his death foreshadows the harsh realities that await the family in the so-called Promised Land. With Grampa, something of the family’s hope dies too.
Still, even in this forlorn world, opportunities to display kindness, virtue, and generosity exist. In this section, the narrator’s statement from the end of Chapter 12 is validated: there will be instances both of bitter cruelty and life-affirming beauty. The story of Mae, in its simplistic illustration of morality and virtue, functions almost like a parable, and considerably lightens the tone of these chapters. The lesson Mae learns is a simple one: compassion and generosity are rewarded in the world. Thus, although greed may be self-perpetuating, as the earlier chapters insist, so is kindness. The entrance of the Wilsons into the story also introduces a hopeful tone: by cooperating and looking after their communal interests, the families find a strength that they lack on their own.