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Fans honor Hopper during Taos' 'Easy Rider' festival

BY SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press

TAOS, N.M. - Motorcyclists and movie fanatics from as far away as Canada made the pilgrimage to northern New Mexico to celebrate Dennis Hopper and his iconic counterculture film "Easy Rider."

Several dozen motorcycles gathered Saturday in the dusty, adobe encircled plaza in the community of Ranchos de Taos, 4 miles south of Taos, to kick off what town officials hope will be an annual event - Dennis Hopper Day - with a rally and ride through some of the places made famous in the film.

Motorcyclists pulled out of the plaza just before 1 p.m. MDT. Led by a police escort, they started their easy ride on the two-lane road heading out of Taos, a diverse town known for skiing, art and Hispanic and Native American culture. Not unlike scenes in the movie, snow-capped mountains served as a classic backdrop for much of the ride.

Saturday would have been the late actor and director's 78th birthday. Hopper lived in Taos for years and is buried here.

Town Manager Rick Bellis says the day is aimed at recognizing Hopper's contributions as a resident, a filmmaker, a supporter of the arts and for simply being a "colorful member" of the community.

"His image really represents the spirit of Taos," Bellis said. "He was independent, slightly eccentric but incredibly talented. He sort of became a symbol for a whole new generation."

Hopper first came to New Mexico in the late 1960s to scout locations for "Easy Rider." Shot on a shoestring budget, the independent film summed up the hopes and anxieties of the '60s, romanticized the open road and ended up revolutionizing Hollywood by forcing the studio gates to open to a new generation of film school graduates.

"Nothing like this had ever been done before. It was a phenomenon," said John Hellmann, an English professor and a member of the film studies program at Ohio State University.

The appeal of rebellion, motorcycles and the open road have sustained the popularity of "Easy Rider" over four decades, and town officials are hopeful the film and the legend of Hopper will continue to draw people to Taos.

This marks the first year of the rally and ride, but organizers have plans to add more music and film venues in the coming years.

Bellis said Hopper was able to get some of the area's traditional Hispanic and Native American families to open up to outsiders when he first arrived in the '60s. In fact, he was the only person to get permission to film at Taos Pueblo, an American Indian community dating to the late 13th and early 14th centuries that's recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"He walked across the multicultural borders here. I think that really started with him and the movie and has continued," Bellis said. "In the last few years, we have really become that kind of community that he saw, that there was no difference between our ethnicities and who, when and where we came from."

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