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Posts Tagged ‘Easy Rider’


The idea for this trip came thirteen years ago when I bought the book entitled The Blues Highway: A Travel and Music Book by Richard Knight.

But then, as we were on the point of booking the trip, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, the planned starting point for the trip. We resolved then that we would wait to do it when life in the city had returned to some semblance of normality.

In 2012, we did finally embark on a road trip, but in a very different part of the country – the National Parks of the South West, covering the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Setting off from Las Vegas, our expedition took in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon, followed by a sizeable detour through New Mexico, visiting Santa Fe, Albuquerque and iconic locations on Route 66 such as Winslow, Arizona (“Standin’ on a Corner”) and Gallup, New Mexico before returning to Vegas.

Numerous trips to San Francisco, Tahoe, Vegas as well as the North East (of the U.S, not England!) followed, as the Southern states, other than Florida, failed to seduce us sufficiently into venturing in their direction. Maybe their racist past (and present), Christian fundamentalism and gun culture all have had something to do with it. Moreover, the scene from Easy Rider where the main protagonists get short shrift in a southern diner still haunts me, and the song by Folkestone band, the Transients, entitled They Don’t Like Hippies in Baton Rouge, only serves to exacerbate the anxiety.

But now, with mid-term elections looming and the divisions in America widening, we have chosen this moment to plunge ourselves into the belly of Trumpsylvania, though a Californian friend’s recent assertion that we were essentially visiting “blue cities in red states” is a comforting and far from innacurate one.

So what is the attraction of this particular itinerary that has stubbornly refused to disappear from our vacation radar?

The Blues Highway, essentially Highway 61, runs, for the most part alongside the mighty Mississippi, from New Orleans  to Chicago and traces the migration of many African Americans from the Deep South to the Northern cities following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Equally, it charts (sic) the development of the major music genres for which we are so much indebted to the United States for, principally the blues and gospel (Mississippi delta, Memphis, St Louis and Chicago), but also jazz (New Orleans), cajun and zydeco (Lafayette), country (Nashville) and soul (Memphis again, and not forgetting Elvis!).

After an initial overnight stay in Newark, New Jersey (flights from the UK being so much cheaper), we fly to the “Big Easy” for four nights before hitting the road with single overnight stays in Lafayette, Vicksburg and Clarksdale. A three night residence in Memphis follows before we head east to Nashville for four nights, arriving on the eve of my birthday.

From “Music City” we cross country back to the main road for three nights in St Louis, followed by a night in Peoria before arriving in the “Windy City” for another four nights, when we are hoping to be joined for a couple of nights by friends from San Francisco. Two nights in New York City conclude the trip before we catch our return flight from Newark.

The trip has the added bonus of introducing us to seven new states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois with brief detours through Kentucky and Arkansas. The prospect of experiencing new cultures, historic tours and spectacular scenery is, of course, exciting, but it is the music that is the driving force of the trip. Clubs, bars, museums and street musicians will, therefore, be the major focus of the next three weeks.

And we must not forget the other star of the show – the road itself.

Little thrills the blood more than the thought of exploring this amazing country by car with the radio blaring out the music style that reflects the landscape you are travelling through at the time. I am sure it will reveal some entertaining adventures as this blog grows over the coming weeks.

So let’s get on with the show!

See y’all later!

 

 

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I blame it, of course, on Scott McKenzie.

And Alan Whicker.

Now I trust that many readers, notably those of a certain age and transatlantic disposition, will recall that Scott McKenzie was the singer who advised the world in 1967 that, if they were going to San Francisco, they should “be sure to wear some flowers in their hair”. That song alone had a searing impact on an impressionable fourteen year old boy living five and a half thousand miles away.

But Alan Whicker?

In appearance, with his English grammar school upbringing, clipped accent, Saville Row suit, slicked back hair, thick-set glasses and brisk moustache, he was the antithesis of the young people flocking to the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood at the time.

Whicker was an English journalist and broadcaster who forged a career spanning nearly sixty years until his death in 2013. His finest work was Whicker’s World which he presented for thirty years, travelling the world and commenting in an inimitable ironic fashion on society, and interviewing many prominent figures of the time, including the Sultan of Brunei, reputedly the richest man in the world at the time, the Haitian dictator, “Papa Doc” Duvalier and numerous high profile actors and aristocrats.

His stiff upper-lip style made him the affectionate butt of many comedians, none more memorably than the Monty Python team who delivered a sketch entitled Whicker’s Island, in which a succession of Whickers would walk on and off the screen uttering in his customary hushed tones, the catchphrase “here on Whicker’s Island”.

On 9th September 1967, the day that Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Byrds headlined at the Family Dog and Fillmore Auditorium, two of the emerging and competing concert venues in San Francisco,  Whicker broadcast a programme on the BBC entitled Love Generation. The episode was groundbreaking not least for the fact that it showed scenes of drug taking, despite the corporation’s “horror” of the practice, for the first time on British television, notably in 710 Ashbury, the Grateful Dead house (Phil Lesh and Bob Weir figured prominently). In the light of the recent Mick Jagger drug bust, it was put out very late at night. Among the individuals invited to expound their hippie ideals, emerging music promoter, Chet Helms, outlined his plans for taking music and light show “happenings” to London.

