On the Road with Michael – Home Again

This is the final entry in my series about my time with Michael Wallis on the Midwest leg of his book tour for, “The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny“.  If you’ve missed any previous installment, here they are:

  1. Springfield MO & KC
  2. Kansas City
  3. KC to Columbia
  4. Columbia to St Louis
  5. St Louis
  6. St Louis II
  7. St Louis III
  8. STL to Springfield IL

On Wednesday the 14th of June, I awoke with the sun.  Although I’d set an alarm to make sure I was up in time to get out the door by 7:30, it was not necessary.  I lay in bed a while, appreciating the stillness of the morning while also anticipating the day to come.

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Eventually, I stirred.  I used the in-room coffee maker to brew both cups of coffee at once; I knew I’d need them.  My body reminded me with a dull ache that I’d been in the car for a good deal of the last eight days; just one more to go.  My room in Springfield, Illinois was spacious; in fact, it was connected to Michael by a large common room that overlooked downtown.  When my coffee was ready, I sat next to the window and cleared my mind.  I was left with a feeling of accomplishment and contentment.  It had been a wonderful experience on the road with my friend, the historian and author.

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As the clock ticked forward, the morning accelerated quickly.  We packed and headed to the lobby just before 8:00 AM.  The dazzled bellman from yesterday was more than eager to pull our car around for our departure.  The lobby was buzzing with hundreds of FFA students, on-site for a statewide competition nearby.  “Are you sure that you and Samantha don’t want to try your hand at farming?” Michael said.  He smiled that familiar trickster smile.  We boarded Glaucus for our last ride & drove straight back to St Louis.

We arrived at Lambert Airport almost two hours later.  Michael’s next event was in Denver at the Tattered Cover, a bookstore he held in high regard.  I would be taking the rental car back to Tulsa on my own.  After Mr. Wallis’ bags were unloaded, I reached out to shake his hand.  “Thank you for the opportunity to tag along,” I said.  He brought me in for a hug instead.  “I will miss you and your excellent company,” he replied.  We agreed to get together again once his calendar opened up.  Although he had upcoming events in Salt Lake City, Truckee, Sacramento, and other cities across the West this was the only piece of the journey I would be a part of.

I waved goodbye, got back into the trusty Hyundai, and headed for home.  For the first time in the last 800 miles, I turned on some music.  Although the beat was peppy and energetic, it was unable to alleviate my saudade.  There is a great deal of Michael’s personality that reminds me of my late father…especially his sense of humor.  With Father’s Day only a few days away, Dad was already on my mind; he was more so now that the passenger seat was empty.  I missed both men greatly as I merged onto I-44, heading for Oklahoma. Of course, no road trip is complete without a few stops.

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I longed to see the sandstone bluffs of Pacific again, so I stopped for a moment in the old mining town.  As luck would have it, I found a beautiful neon sign right next to them!  I’d love to stay overnight in Pacific some day so I can see the first light of dawn on that beautiful cliff side.  Plus, I have friends there!

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Just south of town, I stopped to see an old truss bridge.  It’s on the appropriately-named Bend Road and carries drivers across the Meramec River.  I’m really glad I made the detour; a new bridge was under construction nearby.  Further research proved that the bridge was doomed.  It’s a beautiful silver span that just celebrated its centennial; it’s a real shame that it won’t at least be kept for pedestrians.

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The sky darkened by the time I drove past Villa Ridge; a storm was imminent.  I didn’t let that stop me for a quick visit to the Sunset Motel, home of a great little neon sign.  The Neon Presentation I attended in St Louis a few days prior had highlighted the sign as a recent restoration project; it was in GREAT shape!  Droplets of rain dotted my arms as I clicked the shutter, proving I’d arrived just in time.  I would definitely have to return at night to capture the bright colors.

