This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Michael Wallis: Good morning. Welcome to Tulsa.
It was back in the late autumn of 1965, and I was a 20 year old Marine coming home for some of mom’s cooking. Hitchhikers were not an endangered species back then, so snagging rides was a piece of cake, especially if you were in uniform and toting a sea bag. During that trek, as I rode in various cars, and trucks, I heard the pop tunes of the time sung by The Temptations, The Supremes, The Beatles, Sonny and Cher, The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers, and of course the incomparable Bob Dylan. But, I also heard a song that has haunted me forever. It was called The Coming of the Roads. Judy Collins sang it like a sad angel.
“Now that our mountain is growing, with people hungry for wealth, how come it’s you that’s a-going, and I’m left alone by myself? We used to hunt the cool caverns deep in our forest of green. Then, came the road, and tavern, and you found a new love, it seems. Once, I had you in the wildwood. Now, it’s just dusty roads, and I can’t help but blaming your going on the coming, the coming of the roads. Look how they’ve cut all the pieces, our ancient redwood and oak, and the hillsides are stained with the greases that burned up the heavens with smoke. You used to curse the bold crewman who stripped our earth of its ore. Now, you’ve changed and you’ve gone over to them, and you’ve learned to love what you hated before. Once I thanked God for my treasure, now like rust, it corrodes, and I can’t help but blaming your going on the coming, the coming of the road.”
Now, it would be some time before I learned that that song written by Billy Edd Wheeler, actually mourned the loss of a lover in an unspoiled forest destroyed by wealthy robber barons. To me, it was and always will be, about the loss of my revered, old road. It was about the five interstate highways that were being built right then from Chicago to Santa Monica to try to take the place of Route 66. To me, the Coming of the Roads meant the coming of the super slabs. It reminded me of long before when we lost our hundreds of named highways. When they took down the signs marking the Lincoln highway. When they thought we’d all forget the Lincoln and the other venerable roads that served us so well, then had to go by aliases such US 30.
To me, the Coming of the Roads meant Interstate 80 and all the other interstates that slashed across the land. We all knew they were coming. We all knew they were necessary, but we also knew that they broke our hearts. That’s what made me feel unhappy and empty. “Once I thanked God for my treasure, and now like rust, it corrodes, and I can’t help but blaming your going on the coming, the coming of the roads.” Of course, those roads, those highly touted, new and improved slabs of monotony did come. They’ve been coming a long time. They’ve been coming all along those interstate highways and a lot more just like them have been coming since 1956. June 29th, 1956, to be precise. It was on that date something transpired that impacted all of us gathered here today, as well as multitudes of people living and working all along the lost highways of America, including the great Lincoln and Route 66.
On that date, from a hospital room, President Dwight Eisenhower changed America with the flick of a wrist sending it speeding down an off-ramp toward the future of an automobile oriented society. In signing the bill, it created the nation’s interstate highway system, Ike kick-started a nationwide freeway construction boom. He also fueled the country’s then burgeoning car culture, which helped boost family car vacations, and also advanced suburban sprawl, long distance commutes, and frontage roads commercial districts laden with fast food franchises, chain motels, and cookie cutter culture. The result of that single act literally rearranged the way people lived their lives.
New communities may have been born, but many well established communities, and central cities died, or were badly wounded. While Americans were taken by the automobile by the 1950’s, and freeways were under construction, and urban areas around the country, a much discussed interstate network was not funded until congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. That was when Eisenhower eagerly signed that year on June 29th, at Walter Reed Hospital where he was recovering from intestinal surgery. The act which envisioned a 41,000 network of smooth, fast, wide intersection free superhighways from coast to coast, promised to reimburse states for 90% of the cost of building the new thoroughfares. Many state officials were quickly seduced and a highway building boom commenced that produced nearly tens of thousands of miles of interstate highways by early in this century.
Every state but Alaska has them, even Hawaii. Alaska and Puerto Rico now have freeways funded under the interstate program. According to one road expert, the amount of concrete used to build the network could build a wall nine feet thick and fifty feet high around the world. Don’t you know those words make our president drool? Undoubtedly, the interstate highway system is the most important and grandest public works project in the United States history. Proponents of highway construction in the automobile industry, particularly their powerful lobbyists, like to say that this vast system of interstates has made life and travel easier for tens of millions of Americans. They enjoy bragging that you can drive across the country without hitting a red light.