It was an incisive, literate and surprisingly sympathetic piece in which Whicker spoke over footage of the large influx of youth who had hitchhiked from every state to “Hashbury”:

In the States, pot is going middle class and spreading like prohibition liquor as more and more citizens   get zonked out of their minds. The drug culture enters the blood stream of American life. Like it or not, we’re living in the stoned age.

Later he was to lament that the:

Summer of Love was a short outburst of happiness that lasted only a few months. When I returned a year later the flowers and the innocence had died.

I was, like the thousands of young people that sought escape from the drabness of middle America, inspired by the message of “tune in, turn on, drop out”, though I hadn’t the means of joining the tribes.

The broadcast also gave my first experience of the Grateful Dead in performance with a beardless Jerry Garcia taking the lead on the Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion). A song title was never more apt.

News bulletins featured scenes of Gray Line tour buses crawling down Haight Street with bemused middle aged, provincial passengers staring at the carnival on the street.

And then there was Scott McKenzie.

Another character with a splendid upper lip growth, it was his song, full title San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), which topped the charts in the UK but not (quite) the US, that so enthralled that fourteen year old boy in what was, despite the emergence of “swinging London”, still a monochrome etched country.

I took to decorating my Beatle mop with an occasional fresh daisy or buttercup. I commandeered my mother’s chocolate and purple paisley print blouse to wear to the home games of my local football team, guaranteeing that I would be bullied as mercilessly on a Saturday afternoon on the terraces as I was already being five days a week at school.

But I didn’t care.

I was a hippie.

My home grown musical diet of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks and a dozen other pop groups began to be supplemented by the weird, thrilling sounds of San Francisco. But it would still be another three years before I could get my hands on the music of the  Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service (thank you Keith Mason wherever you are), and before I could justifiably claim to be aboard the bus – the magic, not tourist, version.

During those same three years, I became increasingly fascinated by American culture and society. My political awakening was borne more out of opposition to the Vietnam War and support for the blacks in the Deep South, and students at Berkeley and Kent State than with the Rhodesian question or devaluation of the pound in Britain. I chose American history as one of my “A levels” at school and later studied American literature at university.

Underpinning all this was the music – my adoration for the San Franciscan bands was extended to embrace the country and folk rock idioms of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Eagles and, of course, Dylan. I devoured every American film I could, especially those with a counter cultural bias like Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop and Alice’s Restaurant, and read George Jackson, Angela Carter and Tom Wolfe.

Those enthusiasms have endured to this day, though it would take me another quarter of a century before I first gazed adoringly on the Golden Gate Bridge or strolled down the street that had been the epicentre of my cultural life for so long.

But that is another story.

To finish, another of those siren songs that sucked me into a San Francisco state of mind.

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Our last day on the road and one on which we hoped to catch more vintage Route 66 sights before we said a fond farewell to The Mother Road. We had nearly 300 miles in front of us before we reached Las Vegas, where we had tickets for the Dark Star Orchestra concert in the House of Blues in Mandalay Bay at 8pm. With that in mind, we left the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff at 8.35am, our earliest start of the trip.

Before we joined the I-40 west we needed to fill up the car. As we had contracted to return it with an empty tank, we did not want to put in any more than was necessary. We estimated $30 should do the trick.

Our first planned stop was at Bellemont, location for a classic scene from Easy Rider. Early in the movie Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda pull up in front of the Pine Breeze Motel, hopeful of a room for the night. However, the owner, peering from within, spots their motorcycles and promptly switches the neon sign from VACANCY to NO VACANCY. Although the motel is now closed, the sign is still displayed at the nearby Route 66 Roadhouse Bar & Grill – which does welcome bikers. It is that we went in search of.

We left the interstate at junction 185 as directed and followed the signs to Bellemont – or so we thought. Our first attempt ended in a pothole ridden track that ran out in a forest clearing. Undaunted, we crossed back over the I-40 and took the frontage road, but after two miles we reached a similar dead end. With no access to the freeway we were forced to turn back.

We could not afford too many such fruitless detours on a day when we had so many miles to cover. At least this diversion had given us the opportunity, on an empty stomach, to witness a group of cows defying the flies to feast on a rotten deer carcase.

The other Route 66 destination that we were anxious to visit was Williams, just thirty miles from our starting point. Taking exit 165 we entered the town, whose welcome sign stated that “You are wanted in Williams”. And so we were.

After parking the car we started to walk down the main street in search of a suitable breakfast venue. We were tempted first by Goldie’s Route 66 Diner, but the sight of ten bikers roaring into the forecourt in front of us suggested we might have to wait a while!  The nearby Red Garter Bed & Bakery retained outward hints of its former notoriety as a bordello.

This town has the distressing or proud, depending on your point of view, distinction of being the last one to be bypassed by the interstate on 13th October 1984 when Bobby Troup, the writer of (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 attended the closing ceremony. That might have proved the death knell of the community, but its railroad history and proximity to the Grand Canyon enabled it not only to survive but thrive as an important major tourist location.

