The Easy Rider Road Trip
Easy Rider's next stop brings the story to a commune inspired by the New Buffalo settlement outside of Taos, N.M. Here movie geography and real-world locations split. Unable to get permission to film at New Buffalo, the film re-created it in the mountains of Malibu, Calif. I decide to visit Taos anyway. The town served as a Hopper hangout for years, and to commemorate Easy Rider's 40th anniversary, the Harwood Mueum of Art is hosting an exhibit called Hopper at Harwood, featuring Hopper's art and photography.
The drive to Taos—where crags give way to plains, then mountains—doesn't disappoint. The town does. Its center remains, as it has since its time as a Spanish colonial town, Taos Plaza. Now catering almost entirely to tourists, it gives the impression of a face that's been lifted too many times. The long-lived La Fonda Hotel shares space with T-shirt shops and Mexican restaurants where no dish is deemed complete until the phrase "smothered in" has been added to its description. If it weren't for the many art galleries carrying on—or, at the very least, living off—Taos' tradition as an artists' colony, it could pass for virtually any other resort town.
The land north of here became dotted with communes in the late '60s, none more famous than New Buffalo. As Wyatt, Billy, and a hitchhiker they've picked up arrive at the film's New Buffalo, they find a place bursting with life, maybe too much of it. Billy, in one of his few unreservedly joyful moments, starts playing with some kids as Wyatt takes in the scene. The sequence that follows explores commune life, and it squares well with the firsthand accounts found in Iris Keltz's Scrapbook of a Taos Hippie, from one communard's obsession with the I Ching to an unspoken divide between those doing work and those just sitting around. Keltz first stayed at New Buffalo in 1968, around the time Easy Rider was shooting. She found a small group of people dedicated to living communally. But when she returned in 1969, she discovered a scene changed by too many casual drop-ins. It was the year communes first began to attract mainstream attention and, consequently, casual scenesters. No doubt helped by Easy Rider, 1969 became for communes what 1978 would be for discos.
The commune sequence is the film's weakest stretch, overlong and filled with experiments that don't really work, like a 360-degree shot of a communal dinner table that makes its point long before it completes its circle. (There's also way too much time dedicated to a hippie mime troupe.) But the commune section also features a scene that serves as Easy Rider's turning point. Taken to the fields not far from the main camp, Wyatt and Billy see college-age kids, in outfits not intended for rural living, dropping seeds into barren earth. "They're city kids," the hitchhiker tells them, "But they're going to stay here till it's harvested. That's the whole point."
"They ain't gonna make it," Billy concludes instantly. "They ain't gonna grow anything here." Wyatt has another idea. "They're gonna make it. Dig, man. They're gonna make it," he says with a smile and a nod. Faced with '60s idealism in its rawest form—kids who have done their best to drop out of society and remake it as something simpler and better—Billy responds with skepticism, while Wyatt recognizes fellow dreamers when he sees them. One sees barren earth and is happy to be headed toward Florida before the winter sets in. The other looks tempted to stay and enjoy the fruits of their commitment and belief. The shots that follow, of young men and women doing farm work and sharing a pipe, don't really support one view or the other.
In reality, though, they didn't make it. Not in the long run, anyway. Keltz's book alternates between rosy nostalgia and memories of infighting, struggles with other communes (some of which subscribed to more violent ideologies), troubles with Taos natives, hoarding, food stamp scams, druggy hangers-on, trendy gurus, and eventual disintegration. One late-period resident owner sums up the '80s as a time of "wine, heroin and shotguns." By the mid-'90s, New Buffalo had been converted into a bed and breakfast. Now it's gone.
Falling in love with the place after visiting it to prepare for Easy Rider, Hopper became an off-and-on resident for years. After the failure of The Last Movie, his 1971 directorial follow-up to Easy Rider, it would be more on than off. Over the last couple of decades, Hopper has become a go-to psycho in projects from the reputable ( Speed, 24) to the ridiculous ( Super Mario Bros., Waterworld)—interrupted once in a while with memorable turns in movies like True Romance and Elegy. This steady stream of work has made his tumultuous relationship with Hollywood easy to forget. Hopper became an acolyte of James Dean and a believer in his intense approach to performance after co-starring with Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. He took to method-acting immersion but found film work scarce after a confrontation with director Henry Hathaway on the set of the 1958 film From Hell to Texas. (The director put Hopper through take after take in a battle of wills that ultimately left Hopper unofficially blacklisted for much of the decade to come.)
Easy Rider revived his career, but he had a hard time finding a place in the auteur-friendly Hollywood the film helped create. By the time Easy Rider was released, he had become, by all accounts, a difficult character. Flashes of megalomania and self-destructive excess evident during Easy Rider's creation became a lifestyle. Peter Biskind's lurid yet essential New Hollywood history Easy Riders, Raging Bulls describes the alarming number of chemicals swimming through Hopper's bloodstream in the '70s. Cleaned up by 1986, he got a second chance after strong work in Blue Velvet, Hoosiers, and River's Edge (to say nothing of the honestly underrated Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), films that found him playing men damaged by the years and in danger of letting their obsessions destroy the world around them. He knew the part well.
The Harwood exhibit reveals a photographer with a keen eye and an artist with a studied, if not particularly exciting, command of collage and trompe l'oeil techniques. The wildness of his early career has evidently been exorcised. Despite remaining a fine actor, particularly when kept away from stock wild-eyed lunatic parts, Hopper has attracted more attention for his embrace of conservative politics than for his acting in the last few years. Wildness has disappeared from Taos, too, or at least the Taos I encounter. The pair of panhandling kids I see as I leave downtown look out of place. There's no room for them here and no home for them in the hills, either—the seeds never took root.
Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.