In addition to making it easier and quicker for average Americans to drive, interstates also made it faster and cheaper for businesses to move good around the nation, and led to a huge boom in the trucking industry. Today, millions of trucks travel the interstates and move billions of tons of goods, compared with the 120,000 trucks when Eisenhower signed the bill. If any of you spend even a little time on Interstate 40, you quickly realize how many trucks are out there. This vast system of interstate highways had been on Eisenhower’s mind ever since 1919 when as a then young army officer, Eisenhower joined 294 other members of the army, and departed from Washington, DC in the military’s first automobile caravan across the country. The primary route the caravan followed was the Lincoln Highway, christened in 1913. Due to poor roads, plenty of thick Iowa gumbo, blowing sands, difficult driving conditions, the caravan averaged five miles per hour, and took 62 days to reach Union Square in San Francisco.
At the end of World War II, then general Dwight David Eisenhower surveyed the war damage to Germany and was impressed with the durability and efficiency of the autobahn. While a single bomb could make a train route useless, Germany’s wide and modern highways could often be used immediately after being bombed, because it was difficult to destroy such a wide swath of concrete and asphalt. Those two experiences, the 1919 Lincoln Highway trip and the second World War convinced President Eisenhower of the importance of efficient highways. In the 1950’s, America was frightened of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. People were even building bomb shelters in their homes. It was thought that a modern interstate highway system could provide citizens with evacuation routes from the cities, and would also allow the rapid movement of military equipment across the country.
Also by the late 1950’s, as construction of the new super highways began, there were promises of creating new jobs, and stimulating the economy while easing the overcrowded highway conditions. True enough, the interstate boom brought with it an economic boom, especially for the highway construction, oil, and automotive industries, and automobile manufacturers. It also benefited the tourism industry and helped drive the growth of fast food outlets, national motel chains, and those lookalike business districts built at off-ramps, even in the middle of nowhere. The network also brought suburban sprawl.
Suburbs had existed, even flourished before the advent of the interstates, but now these new wide open interstates made it not only possible, but also enjoyable to live a significant distance from work. In this new found ease of travel brought new, more distant suburbs, which lured residents and businesses from central cities, leading to the decline of many downtown’s, and creating communities that require driving to get to the supermarket, the park, school, church, and of course those shopping malls. Overdevelopment, urban development, and creeping suburban sprawl was already endangering much of America’s landscape. The interstates, like the ones running alongside the Lincoln Highway and Route 66, brought even more damage as they gashed into cities like Tulsa, cut through farms, and bypassed so many small towns.
The highway bypasses changed traffic patterns and caused whole towns to dry up and disappear. The natural environment was ravaged and the privately owned rail system was left in shambles. Our passenger train system today remains anemic, but besides clobbering our nation’s trains, entire cities centers were destroyed by the interstates. Homes and family businesses were leveled and established neighborhoods vanished. Some politicians and fat cats had the audacity to call this progress. Others believe that this world’s largest public works project, the interstate highway system, fully transformed Americans into what has been described as “A car centric, oil guzzling, and pollution spewing people”. Close quote.
As critics of the nation’s overworked highways point out any positives of the interstate system are surely balanced by the negatives, such as the decline of sidewalks, the decline of walking, and the decline of the country’s front porch culture. People simply don’t walk anymore, because there are fewer sidewalks, and besides, it’s much more comfortable to drive everywhere in their air conditioned cars. They don’t sit out on front porches any longer, because their houses are air conditioned, and there’s television to watch. Sadly, most folks think that’s much better than sitting on the front porch gossiping with neighbors, watching the kids play, sipping lemonade, listening to the radio.
My good friends, I really understand that the original Lincoln Highway, as well as Route 66, both of them, and the other old roads, outlived their usefulness as practical roadways, because they could no longer handle the volume of traffic. I am as future-minded as the next person is and I do not want to dwell in the past. I have an abiding respect for the past, but I do not dwell in it. I look forward to the future and I’m not advocating, I’m not advocating that we do away with air conditioning and TV. I happen to enjoy both, but my point is this. When we gave up those things, we lost something very important in our lives. Then again, those so-called “Good ole’ days” weren’t always good, were they? They were good for me, a kid from Missouri traveling the highways with my family, getting to see the nation up close and personal. I knew we were on an adventure and hopefully that evening, dad would have the wisdom to pick a motel with a swimming pool.
But, those road trips on the mother road and any other highway in the land for that matter, were not so pleasant for many, many others. If I had been a little African American boy back then, I would not be making memories to cherish. People of color had to search for places to eat, to sleep, to gas up their cars, just to use the rest room. I never and you should never romanticize the Mother Road. Just like all roads, 66 could be an abusive mother. The old road was a mirror held up to the nation and reflected the views, the condition, and culture of those times.
