The famous and iconic song “Route 66” celebrates the freedom and possibility of car travel on America’s wide-open road. Route 66 passes through eight states beginning in Chicago, Illinois and ending in Santa Monica, California. Along the way, the Mother Road chronicles a lot of American history which is likely why there’s so much nostalgia associated with it.
I recently spent time in Oklahoma, which is the backdrop of more than 410 miles of Route 66, the longest stretch of the highway in any state. In addition to the quaint cafe’s on nearly every corner and the intermittent neighborhoods on the verge of progress but not quite ready to let go of “the good ol’ days” I stumbled on a treasure: Michael Wallis.
Wallis is the author of 19 book, including The Mother Road. He is a well respected expert on Route 66 and he is the rustic character voice of the Sheriff in the Pixar movie “Cars.”
I had a rare chance to actually travel along a portion of Route 66 with Wallis and find out why the Mother Road continues to beckon him. As we pass by old gas stations with vintage marques and towns with just one red light, I watch Wallis looking out the window.
There’s a certain comfort that defines his expressions as if he were visiting old friends, which is perhaps why Wallis refers to Route 66 as “the zen of the open road.” I soon discover why Wallis appears to be almost a fixture here: he learned to drive on Route 66; hitchhiked home on it and has lived in 7 of the 8 states it sections.
Wallis is a natural-born storyteller. His gravely voice shares the storied history of this famous road that came to be in 1926. The years have defined this road, like time wearing on the exterior signs of greasy spoon diners. Wallis doesn’t believe in romanticizing Route 66 and the images of ’57 Chevys and James Dean that come with it. He says the road carries the imprints of changes in American culture which includes Civil Rights and racism — a far less desirable time in our history.
“The Mother Road is a mirror held up to the nation showing a reflection of what’s going on in America,” said Wallis.
As we sit in Ollies Restaurant sipping a cold beverage, surround by comfortable Americana on the walls, I find out why Route 66 carries so much nostalgia. Wallis talks about the “front porch culture” that used to exist in America before it became a generic society.
The Mother Road’s hayday in the 1950’s was a time when neighbors actually spoke to one another and enjoyed an evening with lemonade on the front porch. It was a time when people communicated through stories, not 140 characters on a tablet.
It is a feeling, a memory, perhaps a wish for a simpler time. In the name of progress, we’ve given that up –but with progress has also come better days for America.
This colorful history, defined by good eats, a slower time and controversy all at once is why Route 66 has influenced music, food and culture.
I love that so many places along the road look like they probably did in 1956. Listening to Wallis is like being in a time capsule. His pure comfort here and his charismatic way of personifying the many elements that make Route 66 special takes me there for just a moment in a different place in history. Even the air smells rustic as trains pass by us near the Red Fork Centennial Oil Derrick, adding to the the ambiance.
Wallis departs our visit by saying this: “life truly begins at the off ramp.” I couldn’t agree more.