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:
- Springfield MO & KC
- Kansas City
- KC to Columbia
- Columbia to St Louis
- St Louis
- St Louis II
- St Louis III
- 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.