We were immediately attracted to Williams with its frontier feel and vibrant Route 66 connections. Nearly every establishment, whether a gift store, diner, trading post or motel, appeared to be selling a large selection of road memorabilia.

We were spoilt for choice of dining options here too. Cruisers Café 66 Bar & Grill, which would have been my original preference, was, sadly, closed, though we were still able to roam its delightful patio with its vintage gas pumps (above), murals and and quirky Halloween paraphernalia (below).

Of all the towns we had visited on our trek through New Mexico and Arizona on America’s Main Street, nowhere flaunted its Route 66 heritage more than Williams, as the restaurant sign below illustrates. And we loved it!

Eventually we decided on breakfast at the Pine Country restaurant, a classic diner with friendly staff,  family atmosphere and, of course, its own mini gift shop. Two fried eggs sunny side up, hash browns, sausage patty, lashings of ketchup, sourdough bread and, of course, unlimited coffee, was just the right fuel for the long road ahead.

Aside from its Route 66 frisson, it is Williams’ railroad history that brings the visitors flocking in today. The Santa Fe Railroad first connected it with the Grand Canyon in 1901 but it went out of business sixty seven years later.

Then in 1989 it reopened as the embarcation point for the Grand Canyon Railway which now carries tourists the 65 miles daily to the South Rim through the high plains and pine forests. An essential excursion on our next trip.

Another of the town’s nostalgic diners is Twisters, full of road memorabilia and complete with original fifties soda fountain and bar stools. The reasons for a return trip in the not too distant future mount up – only time today for a handful of photographs of the exterior.

We would have loved to have spent longer in Williams (it was now nearly 11 o’clock), not least to explore the Arizona State Railroad Museum (and sample each of the diners!), but were mindful that we needed to reach Vegas as early as possible in order to avoid a lengthy queue at hotel check-in. And there was that gig to get to.

This meant we had to remain on the interstate rather than join the Route 66 loop which included Seligman and its legendary Sno-Cap Drive-In and the equally famous Hackberry General Store. 

I am so looking forward to that next trip!

Route 66 may not have been the primary focus of the trip when we first planned it. But we had virtually lived on it since Albuquerque and fallen under its spell – even when we couldn’t find it! There is no other road in the U.S., or anywhere in the world for that matter, that carries as much resonance – not bad for a road that no longer officially exists! Tim Steel put it best in his eponymous book:

There are few things in life as alluring as a road trip, and few roads beckon as seductively as Route 66.

We may now have been concentrating on eating up the miles rather than looking for obscure Route 66 spots, but it did not dull our powers of observation. Hitchhikers dotted this stretch of the interstate, a reminder of a gentler time and one we had not seen at all on the trip heretofore. Perhaps they were Deadheads trying to get to the Dark Star Orchestra gig in Vegas! No tie-dye in evidence, so probably not. We passed a truck carrying an  unusual “oversize load” – an aircraft wing! Blown tires strewed the road and hard shoulder.

At exit 48 at Kingman (along with Barstow and San Bernadino, celebrated in the final line of Bobby Troup’s classic song), we finally left the I-40 (and Route 66) to join the I-68 West and, shortly afterwards, the I-93 North to Las Vegas. It was a quarter to one, eighty four degrees (twenty three degrees warmer than it had been when we left Flagstaff but still eight degrees cooler than when we arrived in Vegas). We had exactly one hundred miles to go. We took a comfort break in a gas station and discussed whether we needed to “top” the fuel up, concluding that we might just make it – which we did, endorsing the decision we had made at the beginning of the day). Billboards for the casinos in Vegas were already a regular roadside sight.

Much of the I-93 was desert with occasional shacks the only habitation. Plots of five, ten and twenty acres were on sale, though the landscape was bare and unprepossessing. Within the hour we had passed the Hoover Dam and crossed into Nevada. Having made such good time since Williams, we stopped in Henderson for an iced coffee before the final cruise into Vegas.

Nothing in the past seventeen days had prepared us for the volume of traffic that greeted us on the run in to Vegas! We approached via Flamingo Road’s three lanes that seemed to go on forever, and made the right turn onto the Strip towards our hotel.

After a tearful goodbye to “Ruxy”, who had transported us, without a hitch, 2,325 miles across five states and innumerable extraplanetary vistas, we headed for check-in at Treasure Island. And yes, it was crammed! As the receptionist explained “half of Southern California is here this weekend” and most of them had just landed!

But within the hour we were in our room overlooking the Strip. And not only did we make the gig but we arrived in sufficient time to eat in the House of Blues first – where it had all started two and a half weeks ago.

The concert was great – well I thought so! We walked the length of the Strip in the balmy early hours, and had a nightcap in the Breeze Bar in the casino before retiring.

It was already my sixtieth birthday, and we now had a long weekend in Las Vegas to look forward to.

As to what we got up to over the next four days – well, you know the phrase, don’t you?

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