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Considering the weather and the miles I still had in front of me, I canceled the rest of my detours and set the GPS for Tulsa.  Interstate driving is so boring…but, it is time efficient.  I entered Tulsa city limits right at 5:00 PM, perfect timing to drop the car off and have Samantha meet me at the end of her work day.  I put my hand on the hood of Glaucus, the reliable Hyundai Santa Fe, and said a word of thanks.  When Samantha arrived and we embraced, I was truly home again.

I cannot thank Michael enough for bringing me along to help him throughout Missouri and Illinois.  It was a pleasure to share the road with him and an honor to get such a personal tour of the towns that held his oldest memories.  I turned miles on Route 66 with one of the architects of the road’s revival.  I had lovely conversations with fans, admirers, colleagues, and tourists.  I saw a few old friends and made new ones.  It was an amazing trip that I will remember fondly for the rest of my days.

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On the Road with Michael – The Best Land Under Heaven

(other installments of this series here)

Tuesday, the final full day of my journey with Michael Wallis.  We got off to an early start since we had a drive to Illinois first thing.  Before we even left St Louis, though, Michael had a live interview with the Sam Madonia morning radio show in Springfield.  The air was already hot and humid as we said goodbye to the Union Station Hotel and crossed the Mississippi River.

The main title of Michael’s book – The Best Land Under Heaven – comes from a 19th century poem, referring to Illinois.  Considering the fate of the Donners and their traveling companions, they left that heaven and entered a snowy hell.  We were heading to the town where that long-ago journey began…though, naturally, I’d jotted a few places down to visit on the way.

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Collinsville, IL is home to a delightfully quirky water tower.  It’s shaped like a giant catsup bottle!  The Brooks Catsup Bottle is billed as the “World’s Largest” and has stood watch over the town since 1949.  It was restored in the mid-90s thanks to volunteers raising about $80,000 for repairs and a new paint job.  It looks great!

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The Soulsby Station in Mt. Olive has been on my list to see for a long time.  It’s a quaint little Shell station on the edge of town that has been wonderfully restored.  It opened for business the same year 66 was established (1926).  The Soulsby family pumped gas there for 67 years!  Michael told me stories of stopping at the station back when it was still functioning as we walked through the open building; nobody was around, but we signed the guestbook to mark our visit.

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Just down the road, in the cemetery stood a tall obelisk at the end of a circle drive.  There, right next to the Mother Road, was the grave and memorial of Mother Jones.  The Union Miners Cemetery is the final resting place for the famous matriarch of organized labor.  I knew a little about her contributions to history, but the interpretive markers on-site helped me fill in some gaps.

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We made a quick stop in Litchfield to snap a photo of the Ariston Cafe (closed on Tuesdays) before making a final detour.  Our Lady of the Highways is a shrine near Waggoner, IL that was originally constructed as a high school project in the fifties.  It has been lovingly maintained in front of an active farm on Old Route 66, now a frontage road for I-55, ever since.  Michael told me he’s personally witnessed tractor-trailers pulled over while their drivers pray.  There was also a series of Burma-Shave style signs along the fence line that went through the Hail Mary prayer, which I loved.

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Before the day transitioned from Route 66 sight-seeing to book events, we needed to eat lunch…which absolutely had to be at the Cozy Dog Drive-In.  The home of the first corn dog did not disappoint; Michael told me stories about the Waldmire family while we enjoyed our roadside sustenance.  A few of the patrons gave sideways glances to our table, perhaps wondering if my companion was who they thought he was — but they didn’t ask and we ate our cozy dogs in peace.

The hotel was only a few miles away.  As we were checking in, a bellman asked us why we were in town.  When I told him about the book signing, he just stopped for a moment.  I looked up and saw a completely starstruck young man.  He muttered under his breath in excitement.  His whole demeanor changed; he cautiously turned & nervously greeted Michael, mentioning his love of history.  It was charming.

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A group of people met us in the lobby, including a man named Bill Springer.  He was a direct descendant of Capt. George Donner and an invaluable resource for Michael’s book.  Our little party went outside and walked a few blocks west, to the Old Courthouse and a plaque marking the departure point of the Donner Party in the spring of 1846.  The mayor showed up and a small press conference ensued.  Michael looked proud as he stood near the spot where Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama announced their candidacy for the President of the United States; he spoke to several reporters as the sun blazed overhead.

