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Sunday June 16th 2024

Easy Rider | 1969

Easy Rider film location: Ballarat, California
Easy Rider film location: Wyatt throws away his Rolex at the start of the journey: Ballarat, California

This surprise low-budget smash of the Sixties, revolutionising the studios and launching not only dozens of variable quality imitations but the career of Jack Nicholson, was shot in sequence, apart from the New Orleans Mardi Gras scene, which was actually first in the can. Always know where you’re heading.

OK, not entirely in sequence.

The opening scene, of Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) buying their coke wholesale in ‘Mexico’, was filmed at  ‘La Contenta’, which stood at 1302 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte in El Prado, just north of Taos, not in ‘Mexico’ but in New Mexico.

The cross-country journey proper, which follows much of the famed old Route 66, begins in LA. The profitable drugs sell-on (a cameo from legendary record producer, now convicted murderer, Phil Spector) was shot at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), but from there on the movie was filmed on the hoof across the American southwest.

The key scene of Wyatt tossing his Rolex to the ground was staged in Ballarat, east of Route 178, between Trona and Stovepipe Wells on the western edge of Death Valley. As you can see, there’s little left of this ghost town (named after the Australian gold town), apart from crumbling ruins, though there is now a little store where you can pick up the basics.

Route 66 has log since been superseded by modern highways but it can roughly be followed in dribs and drabs.

Behind the credits, Billy and Wyatt ride south on Park Moabi Road, from Park Moabi itself over the railtracks to what is now I-40, south of Needles on the California/Arizona border.

Just to the east on I-40, they cross the Colorado River into Arizona at Topock, and its three bridges (the old Trails Arch Bridge is the one crossed in the opposite direction by the Joad family in John Ford’s 1940 film of The Grapes Of Wrath).

And on to the motel, where the owner hurriedly turns on the ‘No vacancies’ sign once he realises his potential customers are bikers. This was the Pine Breeze Motel at Bellemont, about 12 miles west of Flagstaff, Arizona. The stretch of Route 66, on which it stood, is now a disused section of East Bellemont Road, running alongside I-40. Ironically, the site is now a biker mecca. There’s a Harley-Davidson dealership, and the Route 66 Roadhouse Bar and Grill, 11840 West Route 66, Bellemont, displays the film’s original ‘No vacancies’ sign over the bar. The abandoned gas station and the motel itself can still be seen crumbling away on the bar’s grounds about a mile to the east.

From here, it’s a few miles east to Flagstaff, and a north turn onto US Route 89 for a few miles. Loop Road runs east toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, which is where the pair pick up the hitchhiking stranger (Luke Askew). Continue on to find Wupatki National Monument, Cococino, where they camp for the night in the ruins of the Wupatki Pueblo.

A little further north, the Sacred Mountain gas station, where the stranger they picked up insists they don’t pay for gas, has closed – but the building is still there, on the west side of US Route 89 at 150 Road, about 20 miles north of Flagstaff.

Easy Rider film location: The Mittens, Monument Valley, Arizona
Easy Rider film location: biking across Arizona, Billy and Wyatt pass by the Mittens: The Mittens, Monument Valley, Arizona

Still carrying their passenger, Billy and Wyatt ride northeast through the pink, red and grey strata of the spectacular Painted Desert and onto that great screen favourite, Monument Valley, made famous by John Ford in films such as Stagecoach and The Searchers.

There’s a bit of a cheat when they eventually drop off the hitcher with his family at the hippie commune, where they’re given acid, for “the right place, with the right people”. Although there was a commune in these parts, its  privacy was fiercely guarded and the scene was recreated in Malibu, back in California.

And there’s also a leap of a few hundred miles east sneaked in here to New Mexico. The spring where Billy and Wyatt go skinny dipping with two girls is Manby Hot Springs, in the Rio Grande gorge, a couple of miles southwest of Arroyo Hondo, north of Taos. There’s room for five or six people in the naturally heated pools and clothing, as they say, is optional.

About 60 miles to the south is the town where Billy and Wyatt cheerfully tag along on their bikes behind a marching band.

The parade was filmed in Las Vegas – not the glitzy casino city of Nevada but the tiny frontier town in New Mexico, on US Route 85 about 50 miles east of Santa Fe.

Thrown into jail for the heinous crime of “parading without a permit”, the pair meet up with dissipated lawyer George Hanson (star-to-be Nicholson). The exterior of the old jail can indeed be seen in Las Vegas, at 157 Bridge Street (it’s now art gallery Tito’s), and it’s on Bridge Street that George toasts old DH Lawrence with the first Jim Beam of the day.

Exiling himself from the UK, writer DH Lawrence did settle in New Mexico. The writer’s last resting place is Taos, and it’s here that the interior of the jail was filmed, in what is now another gallery – Bryans Gallery, 121 Kit Carson Road.

Donning his gold football helmet, Hanson joins the pair’s journey to Mardi Gras. Even the crazily fearless Hopper had second thoughts about filming a hippie epic in late Sixties Lone Star state. So Texas seems to have just gone missing, and it’s straight on to Louisiana, with a burst of  Hendrix If 6 was 9, and the Long-Allen Bridge, carrying Brashear Avenue (the old LA 182) over the Atchafalaya River from Berwick to Morgan City.

They pass the old post office (now looking a little  more run down than it did sporting the Stars and Stripes in the film) on the north side of East Main Street, Garden City, opposite Oak Street; and ride down West Main Street, Franklin, between Commercial and Jackson Streets.

First stop in Louisiana is the town of Morganza, by the Mississippi, about 30 miles northwest of state capital Baton Rouge. The town seems to have missed out on a major tourism opportunity here, as the scary redneck café, which stood on the east side of Gayden Road just south of Campbell Street, has been torn down. You can still see the entrance steps, which now lead to an empty plot of land.

Sure enough, they don’t fare too well around here, and press on without the unfortunate Hanson.

From here, it’s just a short hop, past the clutch of plantation houses familiar from so many other movies, to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and time to drop those acid tabs in – where else? – a cemetery. The cemetery, the city’s oldest, is St Louis Cemetery No.1, 1300 Saint Louis Street at Basin Street, west of the French Quarter.

All that’s left is the journey home. About 30 miles west of Baton Rouge, on the Atchafalaya River, stands Krotz Springs. It’s maybe a little too close to Morganza for comfort, and it’s on North Levee Road (US Route 105), just north of town, that the film ends with a brace of shotgun blasts.