Archive for July, 2011

Woolaroc Buffalo Skull

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Woolaroc Buffalo Skull

In January 1926 — about three months after oil tycoon Frank Phillips officially unveiled his new Woolaroc lodge at his ranch in Oklahoma — his first major shipment of animals — a herd of buffalo — arrived at the ranch. Phillips already had cattle grazing in the pastures, and a dozen buffalo were growing fat in a meadow, but he wanted more. The new buffalo Phillips selected came from Pierre, South Dakota, and were part of the largest wild herd left ion the country. A total of 183 buffalo were shipped — 120 for Phillips, 53 for the Miller brothers at the 101 Ranch, and 10 for Waite Phillips’ new ranch located in the mountains of northern New Mexico.

Phillips could boast that he owned the second-largest herd of buffalo in captivity in the United States. His 132 buffalo put him ahead of Pawnee Bill, the showman who kept a sizable herd of bison for his Wild West show. Only the Millers’ herd of 200 buffalo was larger than the herd at the Frank Phillips Ranch.

In tribute to Buffalo Bill Cody, a childhood hero, and because of the importance of buffalo in the development of the American West, Phillips selected the big shaggy animal — the monarch of the plains — as the official symbol for his ranch. A buffalo-head illustration adorned the ranch stationery, and when the herd was thinned or an old animal died, their skulls were tacked on the lodge walls or in prominent places around the ranch.

The buffalo skull in this photo is from the original herd and was presented to Michael Wallis after the publication of Oil Man, his biography of Frank Phillips.

VIDEO: Songdog Diary: The Pickup Truck by Michael Wallis

Saturday, July 30th, 2011

Michael reads from his book “Songdog Diary: 66 Stories from the Road.”

Michael Wallis on TalkRadio 630 K-HOW

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Listen to Michael on TalkRadio 630 K-HOW as he discusses his new books and a whole lot more with Peter Boyles. Peter Boyles is a popular and controversial radio host in Denver, Colorado. Boyles can be heard on his morning drive-time talk show on 630 K-HOW in Denver and on

Boyles is also an avid motorcyclist, and for a year hosted USA Biker Nation a syndicated weekly radio talk show on motorcycle topics. He frequently promotes charity benefit rides, such as one for the widow and children of slain police officer Donnie Young.

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The Tamiami Trail: Florida’s Bridge Over a River of Grass

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

It’s 1980 and Saturday night in Miami. I have taken time off from my duties as a magazine correspondent in the hard news capital of the nation for an evening of badly needed rest and recuperation. Tired of Coconut Grove’s trendy hangouts and the familiar haunts of Miami Beach, I turn to the west. Soon I find what I’m after just beyond the glow of city lights at an Everglades oasis called Glader Park.

Inside, thirsty workingmen belly up to the bar. Their nerves are still raw from a week of hard labor. A honey-blonde barkeep named Star clad in a halter-top and cutoff jean shorts doesn’t help calm things. One tattooed biker gets a migraine just from staring as the leggy Star pours drinks — mostly tap beer, hard whiskey, and cheap tequila.

Marathon games of eight ball rage at either end of the joint and Hank Williams, Jr. gets a long ride thanks to a semi-intoxicated patron who has fed five bucks in quarters into the tarnished and battered juke box.

Along a wall oozes a man who has tried to drink all the beer in Florida. He gropes for the john door but just as his hand finds the knob a ragtag family resembling the fictional Joads marches in from the darkness. The gaunt mother clutches her purse so tightly it seems to have fused with her body. She stands guard, her hawk eyes dancing, while her two dingy boys scramble by the drunk for the toilet. They slam the door in his face. The drunk grins and pardons them with a belch.

A blend of alcohol, smoke, and sweat fills the air. Some hounds snarl and snap at their master’s feet and the bully of the bunch is pitched outside to bay at a sliver of cold moon. Nearby, under crackling neon lights, a bear-sized fellow wrapped in a blanket gapes at a battery-powered television and waits for gasoline customers who never come.

Past the gas pumps on the edge of the road fading words printed on a fifteen-foot-tall rusting beer can tell everyone that this is Glader Park. A gathering place for hog hunters and frog giggers, out here nervous tourists order mixed drinks to go and Miccosukee Indians sip and dream of times past. Miami tour guides bring people out to gawk and get a taste of the wild side.

It is also a sweet enough place for an overworked reporter, weary of covering cocaine smugglers and Caribbean refugees. Watching the droves of swamp angels who regularly roost at the bar recharges me. They drool over plates of smoked gator meat — Everglade’s caviar — and wash it down with icy suds.