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That was only the beginning!  After the conference wrapped up, we walked back to the hotel and took the car ten miles north to Riverton.  Michael’s next appointment was a live radio interview on the Jim Leach Show (WMAY).  On the way, I learned that our destination was where Jamestown once stood, a town named for James Reed.  James was one of the main characters involved with the Donner Party’s migration west.  Indeed, the landscape around us was dense with historic significance.  The interview went quickly and smoothly; before we knew it, we were back in Springfield.

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We weren’t back five minutes before it was time to walk down to City Hall for recognition from the city council.  The temperature had climbed to the mid-nineties and we ambled down the sidewalk that might as well have been a sauna.  Moments later, Michael was introduced to the Springfield City Council by the mayor where he said a few words.  He praised the city for being an invaluable asset during his years of research.  He implored them to continue utilizing their deep history, both as a Route 66 town and as the site of significant presidential value, as a tool for education & development.

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We returned to the Wyndham with only a few minutes to spare before the main event started.  A display had been set up to showcase copies of letters and other paraphernalia from the frontier to help set the mood for the discussion to come.  After a short meet-and-greet, it was time for Michael to take the podium once again.  As had been the case throughout our travels together, the crowd hung on his words and burst into applause the moment it was over.

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The book signing line was longer than I’d seen yet.  As always, Michael warmly greeted every person and had a conversation with them.  Dinner afterwards was a delight; a small group of us ate in a restaurant at the top of the hotel tower.  The only thing richer than the berry custard dessert was the conversation.  I felt lucky to have been included among these fine people.  By the time we all shook hands and parted ways, the rest of the restaurant had emptied.  Michael and I returned to our floor, exhausted but much satisfied.  We had but a short time together the next day, our last day, before we too parted ways.

Posted in Illinois, Michael Wallis, Route 66, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

On the Road with Michael – St Louis III

Our last day in St Louis served as a bridge between the Route 66 world that Michael Wallis is so associated with and the western history that serves as the backbone of his literary output.  It included a literal bridge, too, as it happens.

During the downtime I had on Sunday, I’d made a startling discovery.  The Route 66 Association of Illinois was wrapping up their 2017 Motor Cruise in St. Louis with a rare opportunity to cross the Chain of Rocks Bridge.  And it was the NEXT DAY!  I was ecstatic; even though Michael could not attend due to a phone interview with National Geographic, he encouraged me to go.  I did not hesitate.

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The Chain of Rocks bridge opened to traffic in July 1929, carrying Route 66 traffic between Illinois and Missouri.  Due to issues with the Mississippi River bedrock and riverboat navigation, it was designed with a 30 degree bend in the middle.  The mile-long span once had an amusement park on the Missouri side, too, but it was gone by the time the new I-270 bridge was built in the late sixties.  CoR deteriorated in the shadow of the Interstate, “too expensive to tear down”.  It was used as a filming location for the dystopian 1981 John Carpenter film ‘Escape from New York’ and the site of two horrific murders a decade later.   In the late 90s, the bridge was restored and turned into one of the longest pedestrian/bike crossings in the world.  It never re-opened to vehicular traffic aside from special occasions.

I pulled up to the Illinois side of the bridge just after 8:30, a full two hours before the designated time of crossing.  I was fifth in line behind some beautiful Corvettes!  I talked a bit with the other drivers and members of the Illinois Route 66 Association before I went for a stroll.  It took me about an hour to walk across the bridge and back, all the while snapping pics of the rusted girders in the morning sun.  It’s such a beautiful bridge; even though I’d crossed it with Samantha back in 2014 (one of my first Route 66 excursions) it was no less amazing years later.

