Will Rogers Memorial Celebration

National Convention & Will Rogers Memorial Celebration, 1940 (printed circa 2010). (Courtesy of Steve Rider Collection / April 23, 2014)

John Steinbeck called it "the mother road," the same stretch of highway the novelist sent his long-suffering Joad family hurtling west in "The Grapes of Wrath." Jack Kerouac knew the same strip of asphalt just as intimately, once writing that "the road is life," urging a credo of "Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don't be sorry."

Route 66 could leave that kind of mark on travelers. The road went in two directions between Chicago and Los Angeles, but its legacy remains its role in opening up the west to 20th-century America. It's a story of society and culture told through a collection of 250 artifacts in the exhibition "Route 66: The Road and the Romance," now at the Autry National Center of the American West through Jan. 4, 2015.

"Route 66 took on a life of its own," says Jeffrey Richardson, a curator at the Autry who traveled across the country to gather items both famous and obscure, aiming to find a balance of social history, pop culture and high art. "It's not just a simple highway."

There are no museums dedicated to Interstate 5 or the 118. Route 66 has several, with generations of devotees and obsessive collectors striving to preserve its history decades after its role as the main artery stretching from the Midwest to the West Coast was overtaken by the interstate highway system. There was a popular TV series in the '60s and a song called "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66", first recorded by the Nat King Cole Trio in 1946: "If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way / take the highway that is best / Get your kicks on Route 66."

Among the exhibit's most precious artifacts is the original manuscript of "On the Road," which Kerouac typed as a single 120-foot-long paragraph on a scroll of tracing paper, on display in Los Angeles for the first time. There is also a section dedicated to "The Grapes of Wrath," including an oversized page from Steinbeck's original manuscript, just a sampling of the 200,000 words he wrote by hand.

Nearby are photographs by Horace Bristol, who accompanied Steinbeck on his first trip to the migrant work camps, and whose photographs captured the faces that would later inspire characters in the novel. On display is one of Bristol's cameras, a 1930s Rolliflex, and John Ford's Academy Award statuette for best director in the film adaptation of the novel.

There is also film footage of the devastating Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s, turning farmland dry and useless, as families fled west. Elsewhere is "Boomtown," a vivid 1928 painting from Thomas Hart Benton, as oil rigs tower above a small town populated by men in cowboy hats. Right beside it at the Autry stands tall a 1927 Texaco gas pump and a pristine four-cylinder engine from a Model T Ford.

"This is a topic that could easily get away from you," says Richardson. "It could be too nostalgic and at the same time too critical. It took us a few years of developing it before we felt we had a narrative that made sense."

At the gallery entrance is a huge blowup of a vintage postcard that shows a dirt road winding through a hilly, rural landscape, as three Model Ts roll along "Federal Highway 66" in Rolla, Mo. There is also a gleaming white 1960 Corvette parked beneath an old neon sign reading Western Motel — No Vacancy" from Venice, Calif.

In matching glass cases are two acoustic guitars that once belonged to travelin' folk icon Woody Guthrie and singing cowboy Roy Rogers. The two singers couldn't be more different in style and temperament, but both instruments show wear from heavy use and travel. Nearby stand a pair of Rogers' flamboyant cowboy boots, with silver tips and red roses carved into the leather. There's also an original Guthrie drawing he called "Some Drunks Run Up," showing travelers singing happily outdoors.

Traveling the hard road was a recurring theme during the Depression and post-war years, shown again in a painting by Benton's onetime pupil Jackson Pollock — years before his drip-painting fame — in a 1930s landscape "Going West."

On the wall is Dorothea Lange's famous photograph of a migrant mother with her three small children, all looking fatigued in tattered clothes. It hangs beside a1936 painting by Alexandre Hogue called "Erosion 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare," a landscape where fertile farmland is transformed into desert, the remaining hills and dunes cut to resemble a woman in collapse.

There is a corner dedicated to the making of Disney's animated film "Cars," with original drawings and models, at least partly inspired by stops along Route 66. There are ancient maps and kitschy souvenirs from Disneyland and McDonalds.

Near a life-sized portrait of President Eisenhower, a sign explains that his creation of the interstate highway system had the effect of diminishing Route 66 as new highways and freeways bypassed the old roadway. Communities that once thrived along the route slowly faded out. In 1999, the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act began to reverse the decay.

Regardless of its physical condition, the original Route 66 continues to represent something essential about the American psyche. As Kerouac wrote, "There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars."

What: “Route 66: The Road and the Romance”

Where: Autry National Center of the American West, Griffith Park, Los Angeles.

When: Tuesday through Sunday through Jan. 4, 2015.

More info: (323) 667-2000, theautry.org

-

steve.appleford@latimes.com