What happened to the hippie backpackers?
January 12, 2010 8:29 PM   Subscribe

What happened to the hippie trail backpackers of the 60s and 70s when they went home? Did they mostly turn into normal, functioning members of 1980s society or did a significant number of them stay burned-out hippies for the rest of their lives?

I know this is impossible to answer with any statistical certainty, but anecdotal evidence is enough. I want to make the point that most of them turned out fine, despite wasting large parts of their youth in the middle of nowhere, but I really have no idea if that's generally accepted as true.
posted by borkingchikapa to Travel & Transportation (36 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Of the three people I can think of off the top of my head who actually did Turn on, tune in, drop out" two are dead and one is alive and well and enjoying her professional life and her addiction problems are noy noticeably worse than the rehab episodes I've seen in non-hippies and my own generation.

Would Stewart Brand count? I think he's doing okay.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:38 PM on January 12, 2010

When I was backpacking in Asia, I met a few who had stayed, mostly as regular expats (i.e., married locals, started businesses). I did meet two screw-loose types, but I imagine they would have been weird and unhinged no matter where they were.

And seriously, calling time spent traveling a "waste of their youth" is pretty obnoxious. And wrong-headed.
posted by lunasol at 8:41 PM on January 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I guess I'm talking about the hippie trail specifically, not the "turn on, tune in, drop out" thing in general.
posted by borkingchikapa at 8:43 PM on January 12, 2010

Best answer: I went to grad school and became a history professor.

And it was hardly a waste, idiot.
posted by LarryC at 8:43 PM on January 12, 2010 [39 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, and the "waste of youth" thing was meant to be sarcastic, I don't believe that at all.
posted by borkingchikapa at 8:44 PM on January 12, 2010

Having not actually been alive in the 60's or the 70's, I will still give my best guess as to an answer. First of all, having been a part of the rave culture of the 90's and a few other culturally relevant subgroups, I think a lot of people at that time might have really been more like weekend hippies, and many of those people did in fact end up finishing college and getting good jobs and settling down to a "normal" life. However, many of the more devoted members of this group are definitely still kicking around in certain areas. In my travels through Northern California, parts of Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, and various other places, I definitely spotted a few rusted out, tie died buses, visited a few communes, and met up with people from this era that were still very much committed to the lifestyle.

They are still out there, but at this point they are somewhat removed from the mainstream culture and you really wouldn't hear much about them if you aren't in that scene. If someone is living in an off the grid commune, doesn't have a TV, grows most of their own food, and only really socializes with the outside world at a few festivals, family gatherings, and odd trips into town, you probably aren't going to run into them or hear about them much. And that is likely the way they prefer it.

You say you want to make the point that most of them "turned out fine", and most of them did turn out fine, in their own way. There are always people for whom the status quo is never really going to work out for, and I for one find encouraging that they have been able to find their own way in the world and live in a manner which they find rewarding. I think you need to reexamine some of the underlying assumptions you seem to be working with here.
posted by sophist at 8:49 PM on January 12, 2010

Response by poster: Hoo boy! I didn't expect that would provoke such a reaction, so let me explain myself a bit:

I've spent most of my adult life either traveling or trying to figure out how to. I'm trying to prove the point that yes, you can travel without a clear purpose after or in between your studies, despite the fact that it's generally thought of as a waste of time and money. I think it'd be a great piece of evidence if I could say that people who've done this in the past did not end up working in Wal-Mart until they were sixty.

Sorry! I'll try to be less irreverent.
posted by borkingchikapa at 8:51 PM on January 12, 2010

What do you mean by "the hippy trail?" If you mean the one through Afghanistan I can't imagine that those kind of experiences traveling in foreign cultures could be considered a total waste. I meet people all the time who did that (on online travel forums or when traveling myself) and most of them seem to have families and normal lives with jobs etc. back home.