Glader Park was one of my favorite stops — a comfortable spot on a ribbon of road stretching into the dark night. A well-worn path with different names, back in Miami it starts as a city street called Southwest Eighth or Calle Ocho in Little Havana. Snowbirds in their bug-splattered cars know the road as U.S. 41. For the crusty souls who live and play in the lush lands bordering the road there is only one name. For them it is The Trail. The Tamiami Trail.

“Lots of folks come down this road,” Uncle Bernie Freed, an owner of Glader Park told me that Saturday night so long ago. “A good many people drive the Tamiami Trail and they stop here. Even a bunch of wealthy types come out here and you can’t tell them from the poor ones. Everyone looks alike. You see, the Trail and the Glades have a way of equalizing people.”

All these years later Uncle Bernie’s words still ring true.

Mid-Point Cafe on Route 66

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

Mid-Point Cafe

When you’re here, you’re halfway there!

Route 66 travelers should keep in mind that a worthwhile stop awaits them at Adrian — a highway on the western end of the Texas Panhandle. There life continues for a handful of highway businesses including the Mid-Point Cafe & Gift Shop, one of the oldest eateries on the Mother Road.

Originally only one room with a dirt floor when it opened in 1928, the café has added importance other than its continuous service and superior food. A monument sign just across the road acknowledges that Adrian and the café is the official midpoint of Route 66, equidistant between Chicago and Santa Monica. People from around the globe have taken countless photos in front of the sign. Either direction, it’s 1,139 miles.

Those who are smart enough to enter the cafe are in for a real treat. Not only are the daily specials and succulent burgers some of the best on the old road, but the Mid-Point is the place where the famous Ugly Crust Pie originated and is still served.

VIDEO: Songdog Diary: Easy Rider by Michael Wallis

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Michael reads from his book “Songdog Diary: 66 Stories from the Road.”

The Sophian

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

In the Sophian Plaza we find refuge in the treetops with our books, art, and totems.

Living in the Sophian feels like living in a sturdy landlocked ship built of brick, concrete, and steel. It must have felt this way even back in the 1920s when a newspaper advertisement for Tulsa’s first luxury apartment building bragged, “There’s nothing just like Sophian Plaza in all Tulsa.”

Indeed, those words hold true to this day.

Ghosts whisper in the lobby and pad down carpeted halls scented with the aroma of cooking breakfast and supper. They wander in and out of apartments, ride the elevator, and sometimes pass through the basement where an enormous furnace bellows and snorts and keeps time on winter days. Visions of servants summoned by buzzers secreted under fine rugs linger, as do uniformed doormen who announced visitors and shuttled gleaming automobiles from the garage to the porte-cochere.

They are not stalking specters but well-mannered spirits from times past when seekers of oil and princes of commerce and coiffured ladies lived here. They recall the days of the riding stable, a delicatessen and barbershop, and a dining room with room service. These phantoms remember Babe Ruth — the “Sultan of Swat” — at rooftop parties sipping bootleg highballs with pals.

From our windows we see old Route 66 — the most famous highway in the nation — straddling the Arkansas, a coffee-colored river flowing southeast on its way to a rendezvous with the Mississippi. Traffic crosses on the newer concrete span built next to the Eleventh Street bridge, a deserted relic that serves as a shelter for the homeless who sleep in makeshift camps beneath the old bridge.

We gaze down at the Sophian grounds and take in the tapestry of flower and herb gardens, the arbor and pool, and the sloping tree-lined lawn. Beyond we see the architecture and landscape of the surrounding neighborhood.
In our bed we hear the call of geese flying low over the shining river as the moon silently glides through clouds. The breath of night wind comes into the room and touches our faces. Midnight trains whine and our cat turns in her sleep.

On most mornings great tribes of birds greet us. They lift off as one from the tallest trees and make grand sweeping circles amongst the morning stars. Outside, on the open stairway, we see the soft touch of spinning spiders in the cool shadows.

Sometimes we are so comfortable we contemplate never leaving our lofty domain. This is a coveted enclave where the past and present gently collide. It is an elegant building with authentic style and grace. The Sophian — steeped in Tulsa history — is a portal to the past.

Big Texan Steak Ranch

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

Big Texan Steak Ranch

All of my many journeys down the linear village of Route 66 take me through a diversity of places ranging from big cities to small farm and ranch towns and, of course, the wide open spaces. Since I was a teenager one of my favorite stopping points along the way is the Big Texan Steak Ranch nestled deep in the heart of the Texas Panhandle on the eastern edge of the high plains city of Amarillo.

