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There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. (1.2)
Something about this sentence makes us think that Steinbeck is suggesting that those carefree boys coming down for a swim—probably full of their own American Dreams—are going to grow up to be those tired, glum tramps.
"Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place. They come to a ranch an' work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they're poundin' their tail on some other ranch. They ain't got nothing to look ahead to." (1.113)
Whatever the American Dream is, this isn't it: a bunch of lonely, itinerant farmworkers that George describes as being without family or hope. Steinbeck seems to be saying that you can't build a nation on these men—and we're inclined to agree.
"For two bits I'd shove out of here. If we can get jus' a few dollars in the poke we'll shove off and go up the American River and pan gold. We can make maybe a couple of dollars a day there, and we might hit a pocket." (2.166)
What George fantasizes about here is a Grade A American Dream: heading out West to pan for gold, and striking it rich. Too bad that's only ever happened to maybe a handful of people in the entire country. The people who really got rich from the gold rush were the shopkeepers: it's not as romantic, but everyone needs to buy shovels and boots.