The Easy Rider Road Trip
I begin the day by flying from Albuquerque, N.M., to New Orleans. It's cheating, but only a little. Warned not to film in Texas because the state had no patience for long hair, Easy Rider skipped the state, so I do, too. Renting a car at the airport, I head directly to Morganza, La., a rural community up the road from Baton Rouge where Hanson, Wyatt, and Billy try, and fail, to enjoy a meal. "You name it, I'll throw rocks at it," one local tells the town sheriff as they enter the diner. The teenage girls dining there have a different reaction. Visibly attracted to the men, they follow them outside and coo over their bikes. Easy Rider used locals as the diner patrons and Fonda recalls giving the men a single line of motivation: "We've just raped a 13-year-old white girl outside of town."
He didn't throw in that racial detail by accident. By this point in the film, race has become a persistent theme. When asked earlier by Billy and Wyatt whether he can get them out of jail, Hanson replies, "Well, I probably can if you haven't killed anybody. At least nobody white." Riding into Louisiana, the film lingers over images of rural black poverty. Looking like stereotypical rednecks, the diner patrons fill out the other side of that equation. It doesn't take much to connect the dots between the free-floating intolerance they direct at their shaggy visitors and its source, a resentment of the changing times. That they see the girls in the diner—the generation coming up—aroused by embodiments of that change sharpens their resentment to a deadly point.
There wasn't much to Morganza when Easy Rider filmed there, and there's less now. The cafe and the building that housed it are gone. Two buildings in the same style sit in disrepair down the street. Of course, it's not really Morganza we see in the film, just someplace the screenplay describes as "ext. Southern town—day." It would be easy to dismiss the sequence as a stereotype of a racist backwater if the moment didn't feel so real. And at least one member of the Easy Rider team knew how to conjure the troubled postwar American South: Terry Southern.
The issue of who deserves credit for Easy Rider has been disputed over the years. Hopper's friendship with Fonda hasn't survived, and both have played up the role of improvisation in ways that shift glory away from Southern, who shares a screenplay credit with them. It is difficult to pin down a dominant sensibility. The performances, direction, and look of the film all feed into a mood that slowly changes from celebration to elegy, but the individual episodes alternate between deadpan comedy (the opening scene of Wyatt and Billy out of their depths in drug-country Mexico) and finely drawn portraits of the era (the cultural anthropology of the New Buffalo commune). Even if no one can claim to be Easy Rider's author, the roots of all these moments can be traced to Southern's writing.
Southern is today best known for writing the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, which turned Peter George's joke-free Cold War novel Two Hours to Doom into a mad apocalyptic romp. By the time of Easy Rider, Southern had become an in-demand screenwriter and a counterculture icon, thanks in part to Strangelove and his well-received 1959 novel, The Magic Christian. Both mine a similar vein of black comedy, as does Southern's script for the 1965 film The Loved One, which takes Evelyn Waugh's Hollywood satire into darker territory.
Southern the broad satirist surfaces occasionally in Easy Rider. But the subtler Southern behind tightly focused short stories like "Red Dirt Marijuana" and "You're Too Hip, Baby," which emphasized the small dramas of particular times and places, can be found throughout the film. The Morganza sequence and the film's ending bring a third Southern to the fore, the unsparing observer responsible for the Esquire article "Twirling at Ole Miss," a pioneering piece of new journalism that found him embedded in a land rotten with fear, prejudice, and barely suppressed violence. Southern fills his stories of his native Texas with casual cruelty. Boys carry guns and use them without a second thought. Men with grudges die in knife fights that no one tries to stop. Violence happens without real reason but carries irreversible consequences.
As Easy Rider's three travelers camp outside the town that rejected them, the redneck locals attack them, killing Hanson. His death feels like an inevitability, a violent outburst in an ongoing clash between an entrenched set of rigid social codes and a generation in open rebellion.