I spent a large part of three years of my 20s traveling by land around the world but I would never consider it "wasting large parts of my youth in the middle of nowhere." In fact, I'd consider it the opposite. Of course this was in the '00s so I'm not sure if my experience is interesting to you.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:54 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

As far as the "hippe trail" I've heard that there are a fair amount of the type of people you seem to be referencing still living in India, Nepal, and Southeast Asia. The trial itself was always somewhat of an amorphous thing if I understand correctly, and I think the legend was somewhat built up later on to a degree. There was a wide variety of people who were traveling around Europe, The Middle East, and Asia at that time. Most of them probably came home eventually, but some didn't. I can't imagine that where they are now has that much to do with what they were doing back then.
posted by sophist at 8:57 PM on January 12, 2010

Best answer: Two of them founded Lonely Planet.
posted by rtha at 8:58 PM on January 12, 2010

One bought a piece of land in Canada and built his own *beautiful * home there and became a drummaker and teacher and helped my kids build tree forts in the summers and was a famous asset in his community.

The one with the star tanned into her forehead in Haight Ashbury became a CubScout leader for my son.

One married me and had two wonderful children who are grown up now into lovely people.
(We are pretty darned middle class people, and you would think he was ever a hippie dude.)

The one you may have seen doing nude pirouettes on the beach does legal research at a big library.

Most people live more than one life.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:04 PM on January 12, 2010 [7 favorites]

In case you're curious (as I was): The Hippie Trail.
posted by alms at 9:04 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kevin Kelly founded Wired and did some other stuff.
posted by jeb at 9:04 PM on January 12, 2010

With that clarification in hand, I'd say that Ram Dass did okay.
posted by alms at 9:06 PM on January 12, 2010

Best answer: My uncle was heavily involved in the counterculture movement, was one of the founders of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Diggers and toured the country in his live-aboard vehicle spreading the word about communitarian living. He is now something of a movie star and he recently narrated Ken Burns' National Parks documentary. He's a pretty happy person.

He wrote a book called Sleeping Where I Fall that attempts to sort of answer that question; what are people doing now and how did they get there? The short answer is a lot of them died. Some burned out. The ones that were able to make it through often found that those skills helped them do whatever. One of the things about a lot of the hippies is that the ones who lives in cities especially had a touch of the self-promotion in them. So they became actors or people like Ram Dass because that's where you could get attention [I think of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin] in a different sort of world where being a hippie wasn't an attention getter.

And, like sophist says, a lot of them live up here in Vermont where people don't really see them and they make soap and grow vegetable and do their thing. I don't know if they're burned out hippies or not, I just know they're my neighbors and they seem okay to me.

My uncle has this quote which he trots out a lot when people ask them what they accomplished
"Whatever we learned, we learned from making a complete commitment... The search for some kind of moral stance... the search for justice and some kind of economic equity... trying to leave a smaller footprint on the planet... exploring alternative spiritual and medical practices... they were all valid searches and they've all been completely integrated into the culture today. They're so integrated that you don't even notice them. No, we didn't end imperialism. We didn't end capitalism. We didn't do a lot of things we wanted to do. But there's no place you can go today where you can't find organic food, where you can't find yoga lessons or a chiropractor or you can't find some kind of spiritual alternative or some kind of acupuncture or alternative medicine. We did that, our generation. I'm proud of that. I wish we'd been omniscient. You know, I wish we hadn't made any mistakes or been able to do everything we wanted to do. But that would have probably meant that the world would come to an end because there'd be nothing left for the next generation to do. So -- I did my part. I'm still doing it."
posted by jessamyn at 9:13 PM on January 12, 2010 [47 favorites]

I think it depends on who you meet and where you go.

If you go to Rainbow Gatherings, you'll meet the weirdos. If you go to Burning Man, you'll meet the ones that went on to get good jobs.

When I was a teen, I went to Rainbow Gatherings, and I knew a bunch of "Rainbow Elders." They all seemed to have some kind of random skill they could exploit to make some sort of a (vaugely impoverished) living, while still spending most of their time jacking around doing hippie shit. At the time, I thought they were all pretty cool. But in retrospect, they were in their 30s and 40s, lived like broke-ass students, and hung out with teenaged-me. So there you go.


