Perhaps best known, by many lovers of American history and Route 66, for his vigorously well-researched, carefully crafted books that dive deeply into the examination of historical figures and not-too-distant time periods along the Mother Road, Michael Wallis is best known for his hearty voice and his natural ability to turn the most mundane into an appealing, fascinating story. Wallis is also regarded by many as the godfather of Route 66, due to his authority on the route and the enormous success of his bestselling 1990 book Route 66: The Mother Road.
Beginning his distinguished career in journalism in 1957, Wallis has gone on to be published in Time, Life, People, Smithsonian, The New Yorker, and The New York Times to name a few. In addition to being the author of nineteen well received books, he is a renowned speaker, and the voice actor of Sheriff in the Disney-Pixar movie Cars. Yet, with all of the success and accolades awarded to Wallis, he continues to be humble and down-to-earth, passionate about his family and friends and committed to the promotion and preservation of the Mother Road.
You’ve had a long and distinguished career as a writer and public speaker. But where did it all begin?
I think I was really conscious of the art of writing and the prospects of becoming a writer quite early on as a boy. It was really a sport in many ways. When I was just an adolescent, in sixth grade, I chose to enter an essay writing contest and won, and not only did I receive a modest honorarium, and had my picture appear in my hometown paper, The St. Louis Post Dispatch, but the big treat was having the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals send a limo to our home to take my dad and I down to a ballgame to see our beloved Cardinals play the Chicago Cubs at Sportsman’s Park.
But it caused me to think, you know, this writing is not a bad thing. It’s pretty interesting what this can lead to. Some years later, I won another big national contest, sponsored by Wesleyan University and Scholastic Magazine, to write about the biggest events in 1959, things such as the Cuban revolution, the new states being admitted to the union, the last states, all kinds of events. Again, that was another sort of, ‘atta boy’.
Oddly enough, I didn’t take an orthodox route. I never worked on the school paper, or did that sort of thing. It was a combination of standard education, but also life experience. I saw that as very important. I was greatly influenced, like a lot of male American authors my age, I was born in 1945 at the end of World War II, by [the work of] Ernest Hemingway. And besides liking his writing style, I tried to emulate his life, until I came of age and really formed a life of my own.
I thought it was important to do as much as you can to see the world and to do everything. So, when I got out of prep school, I went to a military academy and loved it, and had a very well rounded education, athlete and scholar, and again, greatly impacted by many of those wonderful teachers I had there, including my senior English teacher who was really a mentor of mine. Then I decided to take a pass on an honor military school nomination to West Point, and instead, went to college for a year and played football and baseball, but still had a wild hair, so put in a hitch in the Marines, again trying to do it all. When I got out, I went back to school and finished up studying English and history. But then did all kinds of things: tended bar, worked on a ranch, I was a social worker, I was a printer, I wrote poetry and prose, started a literary magazine, paying my dues, and really developing into a writer.
This is in the late ’60s and that’s the track I took, going from that to daily journalism to writing books, and now I’m poised to write my twentieth book.
That is quite a journey. What spurred you to focus your time and talent toward writing Route 66: The Mother Road?
Route 66 was always part of my life, part of my consciousness.
I was born in St. Louis, a good Route 66 town, and grew up in West St. Louis County. My family home was, as I like to say, just about as far as one of my idols, Stan Musial, the great Cardinals slugger, could hit a hard ball off an abridged alignment of Route 66, today called Manchester Road. So, the road was always there for me. It was just part of our life. Route 66, we called it, like many people back then, Highway 66, but we didn’t think it was necessarily anything special. We just knew it as the highway. The highway [that our] family would take to drive across the Mississippi and into Illinois to visit relatives in Chicago, up on Lake Michigan.
It was the road we took west for me to discover the West, to see my first oil pump jack, and cowboys and Indians, eat my rst enchilada, you know, all the way to the Pacific shore, all the great natural sites along the way, all the man- made sites along the way.
It was the road I learned how to drive on. I was a kid, I bought my first car on Route 66, in Pacific, Missouri, in 1955, a Plymouth Savoy, a great little car. I bought it from the proverbial old lady who had very few miles on it. I hitchhiked home on Route 66 when I was in the Marines in California. I have great memories and interesting stories about those treks. [Laughs] And then as a reporter, I covered a lot of the good, the bad, and the ugly on Route 66, because I’d lived in seven of the eight states. The only one I haven’t really lived in is Kansas, where there’s less than fourteen miles, albeit a very important short passage of the highway, and one of my favorite stretches of the road.
So, it was because of that experience and my knowledge and my personal connection to the road ... then in the ‘80s, after the last towns were bypassed after the decertification of the highway by the Federal government was complete, with these five interstates that parallel it between Chicago and Santa Monica, I immediately began growing very weary when people started talking about the road in the past tense, because I knew that although the shields were down, and that a lot of towns along the way did not get off-ramps, did not get an exit, did not get access from that Super-Slab, I knew that the people were still there, dispensing hospitality, growing winter wheat, ranching, leading their lives, making a living on Route 66. I knew that as today, more than eighty- five percent of that road could still be traveled, and that’s what ultimately led me to write what I unabashedly call ‘a love letter to the highway’, and more importantly, to the people of the highway. And the book Route 66: The Mother Road was published in 1990 and immediately took hold and quickly sparked a revival of interest in the road that continues to this very day.
To enjoy the full interview with Michael Wallis, grab a copy of ROUTE Magazine from your nearest Barnes and Noble store.