There was a time when to many Americans, California seemed like an exotic place, as foreign and exciting as any land on earth. It was a land of sunshine, clear skies, and purple mountains, of salty surf crashing on pristine unpopulated beaches, of elegant vaqueros riding swift ponies across the ranchlands of the great old Spanish land grants. In the southern part of the state, curious deserts sprouted fascinating palm trees, and even lush palm springs like magical oases from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. "Health, rest, and beautiful surroundings!" one old brochure promised travelers, singing of the road to Los Angeles as "a modern Arabia ... a winter wonderland without the winter. The mind pictures it lovingly; the spiritual ear can hear the crisp rattle of the palm leaves in the breeze. And the actual physical viewing is rest and balm to the tired body after the long trek over the desert. To lie at night and watch the moonshine shimmer up and down the leaf blades of the lordly palm trees is like a dream come true."

The Golden State was America's dreamland, and not because the movie colony was there. Hollywood's motion picture business was at most a minor curiosity for the carloads of optimistic families who headed West during the Depression. For those in search of tomorrow, California appeared to be a land of opportunity where, if nothing else, at least there would be salubrious weather and elbow room—relief from the stinking, crowded cities of the East or the barren Dust Bowl of the Plains. It was the fertility of the land, not the glitter of bright lights, that attracted them. In California, even the deserts blossomed with rainbows of wildflowers and trees heavy with sweet dates!

It was in the 1930s that Route 66 became known as the Mother Road, on which thousands of families who had left their old lives behind took flight with the dream of finding open space to live and clean air to breathe and good work that didn't kill your soul. For many wiped out by hard times, it was a desperate journey—their only hope. The Slye family wasn't that bad off. They had a home back in Ohio, and they had jobs. But they wanted more. Andy Slye was a man who had always wanted more, and when his daughter's letters told him of the wonders of the West, he was ready to make the trip. The Slyes headed West just to visit and look around, they told themselves, but like so many who felt the promise of California when it was young, its charms proved irresistible. For young Leonard, whose greatest travel experience had been a week in a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, and all the elevator rides he could stand, the long journey along Route 66 to the land of milk and honey was as thrilling as a trip to Shangrila.

Dale Evans's California dreaming had been of movies: of her girlhood hero, Tom Mix. But by the time she was a teenager, silver-screen cowboys had been relegated to a childhood memory. For this ambitious girl, the West was not an exotic location, it was home; and her fantasies were of the sophisticated East, of Broadway's bright lights and a world far from West Texas dust and California sunshine.

For most Americans, the idea of heading West was an exciting one, and not only because of the Great Depression. The very idea of leaving old ways behind and following the sun has enthralled this nation since it began. That's what the frontier is all about—starting fresh, in a new land, free of all restrictions and the burdens of the past. It's the greatest American dream: to shuck your old life and find a new one, just over the horizon. 

Leonard Slye of Duck Run, Ohio, and Frances Smith of Uvalde, Texas, thought they were headed in opposite directions, but they were both on their way to California to reinvent themselves.

—Jane & Michael Stern