Anyway, it's been a long time since I've hung out with any of the former kind of "hippies," but I'd wager that for most of them, the "hippie" aesthetic was mostly just a fashion, and that they were, in all actuality, deeply weird creatures who would have been weird no matter what.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:34 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

My favorite hippie couple did pretty well - Chuck & Chuck were an out gay hippified couple in the late 60's, early 70's that opened a small soap business in Madison Wisconsin while still in school. They started off pulling an old dresser they put rollers on and selling natural soaps in the quad at the University.

They are still together (take that, gay marriage naysayers!) and The Soap Opera still exists.

What I have learned from that generation is that life is, indeed a journey. You can measure success by any number of metrics.
posted by Tchad at 9:44 PM on January 12, 2010 [7 favorites]

Both my parents did that, even well after the kids were born. We were all born outside the US, lived in different parts of Europe in communes, homeschooled, etc. My mom turned out OK, mainly because she remarried into their awesome welfare system, which was a big relief. My dad got a regular job soon after we were born and kind of went straight. He's nothing like a hippie now, even slightly right-wing now.

I guess my perspective on it was that it was a great experience and I'm glad we all got through relatively unscathed. It's naive to believe that it's a happy ending and everyone turns out OK though - there's a fair bit of sexual abuse including child abuse (none that happened to us), drug and alcohol abuse, suicide - it takes its toll. Some people get messed up pretty bad and some people were messed up to begin with.

This is an obvious point, but people who grew up like that don't romanticize nearly as much as those with standard middle-class suburban upbringings. It's an amazing dream, but I think it demonstrates the principle that a dream made into reality is a nightmare.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:46 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

One of my best friends spent several years essentially touring with the Grateful Dead. He was one of those guys selling grilled cheese sandwiches trying to get together gas money to get to the next show. He always seemed to have a way to get by and a place in which to do it. He later dropped that lifestyle, graduated from the University of Chicago business school, joined the Marines and went through OCS, served as a 1st Lt. in Gulf War I, came home got married and is an investment banker by day and plays his guitar at open mike nights in the evenings. Getting into the Marines was not an easy task when they did look into his background, but he proved them right in accepting him by finishing # 2 in his OCS graduating class. He never lost that hippie spirit though. I went to several shows with him while he was on leave from the Marines. It was actually kind of fun to go with him because he looked like a narc and at general admission shows, Deadheads would turn around, see him and me behind them and sort of dance out of our way scared we were cops. We ended up about 5 people from the stage at most shows simply by looking tough. The only limitation I saw on his lifestyle was when we were in Jamaica together and he had to repeatedly explain to our golf caddie that he worked for the US government, had to pee in a bottle often and no matter how great that Jamaican bud looked, he could not partake. I did not work for the US government at that time.

I think the key is what the hippie wanted out of life. Most were successful by their own definition, not by some upper middle class definition of a white picket fence, 2.3 kids, a mortgage and some 6 figure soul sucking job. To me, success is being happy and being able to support yourself at the same time.

Sounds to me like you are struggling with your own justification for not following the path that you learned while growing up. Good luck finding whatever it is you seek. Peace out.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:48 PM on January 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Some of my colleagues and basically all of my parents' friends and extended social circle was made up of folks who 'settled' after having been nomadic hippies to varying extents, and they were all productive, socially engaged, passionate folks. Literally hundreds of folks I know personally would connect strongly with Jessamyn's uncle's quote and who contributed and to continue to contribute similarly:

there's no place you can go today where you can't find organic food, where you can't find yoga lessons or a chiropractor or you can't find some kind of spiritual alternative or some kind of acupuncture or alternative medicine. We did that, our generation.
posted by kch at 9:58 PM on January 12, 2010

On some of the northern beaches of Goa, India, there are a bunch of burnt out westerners (mostly germans it looked like), doing their thing, living off the rag trade for ravers mostly it seems. Some pretty weird folk there, some lost souls.
posted by wilful at 10:11 PM on January 12, 2010

This is an obvious point, but people who grew up like that don't romanticize nearly as much as those with standard middle-class suburban upbringings.