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By the time I returned to the starting point, several of my roadie friends had arrived.  We had a good chat until go-time. The line of cars to make the crossing stretched back beyond my sight.  There was a mix of new and old vehicles, my favorite being a great old Checker Marathon — it even had extra fold-out seats in the back!  I’d never seen such a thing; look at this:

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I’d tell you all about the experience of driving across the historic bridge, but, why don’t you see it for yourself:

What an experience!  By the time I returned to the Union Station Hotel, Michael had wrapped his phone interview with National Geographic.  He was greatly interested in my experience and I told him all about it.  For the rest of the afternoon, we did prep work for the big Tuesday events in Springfield IL and got ready for the night’s event at Left Bank Books in St Louis.

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The little district that contains Left Bank, called the Central West End, is lovely.  Lots of little boutiques and trendy local places.  The bookstore is the oldest and largest independent bookstore in the city, they’ve been slinging volumes since 1969.  When we walked inside that evening for the event, I immediately felt at home.  The shop cat even came up to welcome me.  The event itself went very well; the staff were very excited that Michael was there and their presentation room was packed.  Among the crowd were a few familiar faces from days past in the city.  At the book signing afterwards, a woman walked up and told us she was a direct descendant of the Donner family; it meant a lot to her that the book was so well-researched and presented the REAL story about her family.  It was very touching.  Michael also lit up when a young Route 66 fan came up and wanted to meet the Sheriff.

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We grabbed a bite to eat nearby and talked a little about our plans for the next day.  On the way back to the car, we stopped into Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.  Holy smokes!  I had a scoop of dark chocolate ice cream I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.  IT WAS SO GOOD!  If you’re still in the mood for sweets after a visit to Ted Drewes, you gotta hoof it over to the Central West End.  I was amazed!

It was late by the time we re-entered the Grand Hall of the Union Station Hotel.  Michael and I parted ways & agreed to an early start for Tuesday, our final full day on the road before I headed back to Tulsa.  The day would consist of a 2:00 PM press conference at the site the Donner Party left home in Springfield IL, an in-studio radio interview, and a big evening event at the Wyndham.  We were both excited to wrap up our time together at the place where it all began for those families seeking fortune and adventure.

Posted in Michael Wallis, Missouri, Route 66, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

On the Road with Michael – St Louis II

(other installments of this series here)

Sunday was another gloriously slow morning.  I drank coffee & ate the last two donuts from the Donut Drive-In while I looked out my window at the flower bed.  I checked the news, did a little writing, and generally lazed about until about 10:00.  I was pleased to see the Grand Hall lobby had been returned to regular working order after yesterday’s marathon wedding reception.

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Michael and I drove to the Missouri History Museum, where we were meeting his sister-in-law for brunch.  We built in enough time to tour the Route 66 exhibit on-site, which I’d heard great things about.  The museum itself is in the Jefferson Memorial, a grand building dedicated to the third President and the Louisiana Purchase.  It was built with proceeds from the 1904 World’s Fair, which was in the same park the memorial is in now.  The building not only houses a grand statue of Jefferson, but a replica of the famous ‘Spirit of St Louis’ airplane flown by Charles Lindbergh.

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The exhibit was, indeed, excellent.  It was focused on the Missouri stretch of the road (naturally) and had restored neon signs, remnants of the Coral Court Motel, a few old cars, and a lot of other artifacts.  I was pleased to see the names of friends on placards throughout, thanking them for their donation of items for the exhibit.  Near the end, they had a little bulletin board where people could post their OWN Route 66 stories.  Here’s one:

“I remember just up and taking a bus to California after I graduated college.  I had $128 in my pocket.  Good memories.”

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We had a lovely meal overlooking Forest Park before the neon sign presentation.  The presentation was wonderful; Jim Thole featured photography and historic tidbits about neon signs all along the route, from Chicago to Santa Monica.  Afterwards, I enjoyed talking to him and many of the other folks that came out for the presentation, including local artist Jo Ann Kargus, who recently released a Route 66 coloring book!  She was gracious enough to sign a copy for me.  And, of course, everyone loved talking to Michael.  They were delighted to hear about his talk and book signing on Monday night, since just about everyone was local.  (I’m eager to see Left Bank Books myself, as everyone has had wonderful things to say about it!)

