Ask a dozen Americans what Route 66 means to them, and it’s logical to expect a dozen different responses. Deeply rooted in American popular culture via music, film, literature and television, Route 66 has come to represent everything from hope to despair to nostalgia among Americans, but this much is clear: The road has far more symbolic meaning than any other highway in the country. A new exhibit, opening in June at the Autry National Center for the American West in Los Angeles, California, will take a closer look at Route 66: The Road and the Romance, in an effort to separate the fact from the mythology.
Born from a need to establish order out of chaos as America’s automobile population grew, Route 66 wound its way from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, passing through an additional six states in the process. Opened in late 1926 as one of the first roads in the U.S. Highway System, Route 66 wasn’t even the first name of the road, which was identified on 1926 Missouri maps as Route 60. Route 62 was also proposed, but in 1927, the road was officially named Route 66, largely because the highway’s primary supporter, Oklahoma businessman Cyrus Avery, believed the number would be both easy to remember and pleasant to hear.
Though the road was completed in late 1926, it took an additional 12 years for its full 2,448 miles to be paved. In the interim years, the road served as a symbol of hope for many fleeing the effects of the Great Depression or, later, the Dust Bowl that rendered 100 million acres of previously fertile farmland unusable. Real or imaginary, Route 66 offered the prospect of a better life, just over the horizon, for those willing and able to traverse its pavement. Later, through the works of John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Bobby Troup and others, Route 66 became a staple of popular culture, beckoning Americans to the open road with the promise of excitement and adventure, complete with clean restrooms, familiar food and plenty of souvenir stands for the kids.
Photo courtesy Autry National Center of the American West.
The beginning of the end of Route 66 came with the signing of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. Inspired by the German Autobahn, President Eisenhower saw the need for an equivalent high-speed highway system in America as a matter of national defense. As more modern interstate highways were completed, Route 66 received far less traffic and, some would say, became far less relevant. By 1985, Route 66 was officially decertified as a U.S. highway, but shortly afterward the drive for preservation of certain segments began. Though it’s no longer possible to drive the road in its entirety, many stretches have been preserved (often as business loops), ensuring that Route 66 will live on in more than just song, literature, movies and television.
Route 66: The Road and the Romance promises to take an in-depth look at the physical road and the meaning behind it, displaying what Autry National Center of the American West curator Jeffrey Richardson describes as “expected” and “unexpected” artifacts to spin the story of America’s Main Street. Expected items on display will include signage, maps, postcards, photographs and petroliana, telling the story of what it was like to travel Route 66 in its heyday. Unexpected items will include things like Woody Guthrie’s Martin guitar, Jack Kerouac’s original manuscript for On The Road (in 120-foot-long scroll form) and Dorothea Lange’s photos of Dust Bowl families migrating west for the chance at starting their lives anew in California. In short, the expected artifacts tell the story of the road, while the unexpected artifacts tell the story of the road’s impact on those who traveled it.
The exhibit is scheduled to open on June 8 and run through January 4, 2015. The Autry National Center of the American West is also soliciting help in funding the exhibit through a crowdsourcing effort, and donors will receive exhibit-themed perks based upon the amount of money contributed. For more information on Route 66: The Road and the Romance, visit The Autry.org; for additional details on contributing to the exhibit, visit IndieGoGo.com.
By: Kurt Ernst