Icelanders get their kicks on Route 66

An iconic American road trip with a Nordic perspective

Ørn next to the car in front of the Bagdad Cafe.

Photo: Moeidur Bernhardtsdottir
Bagdad Café in the Mojave Desert was the initial spark for the trip.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Editor’s preface:
Last spring, M. Michael Brady, correspondent for The Norwegian American and Oslo-area resident, learned that Moeidur Bernhardtsdottir (who goes by her nickname Moa) and her husband, Thorarinn Ørn Sævarsson (known by his middle name), members of the Icelandic diaspora prominent in Norway (as well as in Canada and the USA), were planning a late summer drive of Route 66. As the couple has a penchant for visiting curious places on their summer vacations, Brady realized that they would have a Nordic perspective on the experience that has become synonymous with American culture. So he asked them to take notes and photos that via an interview after their return could become an article in The Norwegian American. This is the result.

About a year ago, we viewed Bagdad Café, a 1987 German comedy-drama film set in a café and motel in the remote town of Bagdad on the historic Route 66 highway in the Mojave Desert in California. We agreed that it would be an ideal place to visit on our 2017 summer vacation. So we researched Bagdad Café to find that the original building was no more, as after being bypassed by Interstate 40 in 1973, Bagdad was partly razed and now is a ghost town. So the film had been shot at the Sidewinder Café in Newberry Springs, 50 miles west of Bagdad on Route 66. It became a tourist destination after the release of the film and capitalized on its fame by changing its name to the Bagdad Café. No matter that it wasn’t the original building; it was the one in the film that we would visit. And visiting entailed driving Route 66; why not, then, go all the way?

Earlier this year, when we first mentioned to friends that our summer vacation would be to drive Route 66, we found ourselves explaining why we chose to traverse a part of North America almost as sparsely populated as the wilderness of our home country. Our explanation was simple and convincing. We quoted famed Himalayan mountaineer George Mallory’s justification of why he sought to climb Mount Everest*: “Because it’s there.”

Ørn standing by the Muscle Beach sign.

Photo: Moeidur Bernhardtsdottir
Ørn at Muscle Beach, Santa Monica, California.

Indeed Route 66 is there. Around the world, it’s the icon of American motoring. So we reasoned that the best way to experience Route 66 was to be cultural chameleons. We would be tourists, leisurely driving a big American car, sampling local culture along the way. So we started on July 15, partway into the traditional Norwegian fellesferie (general staff vacation) when many smaller businesses, such as our medical specialist clinic in Oslo, close down and let all their employees go on vacation.

In Santa Monica, California, we rented a big car, a Chevrolet Camaro convertible, and as it was a muscle car, ceremonially we began our drive by visiting Muscle Beach on the south side of Santa Monica Pier, now regarded to be a cultural landmark, the place where the 20th-century fitness boom began in 1934. Then we drove eastward to Newberry Springs, to the Bagdad Café, which fulfilled our expectations from the film of being a remote place. We were on our way, usually driving an average of four to five hours a day.

Our first brush with the fame of days gone by came when we stayed at the El Rancho Hotel & Motel in Gallup, New Mexico, built by a movie mogul and opened in 1937 as a base for film productions. Then we drove on to spend a night at La Fonda on the Plaza, a historical luxury hotel built in 1922 and known locally as the grand dame of hotels in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We went on to stay a night at the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, built by a local carpenter before World War II and now listed by the National Register of Historic Places in New Mexico. Then we went on to stop and take photos at the midpoint of Route 66 in Adrian, Texas. It was in Texas that we enjoyed incidents of the sort that stick in the mind for life. Upon entering a small-town eatery to have lunch one day, one of the locals there greeted us by asking “Wow! Where you guys from?” We laughed; apparently our efforts to fit in inconspicuously had failed; we were observable strangers. After ordering dinners one evening in a restaurant, we asked for a wine list only to be told, “this is no wine country.” We thought “welcome to the Bible Belt” and ordered beers.

Ørn standing next to a sculpture.

Photo: Moeidur Bernhardtsdottir
Ørn with a sculpture of a cowboy leaning on fence at the Grounds for Sculpture park in Hamilton, N.J.

Further on, we stayed a night at the Wagon Wheel Motel, Café and Station in Cuba, Missouri, that has been feeding and housing travelers since the late 1930s. In Saint Louis, we left Route 66; instead of following it northward through Illinois to Chicago, we headed eastward, through Granville, Ohio, to Pennsylvania, where we visited Fallingwater, a house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and then on to New Jersey, where we strolled through the artistically amazing Grounds for Sculpture park in Hamilton.

On August 1 we arrived in New York City after having driven 2,900 miles across the continent in two weeks and three days. Along the way we had seen landscapes, urbanizations, peoples, and cultures in varieties not found elsewhere. Would we do it again? Perhaps, at least parts of it; after all, it’s still there.

*First quoted in the New York Times, March 18, 1923.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 1, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.