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We parted from the roadies at the museum and headed a few miles west, to the seat of St Louis County.  There in Clayton, Michael pulled into the parking lot of a seemingly empty building and told me a story.  Back when he was a boy, no more than 8 or 9, his mother woke him up early.  She had a surprise for him and asked him to get a little dressed up.  She took him down to Famous-Barr (the now-empty department store before us) where there was a crowd gathered.  There, in the flesh, was Hopalong Cassidy with his horse Topper.  Michael shook Cassidy’s hand and even got to pet Topper. Some weeks later, his mother took him down to the same department store in the same fashion and he got to meet the Cisco Kid. The way Michael spoke about these events was touching; they clearly had an impact on him.

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A few streets away, we got a drink at the bar top of a little trendy restaurant.  Michael conversed with the bartender about local business development and the Cardinals while I mostly observed.  Michael doesn’t drink anymore (his orange juice/cranberry was stunningly bright next to my porter brew) but that environment is greatly suited to his personable nature.  Throughout the trip I’ve been amazed at how easily people talk to him.  Bellboys, people in the elevator, the homeless, library directors…Michael goes fishing with everyone.  By that, I mean this:  he’ll ask a question.  Something minor and disarming, but designed to get some small personal detail.  He is constantly casting a line out, hoping to catch someone else’s story.  He loves to hear them just as much (if not more) than he loves to tell them.

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Imo’s Pizza was our dinner stop (another place full of memory for Mr. Wallis) before we headed back to Union Station.  We both went to our rooms for the night, but, I was a little restless.  I was inspired by the neon presentation given earlier and decided to take our trusty steed, Glaucus, out for a solo ride.  I drove back down Route 66 to capture some neon in the night.  Ted Drewes was a madhouse, but, I sneaked a few photos in before heading back for good.  Thanks for the inspiration, Jim!  If you’re reading this, keep up the great work.

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On the Road with Michael – St Louis

(previous installments of this series here)

Saturday got off to a joyously slow start.  I’d slept better than expected, considering the fact I could hear conversation in the next room clear as day.  We didn’t meet up for breakfast until about 10:00 AM.  On the way down, I noticed the station Midway had a bunch of tables set up at one end; the previous day, it was a vast empty space.  Furthermore, the main Grand Hall area was closed off for a wedding reception.  I can’t imagine how much that cost.  I looked at a notice board near the check-in desk and saw the event itself was booked from 6pm to midnight.  Yowza.

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After Michael and I enjoyed our meal, I went for a bit of a walk around Union Station.  It was once the world’s largest and busiest depot, hosting 22 different railroads and 100,000 passengers a day.  By 1971, though, traffic was down to only three trains a day & in 1978 the place closed completely.  In the 80s, it was renovated as a hotel/shopping destination.  It’s undergoing more renovations currently, to add a giant aquarium, and a lot of space is under-utilized or closed off.  I saw a few old train cars out back and a kinda sad Hard Rock Cafe.  I did learn that the big fight scene in Escape from New York (between Snake Plissken and a large gladiator-type) was filmed in the abandoned-at-the-time Great Hall, so that’s fun.

The laid back vibe of the day continued when a group of Michael’s buddies arrived for lunch.  They had all gone to Western Military Academy in Alton Illinois, which Michael graduated from in 1963.  They brought a significant amount of delicious barbecue from Pappy’s Smokehouse, which we eagerly devoured. There was a strong bond between these men; their years at that institution clearly made a big impact on them. Gatherings are a somewhat-regular occurrence in some form or fashion and this small group spanned graduating years from the mid to late sixties. At one point, someone asked Michael about the process of recording dialogue for the Cars films. He talked about that as well as his overall involvement with Pixar, including one of his favorite stories about a dinner with Paul Newman.

