Movies, the Mother Road and road trips

A conversation with Michael Wallis

Michael Wallis is an author, storyteller and American road enthusiast. Asphalt magazine Publisher Brian Clark discussed the “Mother Road” and more with Wallis at the Route 66 Tri-State Festival and Summit Meetings this summer.

Asphalt magazine (AM): Can you tell me about your favorite road and how your love affair with Route 66 began?

Michael Wallis (MW): Route 66 happens to be, arguably, the most famous highway in the nation –probably the world. In regard to protecting and preserving Route 66, it becomes an obligation for me and it should be for other people to preserve, protect and enhance all the roads – all the roads of history. I’m particularly fond of those roads, those vintage pathways. And you’ll hear me say this in speeches, it’s one of my most favorite quotes. It comes from William Blake of all people – the old English philosopher, poet and artist. It goes something like this: “Improvement makes straight roads, but crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.”

AM: Do you see people becoming more connected to the road today than they were a decade ago?

MW: Yes – one big factor is the advent of heritage tourism. It’s huge – and people don’t realize that. People just wanting to see things right here in their own country that they haven’t seen before – whether it’s battlefields, old towns like Radiator Springs or natural sites. The growth and potential is very strong.

AM: You mentioned Radiator Springs, I hear you voiced the character Sheriff in the 2006 movie “Cars.” How was that experience?

MW: I went out on the road with the Pixar creative team and spent time with them in the studio. I got to see up close and personal the time they take for research. I was impressed. I watched them for hours going out in different cities and rural locations just watching crews pouring asphalt.

I was asked to teach them about my road – and I did. I gave it to them in big gulps early and they digested it and they came up with a very memorable film. It’s going to leave a lasting impression and help preserve one of the best known roads in the world.

Now we’re doing “Cars 2” and we are creating the actual village of Radiator Springs out in Anaheim across from Disneyland. They’ll be plenty of paved roads out there in that 12 acres, you’ll see it all. That asphalt is always going to look top notch.

AM:“Cars” seems to explore the road as a symbol for relationships – roads connecting people and people to the land. Did you find that to be true?

MW: That’s right. You see for me, Route 66 running from Chicago to Santa Monica, 2,400 miles, 8 states, 3 times zones – I don’t see state lines. I don’t see county lines. I don’t see city limits. To me it’s a village, and everything is connected.

Most people out there that make a living on the road are growing winter wheat, raising goats or horses, selling you a pocket full of post cards or room for the night or a meatloaf platter. They know the importance of working as one. They know that what is good for Raleigh, MO is good for Baxter, KS is good for New Mexico. To make it work and to make it last it has to have that unity.

AM: Asphalt magazine started the website last year so people can share stories of their favorite roads. Do you see this as useful?

MW: Any time you can get people to articulate, whether it’s electronically, in a notebook, on the telephone or online it helps them to express, to get some feelings out. Once those words are uttered or written down they are out there. I think it’s a good way of people sharing thoughts of different processes, getting new ideas and broadening their scope. I think it’s just a terrific idea.

Wallis bibliography