Yeah, this. As a child of these people, I can really emphasize this point. Actually, every couple of months I'll meet someone my age who had a similar childhood -- it's like we can spot each other through a crowd without even saying a word. The psychic scars left by childhood yoga sessions, homemade clothes, and too many friends named "Karma" have a way of revealing themselves to others in the know. All that yurt shit, goat milking, dog fur weaving, sounds great when it's your choice; it's often a lot less great when it's something your parents chose for you. Everyone I know who had that kind of childhood has really conflicted feelings about it -- loving the freedom and the traveling, but resenting a lot of the impositions and indignities of the experience.

Some burned out.

It's less visible now, because so many have died or moved into old age homes, but twenty or thirty years ago, the streets of towns like Eugene, Madison, and San Francisco (not to mention small places in Vermont, Humbolt County, and the above-mentioned Goa, etc) were littered with the burnt out wrecks of the hippy experience. My totally seat of the pants guess is that for every ten people who smoothly moved back into corporate America, another two or three didn't make it through. They died somewhere, or ended up so burned out that their ability to function in modern society was severely limited.

It wasn't the traveling that did this, of course -- it was the various over indulgences, obviously. And I have always suspected that a lot of the burn outs were people who were already fragile -- maybe self medicating for mental illness, or just people who would have had a tough time in life no matter what. But those burn outs are part of what people are looking at when they warn you about the impacts of the aimless traveling; how much those warnings actually apply to you will depend mostly on what you are doing besides traveling around.
posted by Forktine at 6:30 AM on January 13, 2010 [8 favorites]

Rory MacLean's Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India and David Tomory's A Season in Heaven: True Tales from the Road to Kathmandu both follow up with former hippie-trailers (some of whom came back, some who didn't.)

Magic Bus is badly written, but worth reading for the interview excerpts/anecdotes.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:22 AM on January 13, 2010

And I have always suspected that a lot of the burn outs were people who were already fragile -- maybe self medicating for mental illness, or just people who would have had a tough time in life no matter what.

Adding to this, I imagine another factor is the outside support network (both social and financial) that the hippie-trailers could draw on if they needed to. My uncle--who is not Jessamyn's uncle--was definitely one of them and I don't know if he'd still be around, (on the one hand) shuttling between living semiretired in Thailand and running an environmental nonprofit in Austin and (on the other) dealing with mild mental illness and a broken marriage if (as luck would have it) he weren't independently wealthy.
posted by kittyprecious at 9:11 AM on January 13, 2010

Possible problem with this question is the "Hippie Trail" is a European notion, and it was only the better off young Americans who could afford the plane ticket to Europe and especially Asia in the 60s and 70s. The rest just hitch-hiked around North America.
posted by Rash at 9:56 AM on January 13, 2010

I was raised by a few. I wouldn't say they stopped being hippies but I would say that they figured out ways to make how they wanted to live fit with their lives. My mom is a nationally recognized artist and my dad is the director of a nature reserve. I also know tangentially a few that didn't "make it" or didn't really figure out a way to assimilate for lack of a better word.

Overall I would say that most went on to relatively pedestrian existences and were able to figure out ways to make the world what they wanted.
posted by schyler523 at 10:57 AM on January 13, 2010

Why are you assuming that we were "burned out hippies"? I never burned out, nor did most of my friends. We're still here, and many of us are still committed to contributing our ideas, our skills, our talents to make the world better.
posted by mareli at 11:03 AM on January 13, 2010

I haven't seen it mentioned yet, but if you are talking about North America, a lot of these people turned really reactionary.

My parents were just a couple of years too young to have caught the full force of the ashrum mentality, but what I saw growing up in the late 70's and early 80's was a reactionary bent people seemed to develop when they started off as cooperative farmers or goat herders or whatever. There is this individualistic hardness that crept in to the whole thing.

I grew up with a very well worn copy of Alicia Bay-Laurel's Living on the Earth (I still love the sincerity the book was written with) on the bookshelf, but the tone had shifted to more of a pioneer spirit (we dominate the earth) than a hippie spirit (we live with mother earth). As an aside, it turns out Ms. Bay-Laurel is still doin' her thing, so good for her.

