This summer, I drove out of San Diego and into the desert on a journey from Southern California, through long stretches of Arizona and New Mexico, and on to New Orleans. I'd decided to work my way along the path of Easy Rider, a road movie full of searching, shot-on-location images. Those images offer a vision of America at the end of the 1960s, when the country was still unsettled by the upheaval of the previous years and unsure where the years ahead would lead. The America of Easy Rider is one of unspoiled landscapes, utopian aspirations, deep-rooted prejudice, and senseless violence. I'd always felt removed from that America—Easy Rider was shot before I was born, mostly in parts of the country I'd never visited. I wondered what remained of that world 40 years later, and what I could learn about the movie—and about America, then and now—by retracing the steps of its heroes.
Released on July 14, 1969, between the Stonewall riots and the Apollo 11 moon landing, Easy Rider became an unexpected success and, like Woodstock, a touchstone for a generation. Not my generation, though. Before seeing it, I'd imagined Easy Rider as one of those you-had-to-be-there '60s clichés that so irritated those of us who came of age in the '80s—something to be slipped into that-was-then montages between footage of Vietnam and the '68 Democratic Convention.
Film enthusiasts my age had warned me to expect a film with long, often dull, experimental patches and stoner vagaries. When I finally got around to watching Easy Rider, I discovered those warnings weren't entirely unfounded. But I also discovered a more complex and sour movie than the one I'd imagined. More an elegy for a generation that never got where it wanted to go than a celebration of that generation's superiority, it pits hopefulness against resignation and sets the battle on a lovingly photographed stretch of the United States. Easy Rider hit theaters with a memorable tag line: "A man who went looking for America. And couldn't find it anywhere." Star, producer, and co-writer Peter Fonda hated that line, and rightly so. It's really the story of two men—Wyatt and Billy, played by Fonda and co-writer and director Dennis Hopper—who went looking for America and found it everywhere. They just didn't find a place for themselves.
What sent them looking in the first place? The film parcels out little back story: There's a drug deal conducted so nervously it's clear Wyatt and Billy aren't full-time dealers, a hope of getting to New Orleans in time for Mardis Gras, and some vague plans to "retire" in Florida. In his British Film Institute monograph on Easy Rider, critic Lee Hill refers to cut footage that would have established Wyatt and Billy as stunt riders from the carnival circuit, motivated by a desire to escape a world dominated by crooked promoters. In the final version, their stunt work is mentioned only in passing.
Fonda pared Wyatt's dialogue down to as few lines as he thought necessary. Hopper, on the other hand, turns Billy into a hyperverbal coil of hippie neuroses, always afraid he and Wyatt will miss the party or get ripped off. The film keeps circling back to the tension between Wyatt's fragile idealism and Billy's materialism. Wyatt tries on the philosophies of those he meets, rejecting each of them in pursuit of some better life down the road. Billy also wants to keep moving, inspired by dreams of Mardi Gras and living large off of drug money. The friction between the men drives the film more than the desire to reach a clear destination, and it grows more pronounced with each stop along the way.
Their first stop, and mine, is Ballarat, Calif. After selling two packages of high-grade cocaine obtained in Mexico to a character billed only as "Connection" (played by an already-creepy Phil Spector), Wyatt and Billy roll their stack of cash into a plastic tube and place it in Wyatt's gas tank for safe keeping. Wyatt pauses a moment to toss aside his watch, then the pair heads east as the credits start. "I'm hip about time," Wyatt will say later, as if talking about a habit he's trying to quit.
They couldn't have picked a more remote place to begin their journey. Located on the edge of Death Valley, Ballarat started out as a mining town in 1897. It died when the mines dried up 20 years later. By the time Easy Rider filmed there, its adobe-style buildings had largely crumbled into dust. The situation hasn't improved much since then.
Apart from a handful of trailers and some decrepit buildings, there's almost nothing to be found in Ballarat. Its sole resident, Rock Novack, runs the general store, which serves 4x4 enthusiasts. The store consists of little more than a cooler filled with Cokes and Bud. "This is downtown," Novack says by way of a greeting. He's accompanied by his dog, a friendly, perpetually panting mutt named Potlicker. Potlicker's "around 5," which is about how long Rock has been living in Ballarat.
Rock pointed out a dilapidated pickup that he said used to belong to Charlie Manson, who used a pair of abandoned Death Valley ranches not far from Ballarat as his headquarters for a while. I have no reason not to believe him, and it seems strangely appropriate that the paths of Easy Rider—the quintessential end-of-the-'60s movie—and the Manson murders—one of a string of symbolically end-of-the-'60s events—would cross. As the Manson family rolled into Laurel Canyon in August 1969, the film was still playing to packed houses shocked by its violent finale.
In Ballarat, Wyatt and Billy are just happy to be on their way. By their reckoning, whatever life they once led is now firmly in their rearview mirrors. What's ahead remains a mystery. I briefly consider making my own symbolic gesture, but what would fit the occasion? I could smash my GPS. Toss my BlackBerry. But who'd I be kidding? As I stood in the 120 degree heat, eager to get back into the comfort of my rented PT Cruiser—a far cry from Wyatt and Billy's choppers—I felt more acutely than ever that I'd been on a different path than these characters for years. I had a home to return to and a life to resume once I reached New Orleans. But standing in the ruins of Ballarat, I also began to understand how the thrill of the open road could be something other than an advertising cliché. For one week I'd do my best to stay true to Easy Rider's spirit of exploration. I knew the movie's itinerary, but I didn't know where it would take me.