Friday, May 22, 2009

It’s been 40 years since the motion picture “Easy Rider” roared across our movie screens, turning Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson into instant stars and creating a thriving culture of freewheeling, free-spirited open-road drives on motorcycles.

The movie spawned the culture of customizing bikes, like the ones Messrs. Fonda and Hopper drove into our psyches. The Captain America Chopper with its flaglike stars and stripes tank, and the Billy Bike, with its air-brushed “flames” and orange body, still inspire chopper shops and motorcycle riders today.

Much of the iconic 1969 movie was filmed in and around Taos, N.M., which is celebrating the anniversary with a summer-long series of music, art and bike events. I was in Taos in early May for the kickoff of “Summer of Love 2009,” when Mr. Hopper was named honorary mayor of Taos. He joked about the irony that one of the world’s most famous hippies would be so honored. But we all grow up, don’t we?

Mr. Hopper, who also directed “Easy Rider,” told me he fell in love with the town of Taos in 1967 when he was scouting locations for the movie and has lived here part time ever since, including doing much of the film editing. He said he wasn’t making a motorcycle movie as much as a comment on the cowboy way of life - good guys vs. bad guys - and the political turmoil of the ‘60s, with the Vietnam War and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Also, he said, nobody had yet made a movie about the counterculture hippie movement.

In addition to movie acting, Mr. Hopper is a respected artist and photographer, and curator of an exhibit by artists who have been living in Taos since the original Summer of Love, including fellow actor Dean Stockwell. Some of Mr. Hopper’s own work is included in the exhibit at the Harwood Museum of Art in downtown Taos.

The 2009 motorcycle events begin with the biggest rally in New Mexico on Memorial Day weekend, drawing an estimated 10,000 bikes, and features a concert by the band Hot Tuna. The weekend of July 10-12 is the Taos Mountain Motorcycle Rally and Music Festival, which includes classic rock concerts, such as the “Born to Be Wild” soundtrack from the film.

On Labor Day weekend, there’s the annual Bavarian Mountain Weekend BMW Motorcycle Rally just outside town at Red River. This event includes all-day rallies and rides along spectacular S-curves through the mountains, high desert plains and the Rio Grande gorge, and around Taos, through some of the same scenery as in the movie. Even though I was in a car, not on a bike, the long, empty stretches of road and the beautiful landscape kept me smiling. And in between, there’s an outdoor showing of “Easy Rider” at the Taos County Sheriff’s Posse Arena on June 20.

The motorcycles in Easy Rider were Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide models, all former police bikes, purchased at auction and customized for the film. There were four bikes - two were backup duplicates. Today, there are hundreds, but they are replicas in automobile and motorcycle museums around the world.

“Easy Rider” wasn’t the only movie filmed in Taos. So were parts of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Terminator,” “The Milagro Beanfield War,” and “No Country for Old Men.” Go to for more information.

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