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Albuquerque Museum exhibit marks 90th anniversary of fabled Route 66

A ribbon of hope and dreams winds through New Mexico, carrying reinvention and redemption along a Mother Road of neon.

“Route 66: Radiance, Rust and Revival on the Mother Road” opens at the Albuquerque Museum, celebrating 90 years of art, history and pop culture.

Immortalized in songs, film, books and TV, U.S. 66 was established in 1926, crossing eight states and three time zones, its immortality cemented by American car culture. It wound across 380 miles of New Mexico, through Tucumcari, Albuquerque, Gallup and the Navajo reservation. Today it parallels Interstate 40.

“Route 66: Radiance, Rust and Revival on the Mother Road” maps that history at the Albuquerque Museum on Saturday, May 14.

Nat “King” Cole first recorded its soundtrack, “Route 66,” written by Bobby Troup, in 1946.

The seminal road inspired a 1960s TV show and multiple movies, including John Ford’s version of “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), “Easy Rider” (1969), “Thelma and Louise” (1991), “Cars” (2006), “Paris, Texas” (1984) and “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006). (“The Grapes of Wrath,” “Easy Rider” and “Little Miss Sunshine” all filmed in the Land of Enchantment.)

In the 1950s and ’60s, Route 66 embodied an escape from convention and capitalism for Beat authors Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey.

John Steinbeck crowned it “The Mother Road” in “The Grapes of Wrath.” This original American highway was colloquially known as Will Rogers Highway and the Main Street of America.

The 2,448-mile pathway for migrant workers, postwar veterans, tourists, hippies and nostalgia junkies, Route 66 was the first of its kind. It slashed across the country like a passageway to freedom. Its popularity swelled in the 1950s, when tourists packed up their Airstreams and hit the road in search of mom and pop trading posts, tepee motels and reptile farms.

But Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 Federal Highway Act nearly led to its demise. A bigger, newer and faster four-lane Interstate system bypassed its quirky businesses and towns. In 1985, the government decommissioned the road and it officially ceased to exist.

But its spirit lives on. In the past decade, nonprofit groups and the National Park Service have banded together to provide grants to protect and preserve the survivors.

But culture watchers have often overlooked its Albuquerque and New Mexico history.

Central Avenue looking west, 1953. (Courtesy the Albuquerque Museum)

Central Avenue looking west, 1953. (Courtesy the Albuquerque Museum)

Albuquerque boasts 16 miles of the Mother Road, the longest single-city urban stretch of the highway in the U.S., said Albuquerque Museum curator of history Deb Slaney. The city is also the only spot where the highway crosses itself.

In 1926, engineers aligned Route 66 on a north-south axis stretching from Los Lunas to Santa Fe, Slaney said.

By 1936, its orientation shifted to an east-west configuration, thanks to highway politics, its western stretch ending at Gallup and the Navajo Nation.

“It directs all these tourist dollars into Albuquerque,” Slaney said.

The exhibition showcases the road’s signature neon signs and tourist souvenirs such as ceramic rattlesnakes, a copper roadrunner thermometer and vintage highway signs.

Native American jewelry from Maisel’s reveals the road directed regular customers to the jewelry business.

Paintings from famous artists such as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton establish its nationwide impact. Benton’s “The Wreck of the Ole ’97” is a metaphor for industrialization, its dilapidated train collapsing in favor of the automobile, Slaney said.

Pollock’s “Going West” is virtually unrecognizable to art lovers who know only his abstract expressionist “drip” paintings of the 1950s. The artist traveled through Arizona and California with his family as a young boy, Slaney said.

Warhol took a similar journey on the way to an artist reception during the 1960s. The results predict the pop art icon’s signature style.

“He became fascinated by the billboards and advertising,” Slaney said. “He became obsessed by the way the media presented objects like soup cans.”

Woody Guthrie playing his guitar in 1943. (Courtesy the Albuquerque Museum)

Woody Guthrie playing his guitar in 1943. (Courtesy the Albuquerque Museum)

A section on “Road Rebels” features a 1966 Grateful Dead poster.

Known early on as The Warlocks, Jerry Garcia and his band – renamed the Grateful Dead – hitched a ride with the Merry Pranksters on their bus, Furthur, to Los Angeles, at the western terminus of Route 66. The journey introduced them to LA’s flourishing record business, catapulting them to the forefront of the nation’s music industry.

Visitors can view a signed first edition of “The Grapes of Wrath” and the 1957 Martin guitar of that ultimate highway vagabond, Woody Guthrie.

A signed, first edition of “Old Man and the Sea” hails from Ernest Hemingway’s stop in Cubero, N.M., where he reportedly wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning story.

“Route 66 kind of killed itself,” Slaney said. “It was such a popular roadway. It it went through town; it was stop-and-go traffic.”

By the 1960s, the dominance of the Interstate shuttered bypassed small businesses. Many crumbled to the wrecking ball.

El Vado Auto Court Motel neon sign, c. 2013. (Courtesy the City of Albuquerque Planning Department)

El Vado Auto Court Motel neon sign, c. 2013. (Courtesy the City of Albuquerque Planning Department)

But some of Albuquerque’s businesses managed to survive, thanks to organizations like the Route 66 Alliance and the New Mexico Route 66 Association. A renovation of the city’s El Vado Court Motel is scheduled, as is a project to bring back the De Anza Motor Lodge.

People still flock from across the globe for this mobile slice of Americana. Some car enthusiasts even ship their classic Mustangs, Fords and Chevys across oceans to cruise the iconic road with its cycle of struggle, triumph, survival and nostalgia visible in every bend.