Museum curator Richardson says he will try to contextualize historic highway in presentation

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FARMINGTON — When it comes to most of the presentations he delivers as part of his "Curator's Choice Lecture Series: The American West in Fact and Fiction" at the Farmington Museum, Museum Curator Jeffrey Richardson is the unquestioned authority on that day's subject.

That status has enabled him to provide comprehensive presentations on subjects ranging from how firearms shaped the West to the impact of TV Westerns on American culture.

And Richardson certainly is well versed in the history and significance of his latest subject, "Route 66 and the American Dream," which he will talk about this weekend at the Museum at Gateway Park. But he knows that when it comes to personal experience with the famed Mother Road, there probably will be a great many people in the audience who have him at a disadvantage.

"I have to confess that I've driven only a very small part of it," Richardson said. "And I understand that you have to take two weeks to drive it if you really want to experience it."

The curator knows his limited first-hand experience with Route 66 likely will pale in comparison to folks who have accumulated a lifetime of stories related to the highway.

"I think it's going to be a fun lecture, and a very, very interesting one," he said. "There are always people who want to share their story (about Route 66), and they will certainly be able to do so."

Richardson will try to provide his audience members with a perspective on the highway they may not already have.

"It's not going to be a travelogue. I'm not going to take people on a journey from Chicago to Los Angeles," he said. "I'm going to try to contextualize Route 66 so people can understand its significance in the past, present and future."

Unlike any other roadway in American history, Route 66, established in 1926, has attracted and held the public's imagination, Richardson said, despite the fact that it was decommissioned as a federal highway in 1985 and now exists only in noncontiguous portions.

"It really does harken back … to nostalgia," he said, explaining how the road — which ran approximately 2,500 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, passing through eight states along the way — offered a cross-section view of the country, especially with its mix of urban and rural experiences.

"It really does, in so many different ways, bring you into the heart of America," he said. "The reason for Route 66's creation is why it's still resonating with people today."

The fact that so many Americans have first-hand experience with Route 66 hasn't stopped it from becoming heavily romanticized, Richardson noted.

"We were presented Route 66 in a fictionalized setting," he said, referring first to author John Steinbeck's seminal novel "The Grapes of Wrath," which chronicled the escape of a poor Oklahoma family from the Dust Bowl to California during the Great Depression, a migration completed by hundreds of thousands of people in that era. The book was adapted by director John Ford in 1940 for a film starring Henry Fonda, and Richardson said the latter took a lot of liberties with the realities of life on Route 66 that Steinbeck's novel — which popularized the phrase Mother Road — didn't.

"The book is a lot more truthful than the movie," he said, explaining that many Americans were introduced to the highway through the film, a phenomenon that would continue through such pop-culture fixtures as the "Route 66" television series in the 1960s and the popular animated film "Cars" in 2006, as well as the song "Route 66" by Bobby Troup that has been recorded by everyone from Nat "King" Cole, Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones to John Mayer, Asleep at the Wheel and Depeche Mode.

Many of those depictions of the Mother Road smoothed off its rough edges, Richardson said, focusing on its glamour and failing to acknowledge the pockets of poverty that existed along many of its stops or the outright racism of its dozens of "sundown towns." Richardson noted the irony of Cole crooning about the charms of the Mother Road during a time when, as an African-American, he would have found a distinctly chilly reception awaiting him in many of its communities.

Nevertheless, those films, TV shows, songs and books elevated Route 66 to a celebrated status that no American highway has achieved before or since.

"These were very powerful voices in our understanding of it, but not necessarily a complete story of what Route 66 is all about," Richardson said.

Richardson became intrigued with the highway while he served on the staff of the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles and was charged with organizing a large exhibition on Route 66. He said he spent months scouring the country for Route 66 artifacts, during which time he came to appreciate the complexity of the highway's history and the deep affection many Americans still hold for it.

Richardson wound up meeting dozens of collectors of Route 66 memorabilia and was surprised to realize how few of them lived anywhere close to the Mother Road. In fact, Richardson said the largest collection he came across belonged to a man in upstate New York.

"You can learn so much from so many different people," he said, noting his travels have brought him into contact not only with collectors but with scholars and writers such as Michael Wallis, whose 1990 book "Route 66: The Mother Road" is widely credited with reigniting popular interest in its subject.

As popular as Route 66 is with Americans, particularly those of an older demographic, it holds a surprising appeal for many Europeans, as well, many of whom travel to the United States specifically to travel along what remains of the historic highway.

"Route 66 is emblematic of America in the 20th century," Richardson said, explaining why the road tugs at the imagination of so many people. "It's their vision of America, or what they expected America to be."

During one of his few experiences on the highway, Richardson recounted coming across a group of German bicyclists who were traversing a portion of it. He had only a brief exchange with them, but their obvious enthusiasm for the trip made a big impression on him.

"That's what drives people from around the world to continue to drive the highway," he said.

Richardson said there is significant difference even among the eight states that Route 66 runs through — Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California — in terms of how the highway is regarded these days. Residents of some of those states have done very little to embrace the roadway or preserve what remains of it, while others — New Mexico included — have made significant efforts to capitalize on their association with it and market themselves accordingly.

Richardson himself has plans to experience Route 66 as fully as possible someday, taking his time and stopping at the variety of coffee shops, diners, motor courts and barber shops that still dot the highway.

"About 90 percent of it is still drivable," he said. "To embark on that journey is something I took forward to."

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: "Route 66 and the American Dream," part of the "Curator's Choice Lecture Series: The American West in Fact and Fiction"

When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4

Where: The Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St.

Admission: Free

For more information: Call 505-599-1174 or visit fmtn.org/FarmingtonMuseum

 

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