Sunday, July 24, 2016

Route 66: The Biography of a Road

I would guess that you have all heard of Route 66.  Some may even be old enough to remember the television series by that name from the early 1960’s or the 1969 movie “Easy Rider”.   Others may have bought lunch pails or post cards commemorating the “Mother Road”.


U.S. Highway 66 was born in 1926 when the number was designated by the National Organization of Highway Authorities. It ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, California a total of 2,448 miles via Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.  Its official existence ended when the same group decertified it on June 27, 1985.  I actually remember when that happened and wondering how a road could no longer exist.  Of course, it physically continued and now one can see signs saying “Historic Route 66”.  Today in its place is a six lane Interstate I 25.

The exhibition “Route 66: Radiance, Rust and Revival on the Mother Road”, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the world’s most famous street is on at the Albuquerque Museum through October 2. The presentation is superbly organized by Deb Slaney, Curator of History.  Many thanks to the staff of the Albuquerque museum for allowing me to take photographs and helping with details regarding the show.

I was half way through this blog when quite by accident I found I had approached this subject once before after seeing an exhibition on Route 66 at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles so I will try not to repeat myself.

The exhibition in Albuquerque does concentrate on the road as it comes through New Mexico and particularly its 16 miles of road, the longest single-city urban stretch, through Albuquerque itself.  I must admit I was a bit confused when I learned at the museum that this was not an art exhibition but rather a history exhibition.  Aren’t all art exhibitions essentially history exhibitions but rarely this focused?  In fact this show does not just use text and images but actual objects and works of art.  There is a painting by Jackson Pollock, an Andy Warhol and other known artists as well as a motorcycle (the Guggenheim Museum in New York had an entire exhibition devoted to motorcycles). The Jackson Pollock, “Going West” circa 1934-1935 is clearly before his drip-style paintings.  It was given to the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian by another famous artist, Thomas Hart Benton.


The road trip is a well-known American Pastime similar in its place in society to the Europeans go out for a stroll or long walk.  Americans want to get in their cars and explore.  With the mass production of affordable automobiles more and more people were able to take that road trip.  Route 66 was one of the iconic paths to travel. 

The pick-up in the exhibition was owned by the J. A.  Ziesch Garage in Noack, Texas. It is a 1932 Chevy Roadster with 1935 Texas license plate Courtesy of Jay Hertz.  It reminds me of the 1931 Ford that I first drove at the age of 12 at camp in Vermont.  My only problem was it had to be cranked from the front and I needed help with that!


Along the route were continuous billboards advertising various products or trying to lure one off the road for food or souvenirs.  One of the most famous was the Burma Shave advertisements and a set is displayed in the exhibition.

Image from the Albuquerque Museum
There is also a miniature vignette of a food truck, a phenomenon that seems to be having a resurgence with food trucks all over the country.  This model by Tim Prythero called “Juanita’s Taco Wagon”, 2005, was lent by the New Mexico Museum of Art.


Writing  about Las Vegas I mentioned their Neon Museum with all the old neon signs restored.  Many of the neon signs that were made in Albuquerque have been restored and several are included in this exhibition along with their design drawings.


I hope I don’t get sued for this but here is what I believe is called appropriation.   In the photograph I took of a poster for the 1969 Peter Fonda/ Dennis Hopper film “Easy Rider” is the reflection of the El Vado Motel neon sign installed opposite.  I remember the motels of the 50’s where one would stay on road trips and some still exist today.  To me the motorcycles in the image of the two men traversing the southwest on motorcycle with the motel sign is a perfect representation of what it meant to travel Route 66.


At the end of the 1990’s there was a movement to revitalize Route 66 to show its importance to the history of our Western migration, which was supported by federal and state legislation

In case you think this is all ancient history I found on line.  The National Historic Route 66 Federation.  In their own words it is “The worldwide, non-profit organization dedicated to directing the public's attention to the importance of U.S. Highway Route 66 in America's cultural heritage and acquiring the federal, state and private support necessary to preserve the historic landmarks and revitalize the economies of communities along the entire 2,400-mile stretch of road.”  And this is just one of many such revitalization programs in many states.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the memories, and I cartainly am old enough to remember the TV series. I have a sign like that in the garage next to the Corvette du jour. Not the one I took down what's left of that road in the 90's but still. Wish I could get to Albuquerque! Oh and never mind the pseudonym -- Glenn Geist

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