Ever feel like you’re getting beat down? Not “Woe is me, my life is terrible,” just feeling lackadaisical, tired of the mundane and dealing with working stiffs? Well that’s exactly where I was when the idea for this weekend ride came to me. I’d always dreamt of following in the tire tracks of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider; Los Angeles to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. But who has that kind of time? Not to mention a lack of responsibilities in general. Something had to give. Living in the Southwest, Arizona specifically, and being a huge fan of the film Easy Rider, I was well aware of the fact that much of the film was shot right in my beautiful state. With a little research, I was able to plot all of the Arizona locations from the film; approximately 600 miles in two days. I decided that not only would it make a great weekend warrior trip, but if done right, it could also be a great story. And who better to make the trek with me than my compadre, diehard hippie at heart, Jared Wayne. Part of the authenticity and overall “cool” factor of the idea was that I was making the journey on my 1964 Panhead chopper, rigid frame and all, just like the bikes of that era. Anyone can do the trip on a new cushy bike. Matter of fact, I’m sure many have. But a period correct ’64 chopper? What am I, nuts? Maybe.
Aside from just taking a trip on our bikes and retracing some of the steps of our heroes from the film, we wanted to capture the essence of what has changed since the original trip in 1969. Has our country really evolved? Or has it in fact deteriorated? Remember what the original movie promo said? “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.” What would Captain America and Billy think now?
At 5:45 AM Saturday morning, I kissed my lovely bride-to-be goodbye and woke the entire neighborhood up as I gave my bike a good solid kick to fire it up, then headed to meet Jared at his house. He and I took off with little more than a bedroll, a change of clothes and a camera loaded with black and white film (yes, I said film) strapped to the back of our bikes. Eager to get out of dodge, we fueled up and began the trek, happily leaving Phoenix, AZ behind. The ride to Prescott was a really nice warm up. We were cruising at a comfortable 65 mph, enjoying the gradual in- crease in elevation, the beautiful clear skies and overall easiness that sort of sinks over you as you get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and its demands. At one point, we passed a hill chock full of classic, unrestored (and sure- ly inoperable) American cars all lined up as if the owner was expecting the guys from Fast N’ Loud to be passing through with a pocket full of cash. Though Prescott, AZ didn’t make much sense geographically on Wyatt and Billy’s route to New Orleans, it was chosen as a ride-through scene for the film due to both its beauty and the myst `ique of the landscape. As we rolled into Prescott, the bike reacted to the elevation slightly by running a bit rich and rough. That’s the old school Linkert M74 carburetor for you. Anyhow, we parked on the famed Whiskey Row in front of Matt’s Saloon, one of the historic establishments. After snapping a couple pictures, including the infamous and rumored-to-be haunted Hotel St. Michael, it was time to get our breakfast on. We attempted to eat at Hotel St. Michael, but there was a wait for a table so we turned to each other, and in the words of Peter Fonda in the scene at the Louisiana cafe, I said “Let’s split.” Sauntering North we wandered into a little Mexican cafe called El Charro then it was time to saddle up and head to Flagstaff.
The next 50 miles saw us traveling north on Highway 89, passing through Chino Valley till 89 ends at a roundabout intersecting with Historic Route 66. At this intersection is a tiny town called Ash Fork. We stopped here to top off the tanks, instinctively drawn towards the gas station with the most charm. It’s here that we were approached by the first random character; an older, portly gentleman wearing denim overalls, sporting white hair pulled back in a short ponytail, a white beard and not a tooth in his head. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Uncle Jesse from The Dukes of Hazard, minus teeth. “What year is your Pan?” he asked me. I replied, “’64” and initiated further small talk. He told me he’d had a ’71 Shovel that he had sold years back. He took a picture for us and quietly carried on with his day. Behold, our first roadside photograph. This was followed by a brief chat with a guy on a Kawasaki he was riding from Michigan all the way to Orange County, CA. He commented that he wished he was doing it on a bike like mine. If he only knew! Pressing on through the roundabout, heading East on 66 took us right into Williams. Now Williams is not one of the locations from Easy Rider, but damn, it should have been. You instantly get that “parading without a permit” vibe here. This tiny little town is packed with character! Idling into Williams via 66, it felt as if we had the flux capacitor dropping us off back in the early 50’s. Surrounded by historic buildings like gas stations, cafes, malt shops, watering holes and the like, I wished we had the freedom to spend the afternoon there. I can’t say enough about the charisma and aura on this short stretch of Route 66 known as Williams. I will be back.