After a few hours of catching up and reminiscing, the mini-reunion wrapped up; the group hoped to make it out to the book signing Monday night.  After an hour or so of book-related matters, Michael called me to see if I wanted to go out…which of course I did.  We took Glaucus out of the valet stable & snaked through the city.  I learned about the historic and personal significance of many sites, such as the Missouri Botanical Garden and Tower Grove Park.

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We ended up on old 66 as we continued to venture away from the city center. We passed by the Donut Drive-In, a shop that had been restored in recent years, and I pulled over to get a shot of the neon sign.  I was surprised that Michael headed for the door even though we’d already decided to get dessert elsewhere. “You’ve gotta have a donut.  It’s non-negotiable.”  The little shop was hoppin’, putting together 21 dozen donuts for a wedding & handling a few other large orders.  We got back into the car and I enjoyed what was probably the best glazed donut I’ve ever eaten.  I was immediately thankful not only that Michael insisted we go inside, but that he bought half-a-dozen for later consumption.

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Just a few blocks away, we stopped again: this time, at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard.  It’s not just a Route 66 institution, but a staple of St Louis itself.  “Ted put so many kids through college,” Michael remarked as we looked inside at the flurry of young people working hard to serve the masses.  Michael had a chocolate-covered cone while I took his suggestion and ate a tiramisu concrete, which was delicious.  During our time at the roadside stand, two separate bridal parties arrived and ate frosty delights in full regalia.  It warmed my heart.  We also saw a man in line with a Styrofoam cooler under one arm.  “Now that is a man that is serious about his custard,” Michael said with a smile.

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Satisfied with our dinner, we continued to drive around town.  Michael guided me through several suburbs and districts, all the while filling me in on local history and his personal experiences.  He pointed out the former site of the Coral Court Motel in Marlborough, the train station in Kirkwood, Berra Park in The Hill, and more.

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We made a special stop at the site of Sportsman’s Park, the old home of the St Louis Cardinals.  When Michael was in the sixth grade, AAA sponsored an essay contest about what it means to be a school patrol boy. He sat down, with no help from parents or teacher, and wrote an essay.  Several weeks later, Michael found out he won the contest. In addition to a fancy certificate & a small blurb in the paper, he won a trip to a Cardinals game.  A limo took Michael and his father to Sportsman’s Stadium to watch the Cards beat the Cubs.  He got to sit in the dugout between Stan Musial and Kenny Boyer, walking out with a signed game ball. It was dark by the time they headed home; on the way, Michael looked out into the darkness and saw a reflection of his Dad in the window. “It just washed over me, this feeling.  Writing is not a bad thing.  This is a pretty interesting experience. It was then that I decided I was going to be a writer.”

We ended our cruise with a trip downtown, where people on the sidewalks were still celebrating an earlier Cardinals win.  The last light of day faded as we drove next to the Arch, the sound of nearby tugboats churning the Mississippi River.  A great end to another day on the road.

Posted in Michael Wallis, Missouri, Route 66, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

On the Road with Michael – Columbia to St Louis

(previous installments of this series here)

Friday morning, we slept in.  Of course, sleeping in for me (and Michael as well) meant waking up around 8:00 instead of 7:00.  I took my time getting ready, puttering around my hotel room with mediocre coffee and a few of our remaining thumbprint cookies.  Looking out the window over downtown Columbia, I was thankful.  Thankful to have this time on the road and thankful to spend it with my friend.

We got rounded up and headed for breakfast at the Broadway Diner, but they were slammed.  “I stopped standing in lines when I left the Marines,” Michael had remarked on a few occasions, plus we wanted to get on the road, so we looked for an alternative.  I was very pleased to get a thumbs-up for Waffle House, which has been a reliable favorite of mine for many years.  Turns out Michael felt the same way!  As we pulled up beneath the familiar yellow-and-black sign, I noticed a hearse in one of the parking spaces.  I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad sign.  In any case, our breakfast was delicious; though, at one point, Michael looked very concerned and pointed with his fork: “Oh my God.  They’re taking a body out of here!” I didn’t need to turn around to look for myself; I raised an eyebrow and waited for the tell-tale sparkle in his eye and sly grin.

