In 2002 I decided to cross one of the items off my bucket list (I hate that expression – if someone knows a better one please leave it in the comments) and took a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  My boss didn’t want to sign off on the vacation time because he was anticipating some sort of crisis during that week, so I almost had to quit my job for it.  It was one of the few times I actually played hardball  – I was playing chicken with a $2000 Christmas bonus that wouldn’t be awarded unless you actually worked for the company the day they handed out the checks – but I eventually got my way and flew out to Austin to join my college friend F****.  Our plan was to rent a car and drive from Texas to Louisiana, stay at an as-yet undetermined hotel on the outskirts of Louisiana and drive into town each day for parades.

F**** and I didn’t have a great track record of traveling together.  During our senior year in college, we’d embarked on a cross-country journey from Virginia to California in an aging Ford Taurus that my parents had given to me.  After a single day of being on the road together, we came to an unspoken agreement that if we didn’t make it across the country as quickly as possible, our journey might outlast our friendship.  We ended up driving in shifts for 34 straight hours, from Asheville, North Carolina to Las Vegas, stopping only for food and gas.  We survived, and our friendship survived (that particular trip, at least – we’re no longer friends today), and it didn’t seem like a bad idea to try it again four years later.

The Film: Easy Rider

The Song: “Ballad of Easy Rider”

The Artist: Roger McGuinn

The most important accesory for the trip was a cooler full of beer we put into the trunk.  The second-most accessory for the trip was the full-coverage insurance we took out on the rental car.  I can’t even begin to explain the peace of mind that came with coughing up the extra money and signing off on every single type of coverage that was available.  Neither of us was dumb enough to bring along any nice clothing; by the end of the trip both pairs of pants I brought had two inches worth of stains from the cuff upwards from wading through streets full of litter.

Most of the four days we spent there is pretty much of a blur.  We had a basic system of rotating drunkenness; one of us was allowed to really cut loose while the other effectively chaperoned and made sure we made it back to our hotel (a half-hour drive outside of town) intact.  I remember drinking a lot of hurricanes.  I remember that the food was fantastic – even the alligator that I tasted.  I remember seeing a lot of boobs.  I remember ducking into the service hallway of a bar to make out with a prosecutor from somewhere in Colorado, though I can’t for the life of me remember her name.

The most vivid memory I have is of almost getting arrested. I was mooning some folks up on a balcony who were cheering and throwing cards and beads back down at me, and suddenly I was essentially picked up and hustled across the sidewalk and found myself with my back against a wall facing a phalanx of New Orleans policemen.  The lead cop, who was a good bit shorter than me, was shouting about how they would drag me downtown and how I wouldn’t be so cavalier about flashing my ass in a cell.  I swear to god it’s true, and it’s one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done, but somehow, despite having my windpipe trapped between his forearm and a brick wall, despite having my pants around my ankles, despite the half dozen cops behind him, I simply couldn’t stop myself and literally started laughing in his face.

They let me walk away.  I still can’t believe it.

I have some memories of our final night as well. F**** and I got separated, which in and of itself wasn’t that big of a deal (we’d navigated those waters just fine on previous nights).  It was F****’s night to go big, and my night to stay safe, so I wandered around the bars for an hour in search of a reunion, and then went back to the car to wait.  There was some other guy hanging around waiting for his friends so I offered him a beer, which he drank no more than five sips of, and we waited together for a while to help keep each other awake.  After his friends returned, he departed and I was alone again.  I started to get very sleepy and began to sense that I was in the middle of carjack central, so I pulled anchor and drove back to the hotel, crossing my fingers that F**** had gotten lucky.  If not, I figured he’s have the presence of mind to call the hotel and I’d come back pick him up.  I woke up the next morning, still flying solo, hoping that maybe F**** had gotten lucky.  I headed back downtown – it was finally Fat Tuesday – and wandered around, knowing that my chances of finding him were slim.  In the afternoon, exhausted, I went back to the hotel again to find him back in the room, asleep.  He’d been sleeping since 10 a.m.

Poor F**** had wandered the streets of New Orleans all night.  I’m not sure he remembers much of what happened during that time.  It didn’t occur to him to come looking for me at the car until 4 a.m.  It never occurred to him to call our hotel.  After daylight had broken, he ended up catching a very expensive cab ride back.

Our trip back to Austin was quiet and uneventful.  I saw F**** twice more in my life; once was when I stopped by while I was driving cross-country before leaving for South Africa, and the last time was in Virginia where some things happened that made it such that that we’ll never speak again.  Was our journey to New Orleans anything like the long strange trip that Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) took in Easy Rider?  It’s a stretch.  In the end, our trip was no more of a spiritual success than theirs: they failed in their quest to experience the real America; F**** and I were never really searching for anything other than a memorable experience.  Ours certainly had a happier ending – but at least Wyatt and Billy were still friends when they parted ways.

The song that accompanies the end credits of the film is “Ballad of Easy Rider,” a song partially written by Bob Dylan and then turned over to Roger McGuinn for completion.  It’s an uncomplicated song, but it matches nicely with the feel of the final scene and the river that comes into view as the camera draws away from the symbolically burning American flag of Wyatt’s wrecked motorcycle.