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Looking for America

Part 1: Setting forth

From LA to Arizona, through a patch of land forgotten in time. Though there are 400 miles between the coast and Valentine, Arizona, Billy and Wyatt cover this section in only the opening credits

An old carriage in the ghost town of Ballarat, Mojave Desert 

Though our heroes actually start their journey hauling some cocaine from Mexico to LA, where they proceed to sell it to Phil Spector, this is by no means a commendable way to finance an adventure. So instead modern day riders should start their journey by heading east out of LA towards the desert and the open road. Another good tip at this point is to find a better place to store your cash than a plastic pipe hidden inside the gas take of your Harley Davidson, as it will significantly diminish the mileage you can get and those tanks are small enough.

The real symbolic starting point for Wyatt and Billy is Ballarat, California- a ghost town. It is a very unusual place; the mining town, of which only ruins remain today, lasted less than seventy years before the entire population had either moved on or died. The remaining constructions resemble ancient ruins, or gravestones, lost in the middle of the desert. Seldom Seen Slim, the town’s only ever illustrious resident, passed away in 1967. A desert wanderer whose tombstone is one of the only remnants of the town refused to leave the area, even in old age, because of it’s natural beauty and mystic appeal. “Me lonely? Hell no! I’m half coyote, half a wild burro.”

Temperatures in the old ghost town are extreme, in the summer the mercury can reach the high 40s, and drop to freezing lows in cold winter nights. But the natural beauty of the site makes a stop in Ballarat worthwhile: the purple mountains of Death Valley are just in the skyline, and the biggest sky in California hangs overhead. Today the town only has three residents, Rocky Novak, and his two dogs Potlicker and Brownie, but in the 1960’s Charles Manson and some of his ‘family’ liked to wander into Ballarat. Tex Watson’s truck is still there, or so it goes.

Seldom Seen Slim and Tex Watson
At the edge of town, Seldom Seen Slim had a sign put up; it said “Free Parking” pointing towards the Death Valley. That is the way Wyatt and Billy drive, after throwing their watches away. Anyone following their route should do the same; it’s a prerequisite of embarking on a journey of self-discovery and rebellion.

Billy and Wyatt head out of Ballarat, towards Boron, California, home to Erin Brockovitch a few decades later, then Barstow, after that and right into the Mojave Desert. Amboy, California, home to Roy’s Motel and Café, where they would have gotten gas because there is nowhere after that to fuel up. Roy’s is something of a relic, all 1950’s modernist lines right in the middle of the desert. The joint was recently reopened in 2008 after years of decadence.

Beyond Amboy, there isn’t much apart from the Mojave Desert. The Interstate 40 (I-40), which follows the old Route 66, would have been the way Billy and Wyatt drove. To the North, the Mojave National Preserve, to the south Joshua Tree National Park.

Yuccas and banana yuccas in the Mojave Desert
Yuccas and banana yuccas in the Mojave Desert

Beyond Route 66
The Mojave National Preserve is a diverse national park, and well worth a visit. There are great volcanic formations and valleys like the Hole in the Wall Canyon and the Cima Dome, two of the weirdest geological formations out there. Large swathes of the preserve are covered by Joshua Tree forests, which only grows in this part of the world. Though the Mojave National Preserve is a bit off route, it is a place of spectacular beauty, and almost untouched. It is a desolate and lonely landscape, scorching hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, and definitely worth the detour.

The desert scenes riders will encounter along the I-40 are part of our collective imagery, courtesy of Hollywood’s Western affectations in the 1960s. Cactuses, rich brown earth, and blue skies. It is a place for contemplation, and there isn’t much action going on in this part of the world. Geographically it’s no man’s land, lost between California and Arizona, today there are many Indian reservations here, forgotten in the desert.

At Kingman, Arizona, get off the I-40 and follow the dusty trail that is now the legendary Route 66, it’s not on Google Maps, so get a paper one. Here you will find Valentine, not so much a town as six or seven houses built in close proximity to each other. Wyatt and Billy stopped around here to change their tyres and were invited to lunch by a rancher and his ‘Catholic’ wife. In the film it looks like pretty inhospitable terrain, and makes you wonder how that family lives there. That’s what you feel like in real life as well.

Introduction: Looking for America, with Easy Rider

Next: Route 66 in Arizona, Monument Valley and Pine Breeze Motel (or what’s left of it)

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