Route 66 in the News

A Route 66 Legend Says Farewell

2009-10-27 20:20:08

ROCHESTER, Ill. - Normally by the time fall’s first chill reaches central Illinois, Bob Waldmire is far away in his beloved Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona. There, he lives as he chooses -- off the power grid, with his water tank, his wind-generated power and his solar hot tub.

But Bob, most often described for lack of a better description as the last of the hippies, is not in the mountains this fall. He is here, living in the old converted school bus that he calls home whenever he is back in his native central Illinois.

It is very likely that Bob, who is 64, will never see those mountains again. He is dying of cancer. He is spending the fall saying “see you later” to a stream of friends who knock on the door of the school bus and spend some time with a legend.

Martin Lathrop arrived Monday from Terre Haute to spend the night with his old friend. “He’s one of a kind, an artistic genius,” says Lathrop.

For many years, Bob and Martin have shared a connection to an American highway, a strip of road that shaped Bob’s life.

“Anywhere along Route 66,” says Lathrop, “you stop and ask if Bob’s been there lately, they all know Bob. They’ll say, ‘Yeah, he was just by a month ago’ or something like that.”

Ron Jones drove here from Oklahoma to knock on the door of the bus. Jones’ upper body is covered with Route 66-themed tattoos. He removes his shirt to display them at various festivals devoted to the highway.

Bob is an accomplished artist who once said he turned to art as a way to avoid getting a real job. His art adorns stops, and even buildings, all along the highway.

It was that connection to Route 66 that spawned my first column on Bob. When Disney/Pixar made the movie “Cars,” they modeled Fillmore, the VW hippie van voiced by George Carlin, after Bob. Bob is a friend of “Cars” consultant and Route 66 author Michael Wallis. Wallis was also the voice of the sheriff in “Cars.”

Producers of the movie might have called the van “Waldmire,” but Bob has lived his life as an ethical vegetarian and balked at the movie’s merchandising deal with McDonald’s. The van became “Fillmore” instead.

I found Bob on a muddy Monday, lying on the couch in his bus. The room was stultifyingly hot from a wood fire Bob had burning for his comfort. And yet he was covered in a blanket.

He is surrounded by the clutter of his books (“Gray’s Anatomy” and “The Portable Curmudgeon” among them) and pictures (Marilyn Monroe, Marlee Matlin and about a hundred friends) that cover the walls of the bus. It looks like a museum.

A T-shirt is draped over the back of the couch where Bob is resting. The shirt reads “Free Thinker.” Appropriate.

Bob is weak but in good spirits and looking toward his death as he always looked at his life, with good-natured acceptance along with his usual delightfully skewed approach.

“I’m happy and warm,” he told me, “cozy, contented. I’ve got a lot of writing to do. I’m getting my affairs in order.”

He won’t have time to finish the book he always wanted to write about his father, Ed Waldmire. Ed founded the Cozy Dog restaurant in Springfield and is generally credited with inventing the hot dog on a stick. Ed was a colorful personality all his own, and much of his life and personality still permeates the Cozy Dog.

Bob has finished a 16-page outline of what would have been his father’s biography. He calls it “The Story of Ed Waldmire and the Hot Dog on a Stick.” A thousand of them will be printed. Many will be given away as gifts. Others will be sold for $1 at the Cozy Dog.

He is also writing an open letter to friends and people he has never met, but who love Route 66 as he does. His letter will eventually be printed in the “Route 66 Pulse,” the newspaper of the Route 66 Alliance.

Aside from his old school bus, there is the 1972 Volkswagen van that he has steered up and down 66 “more times than I can count.” The van will go to the Route 66 Alliance museum in Tulsa, where it will be on permanent display.

“The most crucial of things was to get its future secured,” Bob says of the van. That leaves only his 1965 Mustang, on which he once painted a map of Route 66 that extends from the hood to the trunk. Its future is a loose end Bob has yet to tie up.

The hundreds of papers, books and drawings that comprise the archives of Bob and Ed Waldmire will be moved to a building near the home of Buz Waldmire, Bob’s brother.

Lying on his couch, Bob motions behind him, where, just a few yards away, another brother, Bill, is working at his Cardinal Hill Candles & Crafts. He motions in the other direction, where Buz lives just down the road. A brother on one side, a brother on the other helps him feel secure.

When the time comes, he says, hospice nurses will come to the bus to care for him. He has his pain meds and his bottles of Ensure for nutrition. He has even begun eating food he would never eat before.

“I have suspended my vegan lifestyle,” he says. “I’ve been enjoying something I haven’t had in 20 years, but it used to be one of my favorites.”

That is cottage cheese, scooped up with a chip and doused with salsa.

He ate an egg.

“I hadn’t had one of those in 20 years either,” Bob says. “I cracked one and put it into a pan and sizzled it with some potatoes. I had an egg sandwich just like I used to have when I was a kid.

“The egg came from chickens owned by (local artist and long-time friend) Bill Crook and his wife, Wendy. They’re happy chickens that won’t ever be slaughtered, so I felt OK about that.”

Worrying about how chickens feel. That’s Bob.

I asked him how long he has had cancer. He knew about it 10 years ago. A doctor found a polyp in his colon that didn’t look good. The doc offered to take it out for him. Bob said he had to think about it. He didn’t think about it long. He never went back.

That, too, is Bob.

“See,” he says, “I came to a fork in the road in about 1983. I took the path that didn’t have hospitals and clinics. So with this, I took the path of nature, allowing my own immune system to wage the battle.”

He knew what that probably would mean and he has no regrets. He did it his way. Now that the end is coming near, he is facing that his own way, too.

He plans to be cremated. Half of his ashes will be placed next to those of his parents. The other half will be given to friends who will sprinkle them along Route 66. Some ashes will be taken to Arizona where, you could say, he will return to the Chiricahua Mountains for good.

~Dave Bakke, SJ-R.com

 

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