Still, I miss the time when front porches used to be important. Porches remind me of the days of my youth when neighbors had time to sit and visit, but no more. With the advent of air conditioning, people no longer had to go outside to shoot the breeze, exchange stories, and communal wisdom. Everyone moved indoors to isolated, refrigerated, entertainment centers. Sidewalks and front porches connected families, public squares, parks, and benches, libraries, dance halls, churches, and community centers, places where people could meet. Old communities organized around reunions of all kinds, like class reunions, band reunions, club and family reunions. I’ve been told, and I hope it’s true, that the number of new homes being built today have front porches, and that’s gradually increasing. I really do hope that’s true, because those porches evoke a time when people looked out for one another by looking out at the world.
Maybe we’ve been sold a bill of goods about progress, about some progress. I grew up thinking and still do that progress has always bettered our lives. That’s why we associate technology with progress and improvement in the quality of our lives. So doing, we have gone along with technological changes that have been harmful to our families, our communities, and us. Today, with the endless ribbons of concrete often clogged with commuters, travel is no longer easy, and certainly not enjoyable. That hasn’t stopped the development of far flung suburbs or the willingness of people to live in them while working far away.
But, the biggest impact of the interstate system, historians and some critics say, is that it has created a nation in which a car is necessary, and public transportation is often dismissed as an undesirable alternative to driving. Also, an economy that’s dependent on oil. Even with rising gas prices, that mentality drove the interstate boom, and it’s hard for many people to shake, say the critics of sprawling development.
After so many years of wear and tear, the interstate system has gone through its mid-life crisis. For so long, many highway engineers say that the interstates are crumbling beneath the crush of ever increasing traffic, so the conventional solution to traffic jams is what? To build more roads, which promptly fill up with more cars. It is no accident that this country with the largest system of roads and highways, including all those interstates, per capita automobile usage is the highest in the world. Nor is it any accident that per capita, greenhouse gas admissions in the US are greater than in most other developed countries.
Let me tell you, these are fighting words for me to argue out here in oil country. In the long run, the interstate highway system for all its virtues, may well be seen as a mistake. It is interesting and then rather depressing, I think, to speculate on what the US might have become had it spent the cost of the interstates improving railroads, and developing ways of moving people, and generating power that used energy more cleanly and efficiently. We did not do that. Our failure to use our resources wisely in the past is going to make the future that much more difficult. Perhaps that is why all of us who love the idea of the Lincoln Highway and Route 66, and those other two lane roads that outlived their usefulness still cherish the history, the heritage, and the legacy of historic highways. That is why I turn to the old scarred roads for enjoyment, and pleasure, and maybe for answers that may never come.
We turn to those old roads, because they give us a sense of community. In the case of Route 66 for example, those of us who live and work along this linear village stretching from Chicago to Santa Monica, have become an extended family. Sometimes, we are dysfunctional, and sometimes we are in unison. But, no matter, we are family. We are part of a greater community. The late, great Margaret Meade defined an ideal community as one that has a place for every human gift. Meade exclaimed that an ideal community would somehow keep the best of the old ways and add the best of the new. Such a community would have a mixture of races, generations, and viewpoints. People in the community could enjoy the intellectual and cultural stimulation of cities in the safety of friendly neighborhoods.
We’d have privacy and also front porch visits, and potluck dinners. Freedom and civic responsibility. All the adults would take responsibility to help all children. We would have connection without clannishness, accountability without autocratic control. The ideal community would support individual growth, development, and foster loyalty, and commitment to the common good. Is that what we have? Not even close, but if it’s not what we have, that is exactly what we all need to strive to achieve. It can be done. We have to put aside our differences, petty jealousies, regional divides, and join together as one to make sure that there will always be front porches, and sidewalks, and old twisty roads that go right through the heart of town. Change and growth can be very good, but it is important to protect and preserve our past in the here and now, so we can enjoy a bright future together.
That is what the old roads offer. They are forever and always the free roads and just their names alone are magic. I know that’s why I travel the old roads, the crooked roads. Those roads of genius that truly expose America before the nation became generic. Each time I do, a flood of memories, both bitter and sweet, keep me company. That is when I think of that Judy Collins song The Coming of the Roads I talked about. I know exactly when I heard that song for the first time. I was that young, hitchhiking Marine I told you about at the start of the talk. The song came on the radio just as the pickup I was riding in pulled into Glen Rio. Whenever I drive Route 66, to this very day, I always stop there. I pull off the super slab and cruise into all that is left of a windswept town that will forever straddle the border of New Mexico and Texas. Time has passed Glen Rio, but I never do. I stop to pay my respects to the town until all the people who live there, work there, died there are just paused for a bit of comfort.