In 1969, it wasn't clear who would win the battle for the future of America, and the final stretches of Easy Rider present a nightmare vision of the portion of the country that had swept Nixon into the office the year before—the unyielding, disapproving mass he'd later dub the silent majority. As they plunge into the backwoods of Louisiana, Wyatt and Billy and the counterculture they represent start to look less like the coming age than like an aberration, something to be tolerated only as long as it remains unthreatening.
After Hanson's murder, Wyatt and Billy hit New Orleans for the celebratory dinner they'd promised each other and for the visit to Madame Tinkertoys' brothel they'd promised their fallen friend. They share Wyatt's acid with a pair of prostitutes (Karen Black and future new wave one-hit-wonder Toni Basil) before moving out into the Mardi Gras-clogged streets and then one of the city's distinctive cemeteries. For Wyatt, at least, this turns out to be the perfect setting for a bad trip. He's left sobbing as he embraces a monument in New Orleans' St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, cursing his mother for some past transgression. Egged on by Hopper, Fonda drew on memories of his own mother's suicide for the scene, and the moment has an uncomfortable rawness.
Constructed in 1789, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the city's oldest existing cemetery, and is known for its aboveground crypts and elaborate shrines. The rows of crypts make it easy to get lost here and hard to see what's around the next corner. Because it sits near the Iberville Projects, the city warns tourists not to visit the cemetery alone.
Easy Rider is a road movie, and characters in road movies either die or go home. The film repeatedly shows that its heroes have no home to call their own. The places Wyatt and Billy don't reject—the experimental community of the commune, the open frontier of Monument Valley—try either to lock them up or to destroy them. In New Orleans, they find only death, even in the midst of a celebration of excess and renewal.
The night before their murders, Wyatt and Billy have conflicting thoughts beside their campfire. Mardis Gras behind them and Florida ahead, Billy's happy at last. "We did it," he says. "We blew it," Wyatt replies, refusing to elaborate. He doesn't have to. Since Hanson's death, his mood has darkened, as if the possibility for change died with their friend. Wyatt's bad trip has also stirred memories of an older darkness. He may not expect to die the next day, but he knows they're not headed to a happy ending.
Wyatt and Billy are killed by a pair of stereotypical good ol' boys in a pickup truck. One announces that he plans to scare the hippies by pointing a shotgun at them, then decides to pull the trigger, apparently annoyed when Wyatt gives him the finger. Or maybe there's no motivation at all. They get Billy first. Wyatt rushes to help his friend but is quickly cut down as well, his gas tank and the bills inside blowing up around him. The camera pulls up from the fiery wreck, then draws back further and further still, the end credits rolling against the image of a dead end mistaken for an open road.
When I drove out to Morganza the day before, I looked for the stretch of highway where Wyatt and Billy met their fates, but I couldn't find it. Maybe I didn't drive far enough. Maybe the place has changed, become unrecognizable over the years.
The movie's final scene captures a growing feeling at the time that the decade had begun to wind down to a bitter end, that the New Frontier promised at its beginning had receded beyond the horizon. The finale feels almost apocalyptically pessimistic, and the years that followed, and the films Easy Rider inspired, would often reinforce its conclusions. The film's success led to other philosophical road movies in the early-'70s, films like Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point, as distinctive in their own ways as Easy Rider but nearly unimaginable without it. The movie's dour, inquisitive spirit found its way into other films as well, often embodied by Jack Nicholson, whose characters in films like Five Easy Pieces and The Last Detail sometimes appear to be responding to lessons learned at a Louisiana campsite.
Following their on-screen path 40 years later, I didn't find what Wyatt and Billy were looking for, either. But as I drove the long highways they traveled, I gained a greater respect for the film's point of view than I'd had before. Listening to the news of the day on the radio as I drifted from exit to exit, it wasn't hard to imagine what it was like to feel lost and alone in a country of overwhelming beauty and irreconcilable divisions. Yet I took some comfort from the movie as well. The doom Easy Rider predicted never quite arrived. Though some of the stops along the way have changed, the roads Billy and Wyatt traveled are still out there—waiting for anyone who chooses to see where they will take them, even if that place doesn't end up looking like home.
Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.