Route 66 artist's life is coming to an end
For decades, Bob Waldmire lived on the "Mother Road," wandering the remnants of Route 66 in his orange VW bus and selling his intricate, India-ink artwork from Santa Monica, Calif., to Pontiac, Ill.
Normally at this time of year, the Springfield, Ill., native would be saying goodbye to family and returning to his homestead in Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains. Instead, the "lovable cuss" and self-described hippie who swore off doctors 26 years ago is saying a final goodbye to friends.
Colon cancer has spread through his body, and he might have a month to live, maybe less. Waldmire, 64, hopes to live at least a few more days to attend a final art show at Springfield's Cozy Dog Drive In, where his father is said to have invented the hot-dog-on-a-stick. Friends from across the country plan to be there.
"Even if I died 10 years ago, I can't imagine having lived a fuller life," Waldmire said, laying under a blanket on a couch inside the too-warm Chevy bus where he's spending his last days. "I've been hearing from 66er friends and some people I've never heard of. ... It just brings tears to my eyes. If I'd known it was going to be this good, I'd have gotten sick a long time ago."
For years, travelers along the decommissioned, 2,448-mile highway that once ran from Chicago to Santa Monica have kept an eye open for Waldmire's slow-moving orange bus. People posted online pictures of the artist on the road. Travelers spread news of "Waldmire sightings," and tour groups occasionally stopped outside his door.
He was iconic enough that the VW van character in the animated movie "Cars" partially was based on him, a Pixar spokesman confirmed. According to Waldmire and a consultant on the film, the hippie character originally was going to be named Waldmire, but when the long-time vegan realized his name likely would end up on a McDonalds toy, he balked. It was named Fillmore instead, though Waldmire's name is listed in the film's credits.
"He's, like, the last original hippie," said Cathie Stevanovich of Tinley Park, Ill., president of the Route 66 Association of Illinois.
Waldmire is trying to finish watercolor drafts of two commissioned murals — including a 66-foot-long illustrated map near the Route 66 museum in downstate Pontiac. He's also writing a lengthy farewell letter that will be published in next month's special Waldmire edition of the Route 66 Pulse, the house paper for the road's enthusiasts.
The Route 66 Alliance plans to put Waldmire's 1972 VW on permanent display at its planned Tulsa, Okla., museum and fund art scholarships and an annual prize in his name.
"I always called him the Johnny Appleseed of Route 66 — his footprints, his fingerprints are all over the road," said author and Route 66 guru Michael Wallis. "There's more and more people getting back on this road just to get at least a spoonful of America that's not generic. That's one thing about Bob, he's not generic."
Growing up in Springfield, Waldmire worked at his father's restaurant, making 2 cents for each table he cleaned. Through the windows, he could see traffic along Route 66 and plates in the parking lot "from exotic places like California and Florida."
Waldmire fell in love with the desert on a 1962 family vacation. He found that he could support his nomadic ways with intricate, bird's-eye-view drawings of some 34 college towns in 14 states. He later discovered his true muse on Route 66, making his R. Crumb-style drawings of landmarks.
Inside his 1966 Chevy bus, lined with books, tools and photographs, Waldmire still can spin a yarn. A story about his introduction into the "world of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" begins with a chance encounter with two roadies for the 1970s group Sugarloaf. He holds forth on art, religion and his theory that the "sacred herb" — marijuana — will help bring world peace.
He says he's ready to "pass through the portal." Three songs — Jethro Tull's "Life is a Long Song," The Doors' "Moonlight Ride" and Felix Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer's Night Dream" — will be played at his funeral. He will be cremated, with some ashes split between the family farm's cemetery and the Pacific Ocean lapping at the Santa Monica pier.
The rest will be mailed to friends to spread along Route 66, said an unsentimental Waldmire.
"I'm thinking of making a sign that says, 'No blubbering,' " he said. "I've lived long enough. It's a bit upsetting to me that others are so upset. They need to count their own blessings and cherish the times we spent together."
"I'm glad I finally got over it, because all I could do was cry on the phone," says an old friend, Jim Hopper, who stopped by to share a beer with Waldmire. "It was tears of joy and inspiration, but there was some sadness there because I'm not ready to say goodbye — but we're not saying goodbye yet."
"That's right," Waldmire said.