The Hippie Trail: A History by Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland is a rollicking and riveting read, chock-full of vivid anecdotes and insights. It is perfect for armchair travellers dreaming of happier times. How gentrified and commodified the world seems today!
“You can’t trust anybody who’s wearing a tie,” Jefferson Airplane
Gemie and Ireland appraise the broader social and political context, alongside the psychological and cultural worlds of the famously hirsute travellers. The resulting narrative is a blend of analysis and dialogues with eighty authors and interviewees who went on the trail in the late 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s on a quest for adventure, spirituality and escape from monotony, ending up – though not always – in Nepal. By the 1970s, Kathmandu was known as “the Benidorm of the dope trail”. (p. 104)
“Our access to the trail began with some conversations with a few friends, and then a decision to place a small ad in Private Eye in 2012, asking if there were any hippie trail travellers who were willing to be interviewed . . .” Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland, (p.2)
The seeds of today’s environmentalism, feminism, socialism, anti-racism and community-based activism lie in the hippie movement’s rejection of mainstream society, and its aims to create a more egalitarian, communal, peaceful way of life. An ardent opposition to war, consumerism, and authoritarianism was manifested through music, art, communal living, vegetarianism, and the use recreational drugs resulting in altered states. They promoted flower power, free love, and Eastern religion, especially Buddhism and Hinduism. Some travellers on the trail said “no” to drugs, “the environment and culture around us was just so amazing we didn’t need to get high.” (p. 55).
Freedom on the Road
The hippie trail became emblematic as a new way to travel without much money, and explore different cultures and alternative lifestyles. They were “youthful budget class” travellers as opposed to the affluent condescending elites of the Grand Tour of yesteryear. The “inner” journey of the hippies was as important as their “outer” journey, as they adventured through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and – in winter – Goa.
The section of the book which looks at attitudes around travel, terminology, cultural misunderstandings and fantasy versus reality is priceless. Travellers looking for Buddhism and an India that did not exist were viewed by locals as being akin to “arriving in Britain with a keen interest in morris dancing”.
“Turn on, tune in, drop out,” Timothy Leary
Aldous Huxley’s, The Doors of Perception, had a significant impact on the hippie movement in the 1960s, popularizing the use of psychedelics, expanding the concept of consciousness, exploring spirituality, and inspiring artistic expression.
The Hippie Trail’s chapter sequence is structured to address key topics:
1. Drugs and the trail 2. Sex and love on the road 3. The hippie as tourist 4. The hippie as pilgrim 5. Representing the trail: Hideous Kinky and beyond Epilogue: Ending the journey
“I was a hippie . . . I got married in a red, black and gold kaftan,” from an interview with George ‘the seeker’, 5 January 2013. (p. 21)
From what constitutes a hippie – many of the travellers rejected this label – Gemie and Ireland move on to consider the challenges these “freaks” and “dropouts” faced along the way . . . the lurid and salacious reports back home in British tabloids . . . the impact that these offbeat seekers had on the countries and cultures that were visited . . . and how hippies have been represented in films, novels and autobiographical accounts is examined
“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” Eldridge Cleaver
Seduced by the lure of adventure and (self) discovery, hippies were on tight budgets and travelled light. They journeyed overland as independent backpackers, in VW camper vans, or on a bus of some description (the most popular being Indiaman coaches, the Magic Bus, or Swagman Tours). It was a different kind of travel – flying was out of the question. Lasting friendships and relationships were often formed. Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who made the trip in 1972, wrote a guide about the route which led to the creation of the Lonely Planet guidebook series.
Not many women travelled on the Hippie Trail, and those who did – usually in groups – faced greater risks than men as the different cultures had different sexual codes, and they were more vulnerable to harassment, assault, and theft. But those who did the journey found the trail to be a liberating and empowering experience, giving them an opportunity to break free from conventional roles and expectations back home.
“Love is the answer, and you know that for sure,” John Lennon
In February 1968, the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh in northern India to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the renowned spiritual leader and founder of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement. The band had finished a hectic period of recording and touring, and were searching for a new direction. The band spent several weeks at the Maharishi’s ashram, practicing TM for several hours a day. John Lennon described it as being “one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.” Many of their later albums, among them ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Let It Be,’ featured themes of peace, love and transcendence.
Hippies played a significant role in the worlds of music and fashion, with the birth of psychedelic rock, and zany colourful fashion. Today people still wear bell-bottoms, tie-dye, and those hand-embroidered Afghan coats made famous by Jimmy Hendrix.
Regime change in Iran and war in Afghanistan in the late 1970s meant borders were closed and the trail was blocked, ultimately putting a stop to it. Although heading East at the time was a hazardous enterprise due to banditry, famine, illness and revolution, attempting to travel through these territories today would be virtually impossible because of the political extremism and societal collapse largely as a consequence of Western policies and The War on Terror.
The Hippie Trail: A History, gives us a well-informed, in-depth and nuanced understanding of a major cultural phenomenon. It offers a unique perspective on the emergence of a global counterculture which spread around the world, and influenced many of today’s movements which reject mainstream capitalist society. It illuminates how the experiences of hippies on the road have inspired subsequent generations of travellers, backpackers, and cultural tourists.
New Age travellers in the UK exploring alternative ways of living, and young people heading to Tibet and India seeking spiritual practices, or meditation and yoga retreats, are the cultural heirs of these trailblazers. The Hippie Trail: A History deserves to reach a wider audience and recognition. Buy it, read it, and reframe your viewpoints!
‘Road to Kathmandu’, documentary made in 1977 [47 minutes]
The Hippie Trail: A History by Sharif Gemie & Brian Ireland | illus. 12pp HTS 256pp £16 ISBN 978 1526114624 Nov 2017 | Manchester University Press
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