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Our end-point of the day was St. Louis…but since we had no event that night, our timetable was flexible.  We skirted the edge of Jeff City and essentially followed the Missouri River all day. The landscape around Big Mo was beautiful and lush.  The soil is fertile near the river and we were treated to many crop-filled vistas as the road weaved around limestone bluffs and dense groves. We made a stop near the town of Steedman, at an abandoned pony truss bridge over Logan Creek.  Time had weathered the old wooden deck down to shreds; Sam will be happy to know I did not venture onto the span myself.

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The town of Hermann was our next stop.  The Gasconade County courthouse was a shining beacon on the bank of the Missouri, the crown atop a community established by German immigrants in 1837.  Today the region is responsible for roughly 1/3 of the state’s wine production, which is well-represented in the shops along main street. I wandered a bit and marveled at the old town architecture, including the grand courthouse.  When we left town, Michael surprised me with a selection of local cheese (Jersey Supreme and Havarti) which sustained us throughout the afternoon.  I’d never had either before and was very pleased.

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Washington was next, where I took photos of a terrific old Dutch Hotel neon sign in addition to a brick ghost sign for Falstaff beer, once Busch’s greatest competitor.  We crossed the Missouri River on a grand cantilever bridge, alongside a new crossing under construction.  I certainly hope the old bridge remains for a pedestrian crossing or something, but, in my heart I know they’ll probably demolish it.  A real shame.

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Near the village of Defiance, we walked around the family homestead where Daniel Boone died in 1820.  In addition to the four-story stone manor (built by slave labor), the area contains an entire village of historic buildings that have been relocated to the site over the years.  It gave me a good sense as to what the landscape would have been like in the Donner days.  Michael pointed out the Boone family tree in the visitor’s center, showing me the members of the Boone family that had traveled with the Donner Party for a time on their journey west.  Liliburn Boggs, the sixth governor of Missouri that was hunted by the Mormons due to his infamous extermination order, had married Daniel Boone’s granddaughter and was a name I’d recognized back in Independence.

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Shortly after leaving the Boone House, we transitioned from the Missouri Rhineland to the Greater St Louis metro. Michael exited the freeway in Rock Hill, the suburb where he grew up.  We were back on old Route 66, where we pulled over at the intersection of Manchester and Berry.  It was on that street corner where Michael got his first journalism job: slinging newspapers.  A stone’s throw away sat the home where Michael lived from his birth in 1945 until he was a freshman in high school.  It is the very same home that he talks about in his story about his mother offering work to drifters, as they may be “angels in disguise”.  That story was part of the first speech I heard him give.

We continued to weave around the area and I was treated to many excerpts from his childhood: gatherings in Tillis Park, playing ball at the local church, seeing movies at the Hi Pointe Theatre, and more.  The afternoon full of young memories, each one recalled with a specific smile… one that recalled Christmas morning, when a child opens a present that contains something strongly desired.  “This has all changed,” he would say before rebuilding the world around us with words to represent those lost days.

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It had been a good day’s journey; we checked in at Union Station hotel at around 5:30 and enjoyed a quiet dinner on-site.  I learned that St. Louis is famous for a few staple dishes: toasted ravioli, pork steak, & gooey butter cake.  I had two-out-of-three and decided to wait on the cake; hopefully I’ll get a bit before we leave town in a few days.  The end of our day found us sitting in the grand lobby, people watching as an occasional light show was projected on the arched ceiling above us.  It was a good end to another day on the road.

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On the Road with Michael – KC to Columbia

(other installments of this series here)

When I set out to take this trip, I knew I would be updating my blog as we went.  I didn’t expect to update it every day — but, as I should have known, our adventures have given me plenty to write about.  Although we had no direct book-related events on Thursday, the day was packed with activity.

We left the Sheraton in Kansas City just before 9:00 AM.  The radio was tuned to the news as we weaved east; the former FBI Director was testifying in Washington, D.C. and both of us were interested to hear how it would go.  It didn’t stop us from exploring as we came across things that piqued our interest, and it was interesting to pop in-and-out of Capitol Hill questioning as we traveled.