It was once a bustling railroad hamlet and later a noteworthy stopping place on America’s main street. Glen Rio was left high and dry years ago when Interstate 40 bypassed the place, forcing businesses to close, and people to move on. That’s now a ghost town in the making. Not that Glen Rio was ever a metropolis, even in its peak during the heyday of Route 66, the town was only a cluster of stores, eateries, filling stations, frame houses with a population of less than 100. It seemed much larger to me, because of the constant stream of tourists and truckers who would pause for a hot meal, cold drink, a tank of gas, a bed for the night. Glen Rio used to be as busy as a noontime greasy spoon. It started out as this farming community in 1903, and by the next year, that railroad station was established, and the town bustled with cattle, and freight shipments. From 1910 until 1934, the border town prospered and even supported a newspaper, the Glen Rio Tribune.
By 1920, just six years before the birth of Route 66, Glen Rio had a hotel, a hardware store, and a land office. Years later, when John Ford made the Grapes of Wrath into a motion picture, some scenes were shot in Glen Rio, but now those glory times are long gone. Nowadays more dogs than people live there. The town that’s in two states has evolved into an oasis for tumbleweeds and roadrunners on the prowl for reptile suppers. In spite of that, travelers still pause to pay their respects. They reflect on what it must have been like when the state line bar sold whiskey, beer, and gasoline. And, the Little Juarez Diner, and the First in Texas, Last in Texas Motel and Café were humming. Back when life in Glen Rio was sweeter than truck stop pie. Back before grass poked through the pavement. Back before buildings turned into derelicts and the ghosts moved in.
I for one, do not mind those ghosts. Many of them are old friends. That is why I come to Glen Rio and to the other towns along the Mother Road that time has forgotten. To me, these places are as important as the many Route 66 towns that are still perking and serving up hospitality to generations of new travelers from literally around the world. Those ghost places where deserted buildings with no doors and windows stare at the varicose highway. They help remind me of the way life used to be. I also like Glen Rio, because I can stand on the border in two time zones with one foot in the Lone Star State and the other in the Land of Enchantment. I often point out that doing that makes you just a tad schizophrenic.
But then too, there’s always the rogue treasure. Stained menus, yellowed gas receipts blowing through the weeds, broken coffee mugs, bottle caps, dead spark plugs hiding in the dust. In the past, I found a trucker’s daily logbook, ceramic shards of bygone times, and newspapers as old as I am. I recall a special day in Glen Rio with a posse of some biker friends. Once again, I went hunting remnants from the past and I found just what I was looking for inside a row of empty tourist cabins. Crammed inside an envelope were canceled checks. The checks were imprinted “Texas Longhorn on Highway 66: First and Last Stop in Texas, Glen Rio, New Mexico.” These checks were dated in the 1960’s. Back when I visited Glen Rio as that hitchhiking marine, and I can recall that evening coming into Glen Rio, and the town was bright and shining. It was late at night, all kinds of people, tourists, salesmen, truckers, servicemen stopping to refuel themselves, and their vehicles. It might as well have been midnight and it looked like a mini Time’s Square.
Homer Ehresman, good old Homer Ehresman signed every one of those checks that I held. I remembered him too, back during those glory times of the Mother Road. He owned and operated various businesses in town including a service station, café, and tourist court. His wife also ran the post office. My little pal, Delbert True, a Texas panhandle rancher told me that when he and his dad were moving cattle past Glen Rio, they always stopped to have some of Mrs. Ehresman’s wonderful pie. Delbert said it got to the point that when they walked into the café, the waitress just smiled and cut a coconut cream pie in half, and placed the halves before the two men. I also remember that pie and how good it was. Tasting good, washed down with ice water, and coffee.
The Ehresman’s were there in Glen Rio when the road was being paved in the early 1930’s. The workers slept in tents alongside the road and they made 30 cents an hour. Homer and his wife fed those highway crews three meals a day, all they could eat family style for a day. During the bad times, influx of Oakies and Arkies, and dust ball pilgrims came through town, the Ehresman’s never turned anyone away from their café, even if they had no money. Occasionally, Homer used to say destitute diners even came back to Glen Rio when they got on their feet, and paid what they owed. Now, here I am. I’m standing in the remains of Glen Rio clutching Mr. Ehresman’s checks. They were made out to Armor and Company, Coca-Cola, to a company in Amarillo that repaired the ice machine, to grocers, and utility companies. Various vendors and suppliers that kept his place humming.
