Editor’s note: This road trip was taken before the coronavirus pandemic. However, road trips are are becoming surprisingly popular during the lockdown era, as gas prices drop and families spend more quality time together.
Time doesn’t stand still at Emma Jean’s, it runs backward!
The wall clock in Emma Jean’s Holland Burger Cafe is numbered from 12 through 1.
So, if you sit down at the counter at 11, you can fill up on a Brian Burger (with chili and cheese) or a Baldy Mesa omelet (with chili and cheese) and the obligatory biscuits and gravy, pay (cash only!) and be back on the highway by 10.
That highway is Historic Route 66 in California’s Mojave Desert in Victorville, and driving it is another way to make time run backward.
Emma Jean’s has served wayfaring strangers and locals from the same single-story, pistachio-green roadside building since 1947, when the newly mobile, post-war generation was migrating west along 2,500 miles of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. It sits just a mile east of the Route 66 Museum, which chronicles the contributions the highway has made to “architecture, the arts, community development and commerce . . . since its induction as a US Highway in 1926,” according to its site.
The Interstate Highway System killed off much of the old Route 66, where actors Martin Milner and George Maharis created TV excitement in their Corvette from 1960 to 1964 in the CBS series named after the iconic stretch of highway. But the Mother Road’s place in the mythology of America has been preserved for the pilgrims who flock to the desert to re-create the Milner/Maharis adventure and bask in the nostalgia of places like Emma Jean’s.
In 1946, Nat King Cole cemented the road’s stature as an icon of popular culture with his hit, “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” Written by actor/singer Bobby Troup, the lyrics were essentially a list of cities marking the highway’s path.
♪ “Now you go through St. Louis, Joplin, Missouri
And Oklahoma City looks mighty pretty
You’ll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico
Flagstaff, Arizona, Don’t forget Winona,
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino” ♪
The song has been immortalized in succeeding generations by Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen, John Mayer and others. But its biggest contribution to history is far less glamorous; Route 66 was the way to freedom for Midwestern farmers like John Steinbeck’s fictional Tom Joad, who drove it to escape the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Emma Jean’s was built in 1947 by Bob and Kate Holland, who christened it the Holland Burger Cafe. Emma Jean Gentry worked there as a waitress and her trucker husband Richard was a regular. Richard already had a lot of time and energy invested, so in 1979 he bought the cafe for his wife and gave it her name.
Their son Brian and his wife Shawna run it today, from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., six days a week. Their clientele includes locals, truckers and tourists drawn by lure of the highway, the history of the country and the unmatched beauty of the Mojave Desert.
Emma Jean’s is a little bit famous, too. It caught the eye of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who used it for the scene in “Kill Bill 2” where Uma Thurman emerges from a dusty grave, crosses Route 66, sits down at the counter and calmly asks for a glass of water. And the Food Channel’s Guy Fieri featured it in an episode of his show, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
The acclaim has not gone to their heads. “Two or three times a year, we a take a weekend off, but otherwise we’re here,” said Shawna. They work, they raise their three kids and, “We sleep together,” she said with a laugh and a shrug.
Iconic and memorable though it may be, Emma Jean’s was not the reason my girlfriend Lois and I flew across the country. It was another cafe with a movie connection further down the road: The Bagdad Cafe.
In 1987, German auteur Percy Adlon released a film about a German tourist who leaves her husband and wanders a desert highway until she finds shelter at a rundown cafe/motel populated by a handful of characters whose lives she would change. Based on the Carson McCullers novella “Ballad of the Sad Cafe”, “Bagdad Cafe” won a César — the French equivalent of our Oscar — for Best Foreign Film in 1989.
Within a few years it had become a cult phenomenon and fans started to flow from Europe — mostly France — to the tiny desert outpost of Newberry Springs, where it had been shot. Lois is one of those fans, so we made a quick weekend excursion into the heart of fantasy.
Adlon filmed his movie at a cafe called the Sidewinder — an homage to the deadly rattlesnake that thrives in the soul-baking heat of the desert’s days and the bone-chilling cold of its nights. The landscape is so stark and the location so isolated that actor Jack Palance, one of the stars of the film, is remembered for his extreme distaste of the place.
“He was a pain in the butt,” said Laurie, who has been a waitress there for 30 years.
By 1995, the tourist trend was firmly established and the owner, in a savvy marketing move, changed the name to Bagdad Cafe and printed it on T-shirts, trucker caps, magnets, coffee cups and bracelets. (We bought at least one of everything.)
From February through November, the buses come — several a day — disgorging movie fans by the hundreds who can’t wait to see where Jasmin became a model for Rudi Cox’s revealing portraits while forging an unlikely sisterhood with the cafe’s frazzled owner, Brenda.
The wooden sign hanging over the front door proudly proclaims the place is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. We rolled onto the unpaved parking lot at about 11 a.m. with the top down on our rented black Mustang convertible. We were taking advantage of daytime temps near 70 in late January and cruising the spectacularly scenic desert in style. The lot was empty and we were momentarily dismayed; had we come all this way to find the Bagdad Cafe had gone out of business? No. We came around the corner of the building to find a silent, sullen woman engrossed in her cellphone sitting on a folding chair near the front door. She didn’t look up, but her French bulldog (Cuddles, we would learn later) checked us out. He didn’t wag his little, cropped tail.