But my personal experience is that an unconscious cynicism took root for a lot of people when their shared farms went under and became one-owner or their dream of living with nature revealed that Nature is a little fickle and didn't give them the bounty they expected. Living with nature can be HARD and not everyone is up to the task.

I know a number of former love children who are now the biggest weed-smoking get-off-my-property Libertarians you will ever see. They still retain what I would call a frank kindness, a natural gentleness, but the scales of what they were trying to do have fallen away (their younger selves would probably have said calcified over) their eyes to reveal the reality of it.

One of the things I would love to do is write a new edition of J. H. Noyes' History of American Socialisms that documents the late 20th century like he did in the late 19th. I think the results would be fascinating.
posted by Tchad at 11:26 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd like a preview of the equivalent of this thread in 30 years or so..."what became of the hipster generation?"

Oh and a data point for your question: my dad was very involved in the Transcendental Meditation movement for many years, then he became a successful natural gas broker for many years. Now he's retired and spends his days working on his house, loving his wife, and meditating (he, like many others, fell out of love with the TM movement when it became a gigantic profit monster instead of a self-sufficient group that promoted inner- and outer-peace).
posted by captain cosine at 9:25 PM on January 13, 2010

Cirque du Soleil was founded by two guys who were pretty far outside the mainstream.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:43 PM on January 26, 2010

Former hippie backpacker here. Left 'home' in NYC at 15 in 1969, went to live in Europe for 5 years, hitched overland from Greece to India 1975, lived there a decade in the Himalayas for 6 years studying Buddhism and working in New Delhi for 4 years in the fashion clothing business.

There were different categories of hippie travelers that I knew in Europe and the East. Among them were the hash smokers, the spiritual seekers, wanting to do good workers, the trekkers, the anthropologists, import/export business people, students, the hard drug addicts. Sometimes the categories overlapped, or one category morphed into another.

As for myself, I'm a published illustrator/author, worked in the import/export clothing biz in New Delhi, run my own small biz in NYC, run online support groups.

Here are many successful, interesting former hippie travelers who are alive and kicking and some, now dead, who had successful, interesting, full lives.

Among the ones I can think of off the top of my head: Ex-boyfriend, Paul Ropp, who created the American Flag and Dollar Bill cigarette rolling papers in the 60's, then the lurex clothes boom in the 70's, now has a successful clothing biz in Bali.

Shakya Dorje, a Canadian, became a world renowned Tibetan translator/scholar and practicing Tibetan Medicine doctor.

Jampa Kunchog, a black American Tibetan Buddhist became a monk/scholar and author.

David Anderson runs an exotic furniture and homewares store in Toronto, Haveli.

Mila Jansen is a "Dutch hashish pioneer", who owns the Hemp Hotel in Amsterdam.

Thomas Cole, Antique Rugs and Textiles.

John Moon owns Bambuddha in Ibiza.

Peter Thomas owns ShelfRespect

Lorne Blair and Lawrence Blair created the incredible Ring of Fire film about their travels. (Lorne died after an accident in Bali in 1996).

Tabla Paul Leake is a renowned musician.

Georgette Verdalle (nsfw) ; Giuliano Bottali, translator of books; Mary Finnigan, journalist; Keith Dowman, author, Sean Jones set up "the Centre for Peace Studies in the first Islamic University of Afghanistan"; Stephen Batchelor, author, Glenn Mullin, Tibetologist.

Judy Margolis owns Origins, wearable art in Santa Fe.

Gee, a lot...I do know people who burned out but the majority survived and are thriving in any number of ways.
posted by nickyskye at 1:06 AM on September 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

*There are many successful, interesting former hippie travelers who are alive and kicking and some, now dead, who had successful, interesting, full lives.
posted by nickyskye at 7:09 AM on September 15, 2010

Another for the list: Dan Storper of Putumayo.
posted by nickyskye at 9:56 AM on September 15, 2010

Correcting the link for Thomas Cole, Antique Rugs and Textiles. He has an extraordinary collection photographs and cultural artifacts from Afghanistan.
posted by nickyskye at 3:38 AM on September 16, 2010

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