Although no longer on the original Mother Road alignment, this steak lover’s paradise remains one of the most revered icons on every Route 66 travelers’ “must experience” list.

Like so many of the great culinary palaces travelers encounter, each and every visit to the Big Texan Steak Ranch is memorable. And I am no exception. People from around the globe flock to the place and keep coming back for more. They show up in every kind of motor vehicle imaginable, including one of the Big Texan’s own limousines with longhorns mounted on the hoods.

Some of the diners are locals, who over the years helped establish the Big Texan’s enormous gastronomic reputation. Many are travelers who read about this oasis of hospitality in guidebooks or saw it featured on television shows and in documentary films. Others come because they are curious after hearing countless stories about the place and what transpires inside the cavernous building. But most people who stop are interested in what the Big Texan does best — make hunger pangs vanish.

Simply put, this legendary highway mecca is tailor-made for anyone who enjoys good food and entertainment. The Big Texan routinely turns out beefsteaks so succulent that even diehard vegetarians have been known to fall off the wagon and depart as dedicated carnivores looking forward to their next visit.

That has been the case ever since 1960. That was when the late R. J. (Bob) Hall, formerly a Kansas City restaurateur, his wife Mary Anne, and their growing brood of kids founded the Big Texan alongside Amarillo Boulevard, one of the aliases still used by U.S. Route 66 as it snakes through town. In no time the ingenious entrepreneur’s towering sign of a long-legged Texas cowboy lured swarms of weary and hungry motorists off the Mother Road to refuel on choice steaks cooked over open flames and served with all the trimmings.

Folks knew they would feast on top-quality fare because there was nothing instant at the Big Texan except the service. I was one of those diners. Since the first time I cut into a Big Texan steak when just a sun-tanned boy of summer, I have known I would never leave the table hungry or disappointed. The Big Texan and the Lee family have never let me down. I am willing to bet good wages they never will.

Even when Bob Lee moved the business from its original site to a new location next to Interstate 40 I stayed loyal to the Big Texan, as did many other Route 66ers. In truth the Lee family had little choice but to relocate. It was either make a move or face what so many other businesses suffered — death by interstate.

By November 1968 Interstate 40 muscled its way past the Amarillo city limits and business at the Big Texan plummeted overnight. Bob Lee could not stop the inevitable. As I was later to write about the coming of the super slab: “Most of Lee’s customers vanished as quickly as a pat of soft butter on a hot-baked spud.” Bob Lee himself told me that he never forgot that fateful day when his “business went to absolutely zero.”

Instead of whimpering and turning tail, the Lees persisted. In 1970 they moved to the present location where to this day the Big Texan Steak Ranch remains a staunch Route 66 supporter and successfully competes with the generic cookie-cutter joints crowding the interstate highway. In 1976 after a horrific fire gutted the west wing of their restaurant, the Lees rolled up their collective sleeves and rebuilt. In fact, they expanded and added more features just as they always have done throughout the many years of serving the public. That is why legions of Route 66 travelers pause to buy Mother Road mementos and tangle with all manner and size of grilled beef. The Lees have never forgotten that it was Route 66 that “brung them to the dance.”

That is why I will always stop there. I stop to eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner depending on the time of day. I stop to see the best marketing gimmick on Route 66 when some stalwart soul attempts to devour the famed 72-ounce Big Texan steak and all the trimmings in an hour or less, or shell out a buck for every ounce. I go there to spend the night in one of the comfortable cowboy-style motel rooms. I go there to soak in the Texas-shaped swimming pool after a hot day on the open road. I stop to stock up on the latest in Route 66 souvenirs and road treasure. And I go there to see old pals and make new friends, knowing there will be plenty of both each time I show up.

Although founding father Bob Lee passed away in 1990, leaving behind Mary Anne and their eight children, the Big Texan remains in loving hands. Today the three eldest Lee siblings — Bobby, Danny, and Diane — jointly own and operate the business complex and continue to dispense the same hospitality that has always made the Big Texan a success.

Bon apetit!

VIDEO: Songdog Diary: Black Gold by Michael Wallis

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Michael reads from his book “Songdog Diary: 66 Stories from the Road.”