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Independence, Missouri was our first stop.  It felt appropriate, as the town was jumping-off point for many westward pioneers back in the covered wagon days, including the Donner Party.  I was eager to see the old town square where so many families gathered before heading out to tame the wild west, but before we got to downtown, something else caught my eye:  a giant gleaming tower!  Independence Temple is a large Mormon church punctuated by a 300 ft stainless steel spire; it was built in the early 90s and attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year.  It definitely stands out among the town’s architecture.

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When I stepped foot into the town square, my smile was wide.  The knowledge I’d gained from recently reading Michael’s new book was mixed with my childhood experiences playing ‘The Oregon Trail’ on the computer.  Independence is known as the ‘Queen City of the Trails’ as it was the starting point for the California, Oregon, and Santa Fe Trails.  The town is also the home of the 33rd President, Harry Truman.  There are ample historic markers scattered around the courthouse dedicated to all of these things.  It was cool to see names carved in granite that I now recognized, thanks to my recent foray into 1840s history.  At one point while we were walking around, a horse and wagon went by on the street; the driver waved and we waved back.

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Before heading out, we drove over to the National Frontier Trails Museum.  Though we didn’t have time to go through the exhibits, Michael chat with one of the staff for a few minutes; he had done some research at their archives for The Best Land Under Heaven.  I wandered through the gift shop, feeling a bit less amused by the Donner Party/cannibalism humor products that were scattered about now that I knew the rest of the story.  I did buy a little California Trails pin to mark the occasion, though.  Afterwards, we walked through an area across the street that had been so burdened with departing wagon trains that the landscape bore a permanent dent.

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Eastward Ho!  The radio continued to broadcast questioning from the nation’s capital and we listened, adding our own commentary from time to time.  After about an hour, we diverted from I-70 to take a county road south.  Our lane turned to gravel and we were surrounded by Queen Anne’s lace and tiger lilies.  We stopped at Shackleford Crossing, the site of an old truss bridge.  Though the maker’s plates were long gone, I guessed it had been built in the early 1900s.  A mark on the eastern side of the bridge indicated a terrible flood in ’86 had gone over the deck.  Michael identified a few shell casings we found and I snapped away with my camera.

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After a little more back-road meandering, we arrived in Columbia.  Michael went to university at Mizzou and as soon as we entered city limits, he began to recall those early days with great clarity.  Samantha would have laughed, because a few of those memories started with something like, “This has all changed; this used to be empty.” She gives me a hard time for my “This used to be a field!” explanations from the Tulsa area.  We headed to downtown Columbia & ate lunch at Booches, a bar & billiard hall that also happens to serve the best burgers in the area.  They’ve been around for over 100 years!  “This place hasn’t changed at all,” Michael said with great satisfaction.

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Once we found our hotel and checked in, we got back in the car.  I followed Michael’s directions and drove around the college campus while he told stories from earlier days. He told me how he met his wife, Suzanne, and pointed out the classroom where they first laid eyes on one another.  These conversations continued into Heidelberg’s, a nearby tavern, another place that was bursting with memory for the Sheriff of Radiator Springs.

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Eventually, our wandering path took us back outside of town, where we came across an old concrete bridge that appealed to me.  I hopped out and noticed a granite marker in the grass, dedicated to some long-ago tavern. I also found a golf ball, sitting nonchalantly on the side of the bridge; it was then I noticed a small course on the other side of the creek. Michael surveyed the landscape and grinned; “How about we come back out here around midnight?” he asked.  “We’ll bring seven or eight alligators with us and deposit them in the water hazards. We’ll come back in the morning and watch as they come charging out of the water to sink their teeth into the golfers and their yellow pants.”

We ended our day with a quiet dinner at Jimmy’s Family Steak House, a restaurant I’d stumbled across my last time in Columbia.  Our conversation continued, steeped in memory, until we ambled back to our hotel to prepare for another day of travel.

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