A Model Ford

I celebrated Independence Day near the banks of the Arkansas River in Tulsa.  My perch was an exterior stairwell on the sixth floor of the Sophian Plaza, about a mile away from the city’s largest nighttime fireworks display.  Lately I’ve felt that I haven’t had enough time in my days; it was nice to slow down and enjoy an evening in the company of friends.  However, that’s not to say I’m not eager to take another trip.


I have been antsy to get back on the road since returning from my trip with Michael Wallis last month.  My camera bag had scarcely moved from its spot in my office for the last few weeks.  When I saw the clouds lighting up in spectacular fashion a few nights ago, I jumped at the chance to have something to capture.  I haven’t had much time to plan even a day trip.  Imagine my delight when I learned about something coming to ME for a change!

On Wednesday, a Facebook post caught my eye.  A stunning early model Ford had stopped in Chandler, Oklahoma on an eastbound Route 66 journey.  When I looked closer, I recognized the driver of the vintage auto.  I’d met Dr. T Lindsay Baker back in 2016 at the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in Springfield, Missouri.  We’d bonded over our love of history and the Mother Road in particular; we’d kept in occasional contact ever since.  At that very moment of realization, Dr. Baker was motoring up the old road towards Tulsa.  How great would it be to meet up and say hello!


I left work a little early & dashed home to get my camera.  By the time I was turning miles on 66 myself, I had no idea where Dr. Baker would be…I just knew he’d be somewhere between Chandler and Tulsa.  As luck would have it, I didn’t have to drive far.  On the west side of Sapulpa, I spotted the old Ford in an empty lot; Dr. Baker had pulled in to inspect something on the car.  He was shocked and thrilled when I got out of my car and greeted him.  He introduced me to his road trip companion, Chris, and told me all about the antique car he was driving.


Dr. Baker’s chariot was a 1930 Model A Ford, specifically a woodie station wagon model.  The four-cylinder engine boasted about 40 horsepower, which meant they were normally cruising at about 45 miles per hour. (A bad tank of gas early on had limited them to 25 mph uphill, but a high-octane refill cleared that right up.)  A canvas water bag, surprisingly cool to the touch, hung under the passenger headlight.  The windows were simple snap-on flaps.  The cargo area not only held luggage but also a variety of spare parts in case of breakdown (a fact which brought to mind preparations for wagon train travel.)  It was an authentic dust-bowl era automobile.

The pair had come up from the Fort Worth TX area to Oklahoma City.  They merged onto Route 66 there and were taking it east to Chicago…where they planned to turn back and take the road ALL THE WAY to the Pacific Ocean.  Once they reached Santa Monica, they were going to turn around AGAIN and drive back to Texas.  That plan would clock over 5,000 miles before journey’s end.  That begged the natural question:  Why?


To get an answer, I would have to follow Dr. Baker and his companion to Tulsa, for he was late for an appointment.  I followed the Model A through Sapulpa, taking Route 66 as it merged onto the interstate at the Tulsa city limits.  Signage is notoriously poor at that junction; in fact, due to the fact that it wasn’t marked, the Model A took I-44 by mistake.  My friends ended up in midtown, bypassing a big chunk of Tulsa’s Mother Road segment entirely.  When we arrived at our destination (Brownie’s Hamburgers, a Tulsa tradition since 1956) a group of locals were waiting.  Ken Busby of the Route 66 Alliance, Tulsa World columnist Ginnie Graham, and Tulsa World photographer Matt Barnard were eager to hear T Lindsay Baker’s story, too.


Over several mugs of homemade root beer, the historian told us about his latest project. He was working on a book about food culture on Route 66 & how it changed through the years.  No chain restaurants existed when the Will Rogers Highway was established, but some of America’s most ubiquitous brands were born right on the road.  McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, and several other major fast-food brands first opened their doors with an address on The Main Street of America.  Mom and Pop restaurants have long been a major part of the road and they have had to endure the changing tastes of tourism in their own way.

But why the car?


Dr. Baker reasoned that a proper sense of perspective was needed to truly tell the story of the diner evolution.  A car built in 1930 was built for the road as it was originally designed.  No air conditioning, just put the windows down & fold the windshield up.  No power steering or fancy suspension, making the jittery ride an endurance test.  Heading across the Mojave?  Better make sure your water bag is full and you have a spare tire to replace your doomed treads.  The end of each day was an exhausted triumph.

He summed it up simply: his experience would give him true exposure to the (physical and emotional) pillars of those long-ago journeys: Fatigue, Discomfort, & Uncertainty.  And none of that even broaches the topic of the Green Book.  As difficult as those early trips were, they were a revolution in the American Experience; true cross-country travel was suddenly possible for the every-man.  The modern traveler still has a schedule though; these guys had an EZ Guide and a cell phone too.


When we parted ways, I had a much greater appreciation for Dr. Baker’s journey and his beautiful classic car.  It was more than a showpiece; it was the workhorse that helped shape our country from the Great Depression onward.  While I don’t think 5,000 miles in a Model A sounds like the most fun trip ever, it does sound like a vital experience and one that should bring an invaluable sense of context.  Godspeed, sirs!

*UPDATE* The Tulsa World has published their article (with video!) here.


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iPhone – 10 Years Later


The day Cingular’s Jack came off the building to be replaced with AT&T’s globe

In 2007, I was a technical support manager for Cingular Wireless, soon-to-be AT&T.  I’d been with the company six years at that point and had been there for the transition from pagers to one-way-text capable phones to monophonic ringtones to basic internet access.  I watched as Blackberry held on to the smartphone market against all comers, such as Palm and Microsoft.  It was an amazing time of technological advancement and competition.

A new phone was announced by Apple as an exclusive for our company.  It was a touch-screen smartphone without a stylus, which was unusual.  Apple made outrageous claims about the usability of the phone and the variety of applications that would be available.  The keyboard was impossibly responsive and the software was very well integrated.  I literally turned to a peer and said, “There’s no way the phone is going to work as well as they say it will.”  Of course, I was completely wrong.  The phone released to unheard-of fanfare and completely revolutionized the mobile industry.


I didn’t buy one until late 2008, when the new 3G version was released.  My loyalty to Nokia had finally been shattered.  When I left the country a year later for my ten month journey abroad, I included my disconnected iPhone among the electronics in my pack.  I took it primarily for the iPod music functionality, but as time went on I came to rely on it as a backup camera and an access point when I found a place with wi-fi.  It never totally replaced my netbook or dedicated camera, but it became a steady companion.


iPhone - Bali Rd Trip (5)

Bali, Indonesia – taken with my iPhone

When I came home and hooked it back up to a cellular network, it was indispensable.  It ended up being the last iPhone I’ve carried; by the time I was ready for a new device, the Android market had heated up and I preferred the customization the new platform allowed.  Although sometimes it feels like the rate of technological improvement has slowed, it’s just less obvious.  My phone now has a fingerprint scanner, a sensor that rivals stand-alone digital cameras, incredible screen resolution, and more.


Today my smartphone is a connection to the world at large; it’s my map, notepad, encyclopedia, newspaper, music player, and more.  I don’t go down any back road in Oklahoma without it.  Though I don’t carry an Apple device anymore, my handheld computer (still worn on my hip in a holster; old habits die hard) is a direct descendant of that day a decade ago when Steve Jobs held up a little glass rectangle and said it would change the world.

I didn’t believe him at the time.  I definitely do today.  Having the entire internet in my pocket at all times has opened up the world and allowed me to expand my horizons in many ways.  I wouldn’t travel the way I do now without it.  Thank you, Apple!


Though some days it can be an anchor…

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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.


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.



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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.


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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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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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!)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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