Next up, the scavenger hunt begins. As we pulled out of Williams, we were forced to get on I-40 east for about 20 miles in search of the town of Bellemont. We thought Williams was small! It’s in Bellemont that the Pine Breeze Inn is located. This, of course, is the motel seen in the beginning of the film where Wyatt and Billy were turned down for a room as the attendant takes one look at them and flips the neon to read “No Vacancy.” Speaking of “No Vacancy,” it’s rumored that the sign from the motel has been removed and displayed at a bar down the road from the Pine Breeze. But here lies the problem; after much research, I found that these locations haven’t got addresses! After a few miles on I-40, we spotted the Bellemont exit so we hit it. Unsure where we were going, we rode south to an intersection with a stop sign and, head- ing east on 66, happened upon a Harley shop just randomly placed in the middle of nowhere. Well certainly they’d know how to find our destination. In the same parking lot was a bar called The Route 66 Roadhouse Bar & Grill. We opted for the bar to grab a soda, check the map and see what they knew. So we walked in, grabbed a bar stool and struck up a conversation with the bar- tender. We busted out the map and asked the guy if he knew about the bar that supposedly had the “No Vacancy” sign. As he’s drying off a glass, he smirks and points up over our seats.
And there it is folks. Just then, Lonesome, On’ry and Mean by Waylon Jennings cued up on the jukebox. This avalanche of events demanded that we have a pint and raise our glasses. When we told the bartender what we were up to on our ride, he introduced us to the bar’s owner, Felix. Felix and his business partner had purchased both the Pine Breeze Inn and the Route 66 Roadhouse several years earlier. Soon after, Felix repaired the motel sign and hoisted it up over a pool table in the bar. We finished our pints, settled up and hit the road to the Pine Breeze Inn following directions from Felix. The Pine Breeze Inn has obviously been closed for decades, but for the most part, it looks the same with the exception of some signage. Gone is the “No Vacancy” sign of course, and there is a gas pump in front. Peering into the windows, we could see the vintage cash register still intact, an old Radio Flyer wagon, cigarette and soda machines and other miscellaneous items from that era. Too cool. As we were taking photographs and wandering around the property, a young couple pulled up in a red Mustang and hopped out. We struck up a conversation with them and learned they were from Canada and had just gotten married a few days prior in Las Vegas. They were traveling Historic Route 66, taking in all its rich history and taking pictures along the way. (If you’re reading this, we wish you two the best of luck!) They split and we were right behind them making sure to give the motel the proper salute by quoting Dennis Hopper’s line, “You asshole!” as we rode off back towards the highway. Next stop: Flagstaff.
Flagstaff is a leisurely 10 miles further east on I-40. Much of the scenery in downtown Flagstaff is visible during the film’s intro credits as Born to Be Wild serves as the anthem while the guys ride through. As we were riding into town on 66, the ole Panhead wasn’t taking too kindly to the elevation and I was having a hard time keeping it running in the mild afternoon traffic. We decided to cut down Leroux Street and park so we could wander around a bit. Jared had been talking about a building on a corner that appeared briefly in the intro scenes and he was certain we’d be able to find it. Sure enough, we found it right on the corner of Leroux and 66 and photographed it in lovely B&W. Flagstaff is an interesting and mysterious town. As we walked around, we snapped pics of other cool buildings, including the Painted Desert Trading Post, which can be seen briefly in the movie. As we happened upon the Hotel Monte Vista, we decided to have a soda at the bar. This is yet another legendary “haunted” hotel. Jared told me the rooms are named after actors who have stayed there such as John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.
