When I went to the Tulsa Historical Society in May to hear author/historian Michael Wallis talk about his new book (“The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny”) I expected to enjoy the presentation, which I did. I expected to visit with my friends and walk out with a book, which I also did. What I didn’t expect, however, was for Michael to ask me for a favor. “Call me tomorrow,” he said with a grin and a glint in his eye. Call him I did. “Would you at all be interested in joining me for a few days on the road to help me promote my new book?”
I first met Michael in July 2015 at a talk he gave in Oklahoma City. Over the last two years, we’ve had several opportunities to become acquainted at various events. If you are unfamiliar with his work, Michael has written nearly 20 books on a variety of historical subjects; arguably his most famous work is a 1990 chronicle of Route 66. He’s also a popular public speaker, thanks to his vast knowledge of western history and distinctive baritone voice. I was honored to be asked to assist him and overjoyed to accept the invitation.
When we picked up the rental car on Monday, Michael turned to me and asked, “What should we name our car?” The first name that came to my mind was Glaucus, after James Reed’s trusty steed in the book that we would be promoting. He loved it. Early Tuesday morning, we boarded Glaucus and left town.
The morning drive was an easy shot northeast to Springfield, Missouri; the conversation flowed just as easily. We talked about all manner of subjects, though most revolved around our travel experiences. Not long after crossing the Missouri border, Michael turned to me with that glint in his eye again. “Think we can break into those cookies?” Samantha had made a batch of thumbprint cookies for our journey and we’d held off as long as we could.
We arrived just in time for a scheduled interview at KY3, the local NBC affiliate. Check-in was quick and we waited in the Green Room to be called to the studio. While we waited, multiple people came in to shake Michael’s hand. Some had met him before but others had not; everyone was happy to see him and spoke with enthusiasm, mostly about Route 66 thanks to Springfield’s history with the Mother Road. When it was time, I followed Michael and took photographs from behind the cameras as he talked about the Donner Party and Manifest Destiny.
Soon enough, we re-entered Glaucus and headed towards the Schweitzer Brentwood Library a talk and book signing event. The library was newly-renovated and had a great energy; the staff was certainly excited to be hosting Michael for a few hours. The conference room filled up and Mr. Wallis took the lectern. The audience sat in rapt attention throughout.
After the talk and an extensive Q&A, the library held a drawing for a few copies of the new book. Michael dutifully reached into a small basket, looked at the slips of paper, and that glint reappeared. “The names are…Rhys Martin and Michael Wallis, how about that.”
During the book signing, I was greeted by a woman named Betty Ridge, a Facebook friend who had been a reporter in the Muskogee/Tahlequah area for many years. It’s always great to meet people IRL that you’ve only known through the Internet. Good conversation was also had with the Pike family of the Missouri Route 66 Association and a young couple about to take their own Route 66 road trip out to California.
After each book was signed and the last hand was shaken, we said farewell to Springfield. On the way to Kansas City, we made a few quick detours: downtown Bolivar and Clinton, so I could photograph some neon. As we drove past the town of Humansville, Michael spontaneously launched into a monologue that sounded like something out of a Ken Burns film: “Dear Ma and Pa, we’ve moved to Humansville. There is no telephone, nor is there internet access. The mail only runs once a week. It’s very peaceful here. We love you very much; goodbye.”
We arrived in the Plaza district of Kansas City shortly before 8:00 PM. We were amused as the bellman took the luggage cart through the turnstile door, which barely fit and took some doing; we learned a few minutes later that it was his first day. When he returned to help us take everything upstairs, Michael made small talk with him, asking him how he was liking the job so far and what he thought of the city. “Hang in there, rookie,” he said with gusto as he tipped the man. That mischievous glint was ever-present.
The last thing we did was grab dinner. We were tired and easy to please, so once we got settled we headed down a few blocks to Winstead’s, a beloved local burger diner chain dating back to the 1930s. The steakburgers weren’t earth-shattering, but, they hit the spot at the end of a long day.
This is a multi-part series; read about other legs of our journey here.