A review of the book ' The Hippie Trail - A History ' by Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland.
|The Hippie Trail – A Book Review|
This is really a history of one of the manifestations of the counter culture revolution in the Western World. Disillusioned with the conservative, materialistic life, the effects of the Vietnam war and compulsory conscription, the counter culture was visible in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, in swinging sixties London and disillusionment at the loss of political relevance in Paris France leading to student unrest.
It was a time of protests, great music and great literature with a yearning for an alternative lifestyle. It was also the time when millions of young adults went East to mingle in vastly different cultures and experience change within at the spiritual level. There was an external and internal aspect to the traveller's quest. The journeys started sometime in 1957 and lasted till 1978, due to violence and conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Though some travelled to Morocco, the journey took these idealistic young people through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan until they reached India and Nepal. There was no singular route and there were multiple modes of travel, but this was the first instance of non-colonial meeting of cultures. Thousands upon thousands of kids travelled and expressed their freedom of choice; their sense of curiosity and discovery meshed in with unlimited availability of drugs, sexual freedom and spiritual quests. This came to be known as the Hippie Trail. This overland route to the East may now be closed but its memory lives on.
I was in high school in India those days and it was fascinating for me to see large numbers of young Westerners come into India. I saw them in communes on the golden beaches of Goa, in barges on the river Ganges in Varanasi, in Rishikesh where the Beatles, Mia Farrow , Donovan and many others came to learn Transcendental Meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and in Kathmandu, Patan and Pokhra in Nepal where the trail ended. Though there were personal anecdotes and writings of the travellers (e.g. David Tomory’s ‘A Season in Heaven’), there was no serious historical work that researched the period 1957 – 1978, when the world literally changed.
Then recently, Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland researched and wrote about ‘The Hippie Trail - A History’ (Manchester University Press, first published in 2017). It is indeed a serious study but unlike academic work, it is highly readable and enjoyable. The book is structured around four key debates: were the travellers simply motivated by a search for drugs? Were they basically just tourists? Did they resemble pilgrims? And, how have these intrepid young travellers been represented in films, novels and autobiographical accounts. This is one of the finest works on the counter-cultures of the 1960s and 1970’s.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the trail became ‘normalised’. Everyone seemed to be going or at least knew someone who had gone or who was planning to go or who wanted to go. This shift in attitudes was part of a bigger change in attitudes in American and European society: as audiences enjoyed listening to George Harrison’s ‘Within You, Without You’ on the Beatle’s Sergeant Pepper, as spiritual seekers created what became known as “ Western Buddhism”. This silent revolution in forms of travel happened without explanation or elaboration.
While the historical, social, cultural and political contexts are important frameworks within which to consider the hippie trail, primarily however, this book is about people, those youthful travellers whose motivations and hopes seem incredibly naïve from today’s perspective, but who nonetheless, often displayed a fearless attitude to travel and an optimistic expectation that their journeys would be transformational. They seemed willing to endure hardships not just as a means to an end, but also part of their individual and collective learning experiences. Political unrest, war and terrorism closed the overland trail entirely in the late 1970s and 1980s. This was mainly the result of man-made tragedies in many of the countries that they travelled through that caused most post-1978 travellers to abandon the route and seek out new destinations.
However, the trail is now being re-remembered by a generation who are revisiting their earlier vision. Sometimes the impulse to do this is literally generational: the travellers have become parents and now wish to introduce their 20-year old selves to their own children. This generation wanted something more out of life than ‘their’ parents and make the world a lot better. And, when they look back many find that, “today the world looks like a fucking mess”. Instead of the world getting better, as most 20 year olds assumed it would in the 1960s and 1970s, the world in the 21st century looks threatening and seems to be getting worse. A few accept that they were wrong and present their youthful adventures as examples of youthful foolishness, but the vast majority of travellers proudly refuse to deny their former ideals in an era that is lost.
The ethos of the movement was Aquarian, free from racial prejudice, anti-consumerist, sympathetic to the environment, sexually adventurous, drug enhanced and communal. By the end of the 1960s about one million young people had taken to the road in the United States and another 800,000 were travelling in Europe. At any point in time from 1967 to 1978 there were tens of thousands of Westerners on the Hippie Trail, but hardly anything has been written about the impact this mass movement of people and ideas had on the countries and people they visited. This book gives an entertaining account from various perspectives and is the most definitive narrative on this enormous and largely under-reported cultural phenomenon.
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