First thing you need to know about this post is that it’s going to allude to the movie “Cars” quite often. The second thing you need to know is that you absolutely should not skip the small stretch of Route 66 in Kansas. It may seem insignificant, but it most certainly is not. This was probably one of the most memorable stops on our almost-2000 mile road trip, but Dean “Crazy Legs” Walker is the main reason it was so amazing!
When we arrived in Baxter Springs, Kansas, we were unsure of what to expect. We knew it would be a sleepy town with a Route 66 visitor center, but we had also heard of Mr. Walker while planning the trip. The problem is that you never know if he’ll be there on any given day. As we drove up and parked, I noticed an old pickup truck with a tackle box in the back that had “Dean” written in Sharpie. That was clue number one. Clue number two was when the door opened to the visitor center as we were getting the children from the car and an older gentleman stepped outside waving. He shook my hand and introduced himself simply as Dean. Obviously, as you read this you’re probably thinking, “Okay, Dean just sounds like a nice old man,” and you’d be absolutely correct. But the man is so much more than that because he’s lived one of the most interesting lives for no other reason than he just stayed himself. I’ll explain shortly, but trust me when I say you’re probably about to learn a lot more about “Cars” than you ever thought you cared to know.
As we stepped inside and Dean saw our kids, he leaned over and asked, “Hey…they like the ‘Cars’ movie?” Of course I replied that they loved it, and he says, “Well they’re about to meet one of the characters.” I thought he meant they had a replica of Tow-Mater or Lightning McQueen somewhere, since this whole area was the inspiration for the town of Radiator Springs in the movie. In fact, Baxter Springs is given a special thanks in the credits for that reason. He didn’t immediately explain, however, where we would meet the character.
We eagerly followed Dean around as he explained all sorts of neat information about Route 66, which he has lived around his entire life. When I tell you the man knows that stretch of road like the back of his hand, it’s no exaggeration. He asked what foods we liked and the kids said hamburgers. He proceeded to tell us about a burger restaurant thirty miles away on Route 66, what we should order, and which turns we’d take to get there. He also told us about stops on the road as far as Arizona; the man is a Route 66 encyclopedia and he’s just super easy to listen to.
We continued to look around and listen to Crazy Legs’ stories. The inner wall of the visitor center was full of Route 66 memorabilia, and every empty spot on the wall (except near the bathroom) had been filled by handwritten messages in marker from thousands of people all over the world. The entire place was very surreal, and it almost felt like Dean could remember every single one of those signatures.
After we listened for a while, Dean walked over to the back wall and turned to the kids. He asks, “Y’all ready to meet the character from “Cars?” The boys nodded and looked around, because it was unclear where this character was going to come from. Dean then takes a step forward, looks down at his legs, and says “You’re looking at ’em.”
The boys looked confused for a moment but Dean kept looking down. Then his right leg starts to turn to the right with his foot facing out, and it KEEPS TURNING! His leg literally does a full 180 to where his right foot is facing backwards and his other foot is facing forward. He smiles and says, “This is why they call me ‘Crazy Legs,’ and I was the inspiration for ‘Tow-Mater’ in the movie.” He then explains that his leg talent is the reason why Disney made Mater only be able to drive backwards. And since Dean has always been sort of the town’s tour guide, that was why Mater showed Lightning McQueen around Radiator Springs. If you watch the end credits of the movie, there is a special thanks to Dean and his wife for their assistance making the movie.
It turns out that when Disney/Pixar was preparing to create “Cars,” an individual that Dean grew up with was part of the crew. He’d been introduced to the “Crazy Legs” part of Dean when they were kids and they were hanging out on a bridge outside of town trying to impress some girls. Dean turned his legs around and his friend said he was going to use that somehow, someday. Many years later, the perfect opportunity arose when Disney visited Baxter Springs to plan out Radiator Springs. Dean’s friend introduced the Disney folks to him and the rest is history.
Since the movie came out, Dean has been on various talk shows, including with Jay Leno. The man simply lived his life and ended up becoming an icon on Route 66. Almost an hour away at another Route 66 stop, we went into a gift shop and saw a poster hanging up that showed Crazy Legs; he’s just that popular. If you find yourself anywhere around the southeast corner of Kansas, even near Branson, Missouri, you need to go visit Crazy Legs. The man is an icon!