Inside, we met Laurie, a hospitable woman in an inhospitable land. She greeted us warmly, served us coffee and gave us the grand tour. Since the cafe consists of two rooms, the grand tour didn’t take long. But we lingered, listening to her stories — of the cafe, the movie and life in the desert — including the Palance anecdote, which has been passed down through the decades.
The cafe has been kept much the way it appeared in the film: a low counter with round stools, a table near the door where Jasmin drank her coffee each morning and complained that it was just “brown water,” and the iconic yellow coffee urn hanging on the wall. But the tourists have made some renovations: The walls are covered with graffiti (mostly the names of visitors) and hats and papered with currency from around the globe.
“We’ll serve 500 people, some days,” Laurie said. But not this day. We missed the busy season, so we got to sip coffee and talk.
She talked about the owner’s son who became an actor. His headshot hangs on the wall. He got out of the desert, where opportunities are few.
“Hard,” she said softly about the life she and her neighbors live. She told us about the harsh climate, the poisonous snakes and spiders, predatory animals like the coyotes who wiped out one man’s fledgling ostrich ranch and the predatory people trying to cope with living in a sparsely populated land where jobs are scarce and the biggest industries are pistachios and alfalfa.
“Some folks out here live without electricity, without water,” she said. “If you go away, you might come back and find all the wiring ripped out of your house.”
So, Laurie has her own security system: dogs.
“I’ve got nine,” she said.
Bagdad Cafe is just 50 miles (about 20 minutes by desert-driving standards) from the Joshua Tree National Park, 800,000 acres of stunning wilderness named for the Joshua Tree which grows almost exclusively in the Mojave Desert. The distinctive trees, with their spiky needles and their branches flung out like ravers on ecstasy, face an uncertain future as the park’s climate changes and the tree’s ability to migrate is uncertain.
Joshua Tree is a mecca for hikers, but most of its 2.8 million visitors each year drive through it. It’s too vast to walk and there are too many sights to see for a stroll. We spent four hours cruising the park, which presents a new example of nature’s majesty with every turn, stopping at exhibits like the Cholla Cactus garden and Skull Rock and ending at Keys View at sunset.
Keys View, on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, is the highest point in the park, offering a panoramic vista of the Coachella Valley a mile below. On a rare, clear day, you can see all the way to Mexico.
It is perhaps the park’s most popular destination at sundown, proving an ideal location for those fabulous sunset photos that will make your friends and relatives go “Oooooh!” and “Ahhhhh!”
Just off Route 66 near Barstow is Joshua Tree’s little brother, the Rainbow Basin National Natural Landmark, 1,961 acres of fabulous rock formations and fossil beds. Rainbow Basin is a mix of private and public land accessible only by a dirt road, which gave us second thoughts about our choice of the low-slung Mustang.
The basin takes its name from the array of colors displayed on the towering rocks at sunset. Climbing to the top, we snapped photos of the gorgeous light show as the sun went down. Then, we braved the narrow, winding dirt road, barely wide enough for a car in some places.
The Mustang proved itself to be a nimble pony, delivering us unscathed to Barstow ready for a Saturday night on the town.
We had done a little research for our trip, and we found some nice reviews for a Mexican restaurant in town — Rosita’s. But we had music and dancing on our minds, too, so we inquired at the hotel desk, where two young clerks answered our questions with blank stares. Back to the internet, where we found several sports bars featuring wings and pool tables. OK, but not what we had in mind.
So we hit Rosita’s at 8:30 p.m. — just in time to prevent the staff from closing down the empty restaurant. The waiter was cordial, assuring us that they had had a nice crowd earlier. But the tables in the dining room were already decorated for Valentine’s Day, which was still three weeks away. The food was authentic, and bland, but the margaritas had some pop, as if the bartender was trying to compensate for the kitchen.
Well, what happens in Barstow stays in Barstow. Real nightlife is happening on the edge of Joshua Tree at the area’s hottest bar/restaurant: Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace.
Now owned by a couple of transplanted Easterners, Pappy and Harriet’s is an 1870s-style frontier town movie set. The restaurant features a family friendly barbecue menu, the bar offers $5 bottled beers and the stage has hosted the best indie bands in the region. Stars as bright as Paul McCartney have been known to drop in to jam with the band.
We arrived at 6 p.m., after basking in the sunset at Keys View, to find a jammed parking lot and a 90-minute wait for a table. But the staff was friendly, the bar was easily accessible, the beer was cheap and the Sunday Band wouldn’t start until 7:30 p.m.
Pappy and Harriet’s was the perfect, upbeat end to a great weekend. The burgers were juicy and the music was a foot-stomping, hip-shaking string of one classic rock ‘n’ roll hit after another.
It was an easy, traffic-free ride back to LA, arriving in time to catch a few hours of sleep before we had to return the Mustang to the rental car corral and catch our flight home.
♪ “Won’t you get hip to this timely tip
When you make that California trip
Get your kicks on Route 66” ♪
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