Next we began our toughest search of the day; locating the Sacred Mountain Gas Station. Again without an address, we were forced to search based on vague location descriptions and the guidance of strangers. Felix from the Route 66 Roadhouse said he believed it was about 10 miles outside of Flagstaff on 89 so we headed in that direction. We rode on assuming it would be on our left hand side, based on the film. We had probably gone 20-25 miles by this time and decided to pull into an RV park to ask for help. Now bear in mind, we’d passed a building on the opposite side of the street that said “Sacred Mountain” on it but it bore no recognizable characteristics other than the name and it was also on the wrong side of the road, or so we thought. We parked the scooters and approached the RV park office door. Out came a man who could easily have been a member of the Village People a few decades earlier. He was clad in a t-shirt stretched tightly over his pot belly, a pair of corduroy short shorts, tube socks, sandals and sported a thick, cookie duster of a moustache. We told him what we were looking for. He told us that was it a few miles back, and now it’s a trading post. I told Jared that I wasn’t so sure about that cat’s story considering the Sacred Mountain Trading Post looked nothing like the Sacred Mountain Gas Station. Only one way to find out. Off we go, headed back south on 89. As we pulled in, I was thinking this can’t be it based on the direction they entered the shot in the film. Given my background in film, I considered the possibility that director Dennis Hopper may have suggested that for cinematic purposes, they block the road off and shoot the actors riding northbound on the southbound side of the road, thus entering the gas station facing north. This decision would showcase the better side of the bikes and also allow them to use this location while maintaining geographic continuity of the route.
So, is it or isn’t it the right place? There are similarities but a lot of differences too. The gas pump island has been removed as well as the telephone booth, there appears to be living quarters added on to the structure and someone definitely lives here. Not wanting to be shot for trespassing, but also looking for a positive I.D., we ultimately found just that. The large double spotlights located on the left side of the roof provided the unmistakable identification we had hoped for. I walked out on to the road to photograph the property from the same view as seen in the film and we were out of there. Mission accomplished.
Running out of daylight, it was time to press on to Holbrook for the night. We had conquered all of the Arizona Easy Rider locations and then some all in this first day. Picking up I-40 east, we stopped in Winslow for gas. The vibe pulling into Winslow was like an episode of the Twilight Zone. A lot of interesting cats at the AM/PM in this desolate town. We were first approached by an interesting fellow with a ponytail, one, possibly two teeth and a .45 slung low in a holster around his waist. He struck up a conversation about my Panhead as he and Jared enjoyed a smoke. Then he turned to Jared, and said “That’s a nice Honda. My wife has one just like it.” Good times! This was followed by another random stranger telling me about his Shovelhead chopper. He asked who made the springer front end on my bike stating that the chrome was too bright and shiny for it to be original. I told him that it came off a ’38 Knuckle and went straight to the chrome shop back in ‘96. Still in disbelief, he took a second look and spotted the original fender and front brake brackets that he missed at first glance. Much like the 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes directed by Jim Jarmusch, we could have stayed at that AM/PM all day meeting and chatting with random strangers, and written a movie about the encounters.
With sunset hot on our tail, we had about 35 miles to go to the Holbrook KOA where our cabin awaited. Getting off the bikes, we were both beat and sore as all get out! Over 400 miles on a 1964 rigid with ape hangers in one day came with a hefty price! Funny, I don’t recall the characters in Easy Rider being so sore, struggling with even the most basic of motor skills at the end of their first day. Friggin’ Hollywood. We checked in with our gracious hostess Laura, who along with her husband Larry and their long-time friends John and Brenda, purchased the KOA about 10 years ago. It was all we could do to walk, actually, limp is more like it, to the Burger King next door. That was followed by a J-walking session to the Circle K for a pint of Jim Beam to go with our sodas. Camp- fires were prohibited at the KOA due to wildfires, so we just had idle chat before crashing.
Rise and shine! “Hey man, if we’re goin’ we’re goin’!” That’s what Billy said to Wyatt at the commune and same was true for us. The KOA hosts an outdoor pancake breakfast so we opted in. Jared couldn’t resist quoting Peter Fonda here, “Hey, we’re eatin’ their food man.” Where else can you get a home cooked breakfast for four bucks and change? Thanks again to the folks at the KOA for making us feel very welcome! The rest of the trip was uneventful but beautiful. Descending down from Holbrook, we rode through the Petrified Forest to Heber. This was a gorgeous 45 mile ride! Another 65 miles and we were topping off the gas tanks and cooling off in Payson. Let me tell ya, these are phenomenal areas made up of gorgeous trees and mountains, with a two-lane blacktop dropped right down the center. From Payson it was another 65 miles to our next and last fuel stop at Fort McDowell. Twenty miles further and Jared and I were giving each other the peace sign and breaking off toward our own homes.
This weekend ride was a blast. It was the perfect pressure release for those of us who aren’t in a position to do the whole LA to Mardi Gras ride. We encountered interesting strangers, found locations from our favorite movie, got away from reality, and enjoyed the open road. For you other weekend warriors out there, hopefully we’ve inspired you to hit the highway, visit these locations from biking lore and pay homage to Captain America and Billy.