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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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