Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bob Waldmire

American artist and legendary hippie Bob Waldmire reached the end of the road yesterday. You will understand what that means in a minute.

Waldmire loved Route 66 and won the prestigious John Steinbeck Award in 2004 for his contributions toward its preservation. He traveled it over and over, supporting himself by peddling his prolific pen-and-ink drawings at festivals and stores along the way. He had begun his art career by doing an intricate bird's-eye drawing of his hometown, followed by a total of 34 cities and 4 states. He drew the icons on 66, motels (like the Wigwam Motel in Rialto, Calif.), restaurants (Steve's Cafe in Chenoa, Ill.), gas stations (Soulsby's Shell Station, Mt. Olive, Ill.), weird places (the Edsel graveyard in Shamrock, Texas), whole towns (Needles, Calif.), even stretches of the “Mother Road” still in existence (in Hydro, Okla.; Halltown, Mo.; Dwight, Ill.). His posters and postcards featured scenic overlooks, native flora and fauna, famous landmarks, famous quotes, and personal comments that included pleas for peace, anti-nuclear sentiments, and comments about ecology. Waldmire's favorite diner was the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma; his favorite book was Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath; and his favorite song was, of course, "Route 66." He was often on the road between Illinois and his home “off the grid” in Arizona, where he had water tanks instead of running water, solar heat, and a windmill for generating his own electricity.

His family owns the Cozy Dog Drive-in Restaurant in my hometown of Springfield, Illinois, where his father perfected the corn dog. Waldmire, a longtime vegan, ate his own meatless version of the Cozy Dog - he substituted sauteed tofu in what he called the "Cozy Not Dog." It was his vegetarian beliefs that caused him to decline the offer from Pixar to name the van in the movie Cars after him - he objected to plans to sell toy versions in McDonald's Happy Meals. There are plans to put his 1972 VW van, which carried him along Route 66 more times than Waldmire could count on permanent display at the Route 66 Alliance museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

He realized about a decade ago that he had abdominal cancer, but refused any invasive procedures that might have prolonged his life at the expense of his life philosophy. He spent his final days in a converted school bus on his family farm south of Springfield. Many of his friends and fellow Route 66 devotees came to say their goodbyes. Waldmire (1945-2009) died peacefully in his sleep yesterday at the age of 64. Some of his ashes will be spread on the road he loved.

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