I thumbed through that stack of checks and then I reached the real treasure, the payroll checks. They were made out to the fry cooks, and bus boys, and the waitresses. Some were advanced salary checks to tide those women over, and I read the names that’s on those checks. Alice Davis, Dora May Campbell, Ella Jones, Mildred Harris, and others. They were real waitresses. They served the public and never walked up to a customer and told them their name. You knew damn good and well she was a waitress. Her feet hurt, she yelled at the cook, and called everybody “Honey”, it was nothing instant in that place except the service. I wondered what had become of these waitresses over the past 40-50 years. I knew many of them had died and moved on when the interstates came along in the 1970’s, and cut off the whole town, and left it to die. Death by interstate, the killer right out there.
I showed the other bikers what I had found and I gave each of them a check to keep as a reminder of this stop. I put the rest of the checks inside my leather jacket and we went to our bikes. I can still hear this raven squawking from a Chinese Elm as we took our leave. I have those Glen Rio checks. They are with my other cherished remnants from the old road. I value them and I know that they are part of the DNA of Route 66. I’ve been gathering Mother Road DNA actually all my life. Sometimes, it was difficult to find. Sometimes, I could not even find a pulse. Allow me to end my visit with you with one of my favorite Route 66 stories. It’s short, and sweet, but I think it will let you know why Route 66 is so important. Why I had to write that book and why the road is alive.
This was back in the late 1980’s and my wife, Susanne and I, were out on the road, and I was doing research for my book Route 66: The Mother Road. This road who had been through so many incarnations. The roaring 20’s, the dirty 30’s, the warriors, the so-called heyday years had fallen into limbo when those last federal highway signs were taken down in the mid-80’s. People started talking about Route 66 in the past tense. I knew that the road was still alive. I knew that 85% of the road could still be traveled. I knew that Angel Delgadillo was still shaving faces and cutting hair in his barber shop, one-chair barbershop in Seligman, Arizona. I knew that Ted Drewes was still dipping frozen custard to all those yellow shirted teenagers up in St. Louis. I knew that Lillian Redmond, an old Harvey girl was flipping on those blue lights, those neon swallows at the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, enticing people to spend the night.
I knew those folks were still out there and they’re the most important resource of all on the road. They are the heart and soul of Route 66 and I knew they were still there. That’s what made me decide to do this book, and fortunately, my publisher agreed, and we went forth. It is unabashedly a love letter from my heart to the road, more importantly to the people. As we set out in those limbo times, it was dark, and depressing in many places. Cobwebs in the doors, closed signs. It wasn’t a pleasant journey. It was a difficult journey, but we persisted, because we kept finding sparks of life. We knew this road could be resuscitated. We knew it. On one fine, very cold windy Oklahoma day, out in Clinton, Oklahoma, the quintessential Route 66 town, we pulled into Phillips 66 station to fuel up and a guy came out to fill my tank.
He’s pumping the gas, wiping the windows with that shop towel, and I got out and we chatted there in the wind. We talked about all the important things of the day. Sports, weather, kind of avoided politics, but we had a good pleasant visit. He kept looking at me as he was putting gas in my car and he said, “I think I know you. Aren’t you a writer?” I said, “Yeah, I am” and he said, “What are you doing out here?” I said, “Oh, I’m writing another book.” He said, “What’s it about?” I said, “Well, it’s about Route 66.” As I recall, this man about my age, literally guffawed at me. He said, “You’ve got to be kidding me?” He was just shaking his head. I said, “No, it’s about Route 66.” He said, “Well, who in the world would want to read a book about an old highway?” He just couldn’t believe in it.
By that time, I had been pretty well filled up with this kind of reaction, so I said “Pal, let me ask you. Why don’t you tell me about your Route 66?” He said, “I will. That’s Route 66 right there. This is my gas station. I’ve been pumping gas here a long time. My granddaddy started this station in 1927, the year after Route 66 was created. He went to work for Uncle Frank Phillips and they commercialized gasoline, sold it retail right down this road. My grandpa used to tell me about the early 30’s, and it took so long. It took 10 years to pave the road. He remembered the work crews coming through here. These men naked from the waist up just glistening in the sun with drag lines, and mules carving at that road right there.
