Originally published June 10, 2014 at The Los Angeles Beat
“If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way,
Take the highway that’s the best
Get your kicks on Route 66
It winds from Chicago to LA
More than two thousand miles all the way,
Get your kicks on Route 66…” -written by Bobby Troup, 1946
First created in 1926 and soon coming to symbolize adventure and freedom, the 2,448-mile stretch of Route 66 became a romantic cornerstone of the American dream that lives on in our collective hearts to this day. It is the stuff of hopes, of escape, of wanting to be anywhere, anywhere other than where we are at this moment… a lust for forward movement and expansion. Traversing through eight states and winding up in the dreamland of sunny California, it finally dead ends in Santa Monica near the churning blue waters of the Pacific.
Since it is both mythic and historical and so connected with being the throbbing vein, the main artery that once brought the population west, it is only fitting that The Autry Museum would present an exhibit honoring this road of hard truth and folklore. On view from June 8th to January 5, 2015 the Autry exhibits Route 66: The Road and Romance, a collection of over 250 items of memorabilia and artifacts connected to this highway of dreams. It documents the history of the road, from the hardscrabble Okies fleeing the depression era dust bowl searching for an easier life in California, to the Route’s eventual hip status in pop culture and road trip coolness.
“… the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.” -John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Here you will see the original 1938 pencil-written manuscript for Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, one of Woody Guthrie’s well-strummed guitars, travel souvenirs from along the highway, road signs, kitschy ephemera and the amazing 1951 original manuscript for Jack Keroac’s On the Road. This last piece is worth the price of admission alone, vividly expressing Keroac’s amphetamine fueled road fever. It is typed, single spaced, on 8 long rolls of tracing paper that the author fed through his typewriter over the three weeks he took writing the book. Taped together afterward, it makes up a magnificent single roll over 120 feet long.
The demise of Route 66 was, not surprisingly, linked to progress… Bigger, better, faster. The construction of interstate bypasses had a huge impact on tourism along the old highway. The last stretch of crumbling Route 66 was finally bypassed in 1984. Although it is still possible to drive the full route, it had become somewhat of a ghost highway. Luckily the strong pull of romance and nostalgia that got travelers interested in the first place has kept younger generations fascinated. In 1999 the federal government passed legislation to preserve Route 66, making it now as popular a tourist destination as it ever was.
Given that, it is with even more of a sense of vibrancy that this worthwhile Autry exhibit is finally realized. Make sure you see it and maybe it will inspire you to take a little road trip of your own. But whatever you do “don’t forget Winona. Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino…”
The Autry Museum: 4700 Western Heritage Way; Los Angeles, CA 90027.