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The hippie trail and the question of nostalgia

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?

A Volkswagen Type 2 bus is an icon of hippie culture. Image credit: “Vw Bus Bus 1967 Vintage Hippie Camper Transporter” by Wenbos. CC0 via Pixabay.

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Gddyc

    Our generation assumed that as we grew older our values would take over. But the media have derided us for the past 40 years. And look what the present is: utter crass vulgarity.

  2. Roger Allen

    Did many (any?) of the hippie-trailers acquire long-term interest in the cultures and places they encountered? How many became students or scholars of the languages, histories or philosophies they met?

  3. Ainslie Thomson

    You have omitted to mention the many Canadians who also followed the hippie trail in the 60s and early 70s.

  4. PEnny

    Don’t forget the Australians! A large number travelled from England to Khatmandu or vice versa in 1960s/1970s. The summary in the OUP blog was otherwise reminiscent of my experiences.

  5. Norman Harris

    The overland route to Kathmandu became known as the hippie trail because of the number of ‘way out’ and totally irresponsible drop outs who all too often begged their way Nepal. They should not be mistaken for those who traveled either by coach or genuinely under their own steam. To see Europeans begging in India was quite sickening, or taking advantage of the hospitality of temples by tradition gave hospitality to all travelers.

  6. Sharif Gemie

    Reply to Roger
    All the hippy trail-ers we interviewed said that they were profoundly affected by their journey. They would say things like ‘it changed my life’. But very few of them went on to seriously study Eastern cultures, with the exception of Buddhism. As we detail in the book, quite a few taught themselves Buddhism, and even considered themselves to be Buddhists.

  7. Sharif Gemie

    Reply to Ainslie and Penny:

    Brit’s, Americans, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, Irish, French, Germans… They were all there.

  8. Jeffrey McMeans

    This was kind of a dumb article and also the comments were way stupid. We went out there to seek adventure in or lives and smoke killer hash we could buy for less than 10 bucks a pound. We weren’t running from a job as we never had one (I can only speak for myself). I was running from a woman, though, but she found me in Afghanistan but that’s another story. We loved the cultures we were in and yes, learned a lot about them. We have the best memories as there were no wars or Islamic insanity going on when we were there. I got out there in 72 and left in 76.. After that, unbelievable tragedies that continue to this day have occurred. I never went back as I wanted to keep my memories intact. I got on a bus in Amsterdam and three weeks later got off in Kabul. Then on to Goa, then Kathmandu and trekking in the Himalayas. And, of course, I am a Buddhist.

  9. jackie gear

    in answer to Jeffrey MacCleans, how rude. You should read the whole book before you comment on the article which is related to much wider stories from travellers and why they went on the road,l and also what they gained from it. Further it is your comment that is dumb!

  10. Chris Norby

    I took the Trail going westbound (Australia-to-Europe) in ’73, and just finished a first draft book “The Hippy Trail” about my experiences. I’ve put it up on my new website thehippytrail.com
    I chose the alternate spelling because is wall all that was available. I welcome all discussion. Nostalgia tends to be glossy, but these stories are part of a common intergenerational narrative that needs to be preserved–and shared.

  11. Peter Wandel

    Note this Hippie Trail exhibition!
    Love Peter

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  13. Jim Armstrong

    I went on the hippie trail in 1972. There was a hippie traveling with us, Dwain(I think he was from Arizona), he was wearing wooden shoes from Amsterdam, an Afghan winter coat and he had no money. But there was a hippie travelers creed that we would help each other out. I often wonder what happened to him. I had 125$ in pocket when I got to Nepal. I spent 21 days trekking in the Himalayas. Smoked a lot of chillums while in Goa. I recently found a post card saying how I spent 45$ to go from Goa to Istanbul. When I got to Munich, Germany I was taken to hospital weighing 110 pounds, suffering from hepatitis. Far out

  14. J West Hardin

    Does anyone remember “Eddie” who drove “The Magic Bus” starting in London to Delhi ? This was between ’69 and ’75. The last run was in ’75 when the first shots were fired in Herat, Afghanistan…forcing the closure of “the hippy trail”. Great times. Eddie was a super-freak. A true original. Anyone remembering a trip with me is welcome to write. Blooming afro and a giant Afghan winter coat.

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