People coming over to take stones to use for building walls and houses. My dad went on to own this business, ran it very good. Except, he took time out to go to the Pacific in World War II, and he came back, and he and his brother picked up on it. Now, I own it, and my sister. I reckon someday, it will be our children’s place. Yeah, Route 66,” he said, “Right around that bend there, where that curve goes, I went to Clinton High School. I was a Fightin’ Red Tornado and we were state champions just like we are right now. We beat Weatherford, we beat Elk City, We beat everybody. All comers.
Up there, there’s a graveyard where my folks are buried, where my grandpa and grandma are buried. There’s a little baby girl that we lost that’s buried up there. Down the road there, down by Pop Hicks’ is that Greyhound Bus station and that’s where I left Clinton. The only time I really left when I was drafted. That bus took me right up 66 to Fort Leonard Wood Missouri, right on 66. When I got back from Vietnam, by God, I think I was on that same bus when it stopped right down there and I got off. It didn’t take long before I married my high school sweetheart and we raised our family right here in Clinton.”
About then, a big yellow school bus rolled right by us, right down there. That guy just lit up and he took his shop towel and he was waving it, and all the kids in the bus were looking out waving at him. He turned and he said, “All of my grandkids are right there in that bus.” I had not said one single word this whole time. We were done with our transaction. Just about when I was ready to slip back in that car, join Susanne, this man stopped me. He came over to me and I could see despite the wind that his eyes had tears, and he looked me straight in my eyes, and he said “I’m really glad you’re writing this book. I really am glad.” I shook his hand, got in the car, turned the engine over, and drove west. I had gone about 200 yards when this feeling washed over me. A feeling that I have to this very day, that that road would never die. I felt it in my heart and in my bones. That’s exactly what happened. The road is alive.
Thank you. Now, I will open it up to questions I know we have. I’m always facing exceptionally bright audiences. I guess this one is no exception, so, I’m expecting some pretty good questions from this group.
Speaker 2: Any questions? I’m sure you’ve got questions.
Michael Wallis: Rhys, you must have a question.
Speaker 3: Are you still doing tours of Route 66?
Michael Wallis: Unfortunately, I’m not, because in the early days after the revival started, my wife and I led several tours. We led two big tours for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and led two other really great tours for the Smithsonian Institution. Then, we led two historic tours for Harley-Davidson, for the company, and we brought in each tour, 1500 bikers from around the world down the entire length of Route 66. We spent about two and a half weeks on the road riding in little posses, gathering at night, and host cities where I’d give them a little come to Jesus talk. Then, we’d keep going our way. It was a marvelous, marvelous trip.
We did several other little tours and day trips. Just recently, Rhys and I led a busload of international students from Tulsa Community College on a little day trip from Tulsa to Edmond on the old road. They enjoyed it. These were students from China, Poland, Russia, India, all over, Africa. I can’t overemphasize enough the importance of the foreign travel on Route 66. People do not realize how much there is and it actually, in my opinion, is what keeps the road alive. These two Chinese girls that were on that trip with us, they were ecstatic. China is the fastest growing market on Route 66. For some years now, we’ve kind of taken care of it. I was connected by the Chinese government, and by a big university in Beijing, and invited to come to China to help them establish their own Route 66.
My reaction was this. You folks are very good at mimicking things. You can do that with built architecture. You can build your own Empire State Building and your own Colosseum, but you can’t recreate that road culture, so you guys just keep coming here, and apparently they are.
Speaker 4: Hello, Michael.
Michael Wallis: Hi.
Speaker 4: I consider you the father of the revitalization of Route 66 to be sure. Through all these years that you have been traveling the road, knowing the road as you do, riding of the road, what would you say are some of the biggest successes that you’ve seen in terms of preservation of the architectural backbone of the road? The structure of the road? What have been some of the greatest successes through the years and some of the remaining challenges?
Michael Wallis: Very good. A lot of the successes, and I know she’s prone to avoid any kind of limelight or compliments, but a lot of the successes come from the woman that just asked that question. That’s Kaisa Barthuli the head of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program of the National Park Service who has been a tremendous asset to the road. That program alone has founded so many preservation projects. Not only bricks and mortar, but other things as well, like even a drama that the students from Northern Arizona University created. It was sort of a staged musical about Route 66. A program to record the history, the narrative from people who have been on the road. It’s just a fabulous program, which I think it was the last legislation Bill Clinton signed before he went out of office.
