I normally like to be up and on the road early to make some progress before the heat of the day gets too much. I made an exception for Taos today because there was a bunch of stuff I wanted to see and dammit, Taos is so pretty.I still checked out early from my motel, but instead of hitting the road, I bimbled down to Taos Pueblo for a look around. Unfortunately, arriving at the advertised opening time of eight, I was told that they didn’t open until half past. Not a problem, I thought – I had somewhere else to go that would only take half an hour.
By now, the attentive reader will have realised that I’m getting *very* geeky about this whole Easy Rider thing. Aided by the blog of the rather fabulous MrZip66, I thought I knew exactly where to go to find the location where Billy and The Captain bought their drugs right at the beginning of the film. It was supposed to be Mexico, but the location scouts clearly saved the production an arm and a leg by taking the crew to Taos, New Mexico.
The building in question was, up until recently, home to the Red Arrow Emporium, a store selling locally made crafts. I plugged this into Google Maps, but when I arrived, it clearly wasn’t the Easy Rider location; I was quite miffed. Undeterred, I decided to spend the next twenty minutes stooging around, looking for a traditional building, with a triangular roof. This shape isn’t actually that common as all the local adobe buildings tend to have flat or very shallow roofs and by making the assumption that the Red Arrow Emporium probably hadn’t moved too far, I found it in minutes.
To think that this famous opening scene with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper was shot right where I rode up on my chopper was really, really cool. Well, it was for me anyway – I’m unashamedly geeking out on this and your mileage may vary.
Back to Taos Pueblo and I hitched myself onto the guided tour, given by a local guy who is part of the tribe that still lives there today. It’s an amazing place – one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States and rightly designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Our guide told us that the four and five story dwellings there were built and rebuilt regularly, but parts of the inner walls (some as much as four and five feet thick) have been carbon dated to over six thousand years old. Originally, they wouldn’t have had windows – entry and egress was via ladders though skylight openings in the ceiling of each house. This was a feature that kept the houses cooler, provided better light and, crucially, made the pueblo buildings much safer in the event of a raid from a neighbouring tribe.
There’s an amazing Adobe church on the site, too – the local religion is a mixture of indigenous and Catholic.
Listening to the more recent history of the Puebloan people, it was clear that their experience was yet another example of the way the early American settlers fucked over anyone that they found living on the lands that they wanted. By and large, the Tiwa-speaking tribes of Native Americans were peaceful people, but their history is an unpleasant one to hear. Although there have been some moves to return land to the tribes, it’s ironic that the most successful way that they have found to get back the land that was once theirs is through gambling. A lot of tribes now have exclusive rights to operate casinos on their reservations and this is what the Taos Puebloans do. They spend the majority of their profits buying land – and piece by piece, this area is returning to tribal ownership.
I left the Pueblo with one final stop to make on my way out of Taos. On the edge of town, overlooked by some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable, is a small, unprepossessing graveyard, the Jesus Nazareno Cemetery. Arguably, it’s not really in Taos at all; it’s the Ranchos de Taos or the Talpa area, a place local residents call the town of witches. This is where, in 2010 and at his own request, Dennis Hopper was laid to rest.
Hopper lived in Taos for many years and was part of the community there. He painted and made art in the town and called it his “heart home”. Not for him a grand plot with an expensive headstone – this is a traditional burial, with a simple, hand carved wooden cross and a dirt mount.
Dennis Hopper and the film he made were what got me into motorcycling in the first place. I wanted to visit and pay my respects to an exceptionally talented and spectacularly cool guy.
It’s clear that fans and bikers have come from all over the world to do as I did. Many of them have left things on his grave. There are bandannas, bike parts and lots of flowers. Someone’s tucked a spark plug onto his headstone; another has laid a motorcycle chain round the dirt mound. It’s a colourful mess and I think he would have liked it.
Riding my bike across America, I don’t see myself as The Captain – I always associated more with Dennis Hopper’s Billy. It’s not an accident that the bike I chose for this trip is more like his. Billy was seldom without his sunglasses in the film (although I don’t know how he managed to keep that hat on whilst riding). Nobody had left any, so I laid mine there before I rode off – I think it was appropriate.
After Taos, I headed south to Las Vegas. No, not that one – the other one. Las Vegas, New Mexico is infinitely nicer than the city of sin in Nevada. It’s an hour and a half’s good riding from Taos and I rolled in at about lunchtime, finding what I was looking for almost straight away.
In the film, Hopper and Fonda are arrested for “parading without a permit” which was probably local shorthand for, “we don’t like your kind round these parts” and they were locked up in the local jail. It was there that they met George, played by Jack Nicholson – a local lawyer and drunk, who was sobering up overnight.
George persuaded the sergeant to release Wyatt and Billy in the morning and as they all stumbled out of the police station and reclaimed their bikes, George produced a flask of whiskey and took a slug. “Here’s the first of the day, fellas! To old D.H. Lawrence…”
The police station is now Tito’s, a jewellers’ gallery. After touristing very hard with my tripod outside the old fire station, I went inside Tito’s Gallery and had a look round. If you’re ever in Las Vegas, NM – even if you don’t give a rat’s chuff about Easy Rider, go to Tito’s, okay? Firstly, Tito himself is just lovely. He’s a hugely talented silversmith and he shows work from dozens of similarly talented local artists. He moved into the shop in ’72, after the film was shot. Although the jail exteriors were all filmed here, it turns out that the cells at the back of the old police station weren’t nearly big enough for the interiors, so although they shot some stuff inside, it all hit the cutting room floor very hard and they found another location for the jail cell scene.
Tito gets Easy Rider pilgrims through from time to time and he was only too happy to show me the original cells. They’re a bit… rustic to say the least:
I loved his work so much, that I ended up dropping several hundred dollars on some lovely new pieces of jewellery. I’d have bought them anyway, but knowing that they were made right there in the old police station is just awesome.
Whilst I was in town, it absolutely pissed it down with rain for about 45 minutes – the first rain I’ve seen on the whole trip. I had enough time to bung the rain cover over my luggage pack and beat a hasty one to a local New Mexican restaurant, where I celebrated the ancient and profane local ritual known as Taco Tuesday.
A combination of the rain and so many cool things to do had kept me off the road for too long. I had an appointment with about 170 miles of prime US blacktop separating me from Roswell. Three hours of thrashing the very tits off my awesome chop awaited me and she did not disappoint. Some of the roads were a little bumpy and I’m fairly sure we got some air over a couple of bridges. Chops do that quite a bit. A quick gas stop and one can of Starbucks cold brew to keep me frosty and we got to Roswell for about seven, where I checked into the cheapest and skeesiest motel in town. I was delighted to see that a Google reviewer had left this comment the day before:
My kind of place, then. I wonder if I’ll get probed?