The High Road

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

“Improvement makes straight roads; But the crooked roads without improvements are roads of genius.” — William Blake

Like the 18th century poet William Blake I am an aficionado of crooked roads. I find them as irresistible as freshly baked pie. A true son of Route 66, I prefer cruising the twists and turns of America’s Main Street, or any of the nation’s other venerable two-lanes, to coasting those endless slabs of monotony littered with generic culture that pass for today’s interstate highways.

One of my most revered roads of genius is the High Road to Taos, a narrow and often treacherous ribbon of asphalt that snakes through a necklace of enduring Hispanic villages in the forested Sangre de Cristo (“the blood of Christ”) Mountains of northern New Mexico.

I have maintained a passionate love affair with this region for many years. That is why, no matter how far I stray, I always return. When I was a struggling young writer in the late 1960s, it was northern New Mexico, and especially the countryside and villages flanking the High Road to Taos, that provided me with unforgettable adventures and extraordinary teachers. The people and the land nurtured my creative soul.

As I would later write, “I sucked in piñon smoke as if it were holy incense. I smoothed my palm over petroglyphs — graffiti etched in stone by ancient people. I parked my pink-and-white Ford Ranchero named El Coyote on a trail high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and never found it again. I stalked rainbows that stretched back to the beginning of time. I rubbed the adobe earth into my hide. I became a moon hunter. I drank snowmelt beneath evergreens that climbed slopes once cloaked in glacial ice.

“I watched the classic dance of planets in the night sky and worshipped star clouds. I walked with saints and looked the devil right in the eye. I absorbed the nuance of history and culture. I bathed in the intensity of visible light flooding through the rarified mountain air. I held hands with a bonafide witch. I found countless mentors, wisdom keepers, and bold lovers.”

I also promised myself that I would die in this land. I intend to keep that pledge.

This is a place that offers choices and opportunities. It is a land of poco tiempo, or “little time,” where clocks seem useless. It is also a land of variety, including the many trails and roadways that crisscross the region. Simply the act of going from the ancient capital city of Santa Fe to the funky chic town of Taos provides two interesting options.

One way is the low road, or U.S. Highway 84/285. This direct four-lane route passes through the Río Grande Valley highway towns of Pojoaque and the low-rider haven of Española. It then enters a soaring black basalt canyon as New Mexico 68. The narrow road runs alongside the Río Grande and eventually leads to Taos.

The other way to go from Santa Fe to Taos is the High Road, designated a New Mexico Scenic Byway in 2002. I always tell anyone making a round trip to try both the river and mountain routes, but if it is only a one-way trek those intrepid folks who prefer roads of genius should take the 70-mile long High Road. They will never regret it as long as they use some caution and common sense.

For some the journey to Taos via the High Road — with its looping switchbacks and long picturesque approaches — can take as little as a few hours or, it may require an entire day. For a special few it is a never-ending journey.

Since I first traversed the High Road many years ago, the traffic count has increased while most of the landscape and the sites along the way are as familiar as always. There are some exceptions. Nothing stays the same — even in Chimayó, Córdova, Truchas, Las Trampas, Peñasco, and the other mountain villages, including some that in the late 1700s acted as the first line of defense on the frontier of New Spain.

History and culture have been tampered with and it shows. A sense of isolationism in the villages has largely gone along with some of the old adobe structures and a way of life — replaced in part by house trailers, quaint b&bs for the turistas, television dishes, and other evidence of so-called progress. Many of the modern conveniences have helped make village life more comfortable. Sadly, the problems that plague our cities, such as alcoholism, drug addiction and the resulting crime that is spawned, have also spread to some of the villages along the historic route.

Yet, I return to the High Road every chance I get. Enough of the old treasured enticements are left to lure me back. And, like all roads worth taking, it is never predictable. That counts for a lot, at least for me and other two-lane wanderers.

Last Stand Hill

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Last Stand Hill

Michael and Suzanne at Last Stand Hill in Wyoming. They are looking southwest. The markers indicate where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and 41 members of his regiment were killed by victorious Sioux and Cheyenne warriors on June 25, 1876. Along with the soldiers, 39 cavalry mounts also were killed, some by soldiers themselves to use as defensive breastworks. All the markers are on the western slope of the hill, 10-20 yds. from the crest. One marker indicates where Custer’s body was first buried before being interred at West Point. The view from this spot includes the Little Big Horn Valley where the immense Indian camp skirted the Little Big Horn River.

VIDEO: Michael Wallis Discusses the “Real” Oklahoma

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

Michael reads an excerpt from his book “Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation: Writings from America’s Heartland” about the “real” Oklahoma.