Somehow, it’s bounced along all these years through lots of different enemies, including some of our elected officials in Oklahoma, and one of the chief ones is fortunately gone. But, it is going to and Kaisa will talk to you about this, eventually sunset, so, but there are mechanisms in place to … You’re not going to take Kaisa’s place, but you could absorb some of that work from that program. The other successes come from just grassroots people who have had the wherewithal, gumption, and vision to take an old crumbling business, or building, and bring it back to life often through repurposing, but bring it back to life without destroying the bones, without destroying the integrity of that building. All kinds of examples of that.
Yes, we’ve had a lot of loss. That’s always going to be the case. You have loss, you have gain, but the gain has been terrific. I remember when I was on my first book tour in 1994, my first book tour for that book, The Mother Road, I was … People were coming out from all over. We did a tour up and down the road. My publisher had to go back to press it four times. It was all over New York Times, LA Times, BBC, Good Morning America, and reporters would ask me, “Are you surprised by this reaction?” At that time, I said no, not really. I know there are other people like me out there. But, it wasn’t long before I did become surprised and thankfully, I’m still surprised to this day by this growing interest in the road.
Another big success is we finally have gotten through to a lot of the bureaucrats. That took some doing. There were times when I thought I had to revert to my old Marine ways and go into a city hall, or a capitol building with a two by four and set things straight, but I never did. I acted more like an embassy Marine. We got the word across to these people that this road, the resurrection of this road, of any historic road, and this is arguably the most famous, that’s why we have the obligation to lead the way, this means it puts vehicular traffic in your state, in your county, in your city, in your town.
You’re not just a drive-by on the super slab. People will come there and what do people do? They have to eat, they have to drink, they have to sleep, they want to see places, they want to see the sites. The man-made sites, the natural sites. They’re going to spend time there. It’s called heritage tourism, but it’s also called economic development. When I used those words, the lights went on for politicians, for chambers of commerce, for business leaders. We still have many lights to turn on, believe me, but we’re turning them on. I think probably, Kaisa, the biggest success of all is that this road has continued to mature. People in the road have come to grasp the real meaning. That it’s not just nostalgia. You’ve heard me say this a gazillion times. It’s not just ’57 Chevy’s, cheeseburgers, and poodle skirts. That’s a slice. It’s more than that. The road is a metaphor for looking at this country before it became generic. It’s a living, open air museum. Right, Rhys? That’s what it is. That’s why with our Route 66 alliance, we’re pushing this into school curriculum, into education, preservation, and so forth.
But, people of the road have realized the story of diversity. The story of the racism on the road, the classism, the treatment of the Oakies, the treatment of people of color on the road. The women of Route 66 in this age of the woman, at long last, are being recognized. The Native American tribes are being recognized at least for their contribution and/or how they were influenced by the coming of the road. For that, I applaud Route 66 and all the good road warriors out there.
Speaker 2: Another question?
Speaker 5: Oh, you’re next, you’re next.
Speaker 6: Hello, I was wondering as someone who has spent so much time examining our relationship with Route 66, if you have any ideas or theories about how self-driving cars might alter our cultural relationships with routes in the future?
Michael Wallis: That’s a great question. You heard me during my talk. First of all, I’ll qualify this. I am not opposed to technology, I’m really not. I’m not a very technical person. I’m just starting my 20th book. I’ve written all of my books on a computer. Each one gets a little bit better. I used to be as fearful of the computer as the IRS, but I know how to research and write on a computer. That’s all I can do. That’s enough. I have the latest iPhone. I’ve got all that gadgetry. I’m on social media, all that stuff.
I’m scared to death of self-driving cars. That’s just my honest opinion. I can’t imagine it. It’s hard enough for Americans to part with their cars now and contemplate, which would be grand, if we could ever contemplate a carless world. That is definitely down the line, but I can’t imagine, especially these good ol’ boys saying, “I’m not going to drive my pickup anymore, I’ve got a self-driving pickup”, or you know, anybody. Family vacations and everybody’s freaking out. I think there’s already been some incidents, haven’t there? Accidents or something? A death or … So, I don’t know. I wanted to qualify that, but at the same time tell you at this point in time, I don’t get it.
Speaker 6: Thank you.
