I first saw it when I was about 13, and I like to think that I was wise enough to catch all of the social subtlety, but really, the sex and drugs aspect was a bit beyond me. But I knew I liked the two protagonists. They were cool. But I remember now that I *really* liked Jack Nicholson's character. He was a Seeker, just as I was, and not afraid to think outside the box. That hilarious warren of crazy rabbit holes in his brain were very familiar to me, even as I recognised that he and Reality were friends but not lovers. And then he got killed by those random rednecks. WTF! It was random and bad, and that struck a chord with me, because, well, we lived in the heart of Appalachia at the time, and the 60's were still a bruise on those folks' memories and sensibilities. We were barely a decade away from a time when lynchings and murder of blacks and "outsiders" could be gotten away with. I went to school with the children of people of that generation, and I *recognised* them in the movie. Many folks down there were growing away from that level of xenophobia, but all too many were not, and I was low hanging fruit for their kids in Jr. High.
But the cincher, the moment I really got hit in the face with the gritty verisimilitude crafted into the film was at the end. Our two protagonists (flawed heroes at best) had finished their trip and were actually on the path to some introspection and awakening from their dilletentism and apathy. They decided to take the very last of their ill-gotten fortune and settle in Florida. I got the idea that Henry Fonda's character at least, was going to end up as a decent person, scruffy outlaw notwithstanding. On the road to doing just that after their epiphanies in New Orleans and the plan hatched the night before, they were shot and killed on the road by another pair of random Deep South rednecks who just happened to pass them by in a pickup truck. They shot the pair on a whim. The WTF moment impact of that ending, I could tell, was intended to be a metaphor for the metastasized oppression that lingered in Society even as a wiser Enlightenment seeped into the counterculture. I *did* catch and understand that the awakenings in the 60's started with pretensions of wisdom, but kept succumbing to the temptations of dropping out of Society and into an endless party. There was a generation of young folks who's naivete was finally ripening into maturity and I GOT that. I also GOT that there was an Old Guard who was threatened not only by the rejection of their values, but even more threatened by a more mature understanding of them. That's why the two were killed at the end, after they finished their roadtrip/party and made the conscious decision to grow into a next phase. I GOT that, even at 13, I got it.
But for me, that metaphor was also real. It had been only months before I first saw the film that I had been out riding my own bike (bicycle) in the mountains. I was on one of my own grand explorations, living my own metaphor of finding myself and discovering my independence and freedom by traveling beyond what I knew. One afternoon of excellent weather, as I was taking in the beauty and peace of the mountains literally miles away from the frustrations, sadness, anger and bullshit of my home life, this pickup truck passed me by, horn blaring. A mouthful of chewing tobacco was spat upon me by the "shotgun" passenger as the driver hollered out in the signature local drawl: "Get off the goddamn road you fat hippie!" Cut ot where I sat, in my own living room watching two fellow travellers on the road in the South being passed by a pickup truck just as I had been, and randomly attacked, just as I had been, for just being there while different. Wow.
All that separated me from the fate of the two Easy Riders was simply a few degrees of decorum and psycopathy, that only a decade before might not have even existed. My road was deserted too. There were no direct witnesses, maybe a farm around the corner (I remember a pasture, I think). A random shotgun blast in the distance was a common enough sound on any given day. Bang. One less fat hippie cloggin' up the dang road with his fat ass. I remember watching those movie credits roll with tears in my eyes. And when I tried to share my feelings about this with the adults in my life, adults who were barely aware of the daily torture and bullying I put up at school and in my neighborhood, and barely believing of the catcalls I sporadically got while on my bike on those roads (which were really mostly deserted most of the time), their advice was "Well maybe you shouldn't go out so far on your bike." How things were where I LIVED was exactly WHY I would so relish escaping into the mountains on my bike.
I didn't listen to them. I refused and still do. The times were changing, even in Henderson and Transylvania Counties NC (my usual range as I lived 2 miles from the border of them). Most people were content to just let me ride, and some were even kind when my bike broke down. I managed to steel myself to the fact that the tobacco spitter was an anomaly, an anachronism, even then. Despite the occasional "moments", being out on a bike on an adventure evoked a love of life that has never left me.
But what makes me sad now, watching _Easy Rider_ is not that my own memories of the random beatings I endured and the roadside attack still come back at the sight Nicholson's screen death, and then that of our two heroes, but how the "anachronisms" of that time and place still haven't been fully put to sleep. Worst yet is watching just how hard some people are working to bring those days back. I grieve to see nostalgia for a time when dead hippies by the side of the road are a feature to be sought after and not a stain that needs to be scrubbed out of our social fabric.