The term ‘hippie’ was coined around 1965; the term ‘hippie trail’ began to circulate in the late 1960s: it referred principally to the long route from London (or sometimes Amsterdam) to Katmandu. This was not an actual path, although disparate travellers often, by coincidence, followed a route that led through the same cafés, campsites, border-crossings, and cultural sites. The travelers came from different Western European countries and the United States. Interviews with over 30 hippie trail-ers found that they had all traveled out east or south in the 1960s and early 1970s, to places like Morocco, Afghanistan, India, and Nepal. Some hitched, some relied on public trains and buses, some went in their own cars, and some traveled with one of the new coach companies that sprang up in the late 1960s. Their journeys took several weeks, even months. For most of them, these were journeys into the unknown: usually, they spoke no foreign languages, and had no great experience in travelling.
Some points these interviewees made were surprising. For example, we found that all of them, without exception, were emphatically positive about their experiences ‘on the road’. They certainly acknowledged that their 20-something selves had made some mistakes, and frequently smiled ruefully about incidents and accidents. But their conclusions were always the same: the trail had been a formative experience for them, and even that it had been the formative experience of their lives. Why?
At first sight, this seems like another example of the easy, romanticized nostalgia for the 1960s that produces Beatles cover bands and commemorations of Woodstock. But after talking to several interviewees, we felt that something else was going on here. Let’s note straight away that there’s very little commemoration of the hippie trail. Public memoriams of the experience tend to be dismissive, as can be seen in the only commercially-successful portrayal of the trail: the film Hideous Kinky, starring Kate Winslet. Aside from this film, coverage and discussion of the trail is limited to obscure, minority-orientated websites and publications. There has been a steady trickle of self-published works on the trail: we’ve attempted to contact the authors, and in most cases each of them thought they were the first people to write about the trail. In other words, there’s little sense of a shared nostalgia for the trail, little sense of an imagined community of ex-travellers, beyond that provided by a Facebook page or a specialist website.
Instead, what initially appears to be a romantic nostalgia could well be the expression of a deeper and more challenging feeling. The hippie trail-ers remember their weeks or months ‘on the road’ as moments of supreme freedom, when they were liberated from the constraints of jobs, mortgages and social convention. The tracks and trails formed a liberated zone, in which our interviewees felt that they could truly discover themselves. And with this experience, a sense of optimism was born. Here, it must be stressed that optimism wasn’t necessarily so easy in the 1960s. There was much to fear: the specter of the war in Vietnam was simply the most blatant image of a nightmare future for the human race. There were linked concerns about an on-coming environmental disaster, the slow, painful acknowledgement of the power of racial prejudice in Western society, and the first intimations of the problem of sexual inequality. Travelling on the trail was a way of stepping away from these specters, and imagining an optimistic future.
This is probably why the trail is remembered with such fondness. But this feeling is tinged with a deep sadness. Most hippie trail-ers took it for granted that the future would be better: it had to be, as the present looked so dark; it demanded change. Their apparent ‘nostalgia’ is therefore more akin to a sense of frustration, that their youthful optimism has been blocked, and their expectations thwarted. The interviewees readily recognized that the world has become a more dangerous place. They expressed sympathy for the problems that their children (and grandchildren) face.
Rather than being a simple expression of romanticism, the nostalgia for the trail is instead an expression of a deep desire for social change.
Featured image credit: Somewhere between Iran and Afghanistan, November 1975. Photograph © Dee Atlas, reproduced by permission.