Speaker 5: Hi. I just wanted to thank you for inspiring us with Route 66. My wife and I live in Oklahoma City, right off of Route 66 for many years, and we read your book, and looked at it. We thought right here, Route 66, highway 77 that used to go border to border, highway 62 that goes border to border, we thought we’re in Oklahoma City, why not go travel all these highways. As soon as our kids were old enough, we said what goal would you like? They said “We like our road trips,” so, each summer we blocked off two weeks, 5000 miles, and we decided to drive from Oklahoma City in a Purple Plymouth Minivan, A Grand Voyager, which great name, and we hit all 48 states, District of Columbia, the coast, and Canadian Provinces. I did 130,000 miles of road time based on your book and we just had a great time, so thanks.
I think the ninth state of Route 66 is the mental state of getting in the van and heading out, so, thanks very much for that.
Michael Wallis: We have an old pal in California who says that the ninth state is a state of mind.
Speaker 7: Hi, I just want to thank you also. I love your interviews, you’re so lyrical and poetic. That’s just like the Mother Road is to me, as well. You bring it to life like no other. To emphasize your point about all the students, I had a foreign exchange student a few years ago from Argentina and I asked him “Okay, we’ve got two weeks. What do you want to do?” Without hesitation, he wanted to get on Route 66, and go see the Hollywood sign, so we did. We took your book along and just had a great time with it.
My question to you is what off the beaten path roadways are there now that need discovering?
Michael Wallis: There are lots of them. There used to be at least a couple hundred named highways in this country, and a lot of them are still around. I did another book about the Lincoln Highway created in 1913 that runs from Time’s Square to The Golden Gate through 13 states. The Lincoln Highway has a very active association, national association, and they do a very good job. They have chapters in all those states. People are always asking me to compare the two roads. I call Lincoln the father road and the mother road. There are some obvious similarities depending on the period of time with the commercial archeology, or the existing sites along the road from those periods. In fact, the Lincoln crosses the 66 up in Illinois.
66 seems to have more sizzle and the people of 66 … Now, I belong to the Lincoln Highway Association, if any of you do, and I’m not downplaying. They’re a little more serious, very serious about the road, which is good, and they’re talking about precise alignments, and this, and that. They’re very nice people, but Route 66ers has a whole branch of it that are nothing but wonderful, unadulterated, eccentric characters that are nurtured by the road. I know this full well, because a few of them I’ve helped create. It’s a matter of the timing of that road when it came along in the roaring 20’s, and the path it took across two-thirds of the continent anchored by these two big cities along the way.
But, there are other roads. There’s the Jefferson highway and they have a big association. There are even smaller roads that don’t have an association that maybe should. One that comes to mind, it’s maybe something you’ve been on is the Tamiami Trail across the everglades. It starts in Little Havana and goes straight across the glades, some amazing stops along the way to Naples. Naples is about as different from Chiaocho as I don’t know what, but it’s a great journey. There’s a little road that I like so much in Northern New Mexico that I’ve written about since the 60’s. It’s known locally as the High Road to Taos. A back road that goes up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains through that necklace of Hispanic villages where they spoke the language of Cervantes, and comes in to Ranchos de Taos that way, instead of going up through the gorge.
There are little roads, there are big roads, there are named highways. There are lots of roads out there and all of them can teach us so much and give us so much pleasure. But, they’re really tailored made, not so much for tourists. I mean, I encourage tourists to go out there, but they’re ideal for travelers, and you know the difference. Tourists tend to leave home and take home with them. They get to Paris, they get to Rome, they get to Tokyo, and the first thing they do is look for the golden arches. They’re not risk takers. You’ve got to be a little bit of a risk taker to do an open road trip on an old twisty road. That’s part of the whole story. It’s the adventure. It’s what makes the journey a big part of the adventure as opposed to the destination.
Speaker 2: Thank you, Michael.
Michael Wallis: Thank you.
Michael Wallis is a storyteller who likes nothing better than transporting audiences across time and space, Michael has published nineteen books, including the award winning Route 66: The Mother Road, the book credited with sparking the resurgence of interest in the highway. He also wrote The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times to the Golden Gate. Michael’s latest book is the critically acclaimed best-seller The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny — was published in June 2017.
A best-selling author and award-winning reporter, Michael is a historian and biographer of the American West who also has gained international notoriety as a speaker and voice talent. In 2006 Michael’s distinctive voice was heard in CARS, an animated feature film from Pixar Studios. Michael also is featured in CARS 2, and CARS 3. Michael is a co-founder of the non-profit preservation organization the Route 66 Alliance, and remains an advocate for all historic roads and trails.
His work has appeared in hundreds of national and international magazines and newspapers, including Time, Life, People, Smithsonian, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. Michael and his wife, Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis, have lived in Tulsa since 1982.