Abrams on the Hippie Trail: The Short and the Long of It
By: Bernd Wechner
Abrams on the Hippie Trail: The Short and the Long of It
Author: Bernd Wechner
I’ve been collecting and reviewing hitch-hiking literature for over 5 years now. I’ve shared with you the written accounts of decade long global hitches, penniless trans-Asian and American hitches, pre-war, post-war, short and long, the literature isn’t abundant but it’s not exactly thin on the ground either. Then there are the volumes in my library I’ve not reviewed (yet).
Over those years I’d met a good few old men who’d hitched Europe to Asia in the ‘60s or ‘70s along what was called the Hippie Trail. They forged an overland trail from Britain to Australia, collecting in noticeable numbers in decisive spots like Istanbul, Kathmandu, Goa. They left an indelible mark on Kathmandu which still has a street dedicated to their memory (Freak Street).
The era has fascinated me for a long while, but I couldn’t pin it down easily. I’d meant to interview some of these older men some time, quiz them in more detail on some of their memories, their experiences, but they always slipped through my hands somehow. Shifting priorities, my motion and theirs through space and time all denied me the chance – in theory it’s not a very difficult theme to research after all, participants are abundant and mostly still alive.
Never have I laid hands on a written account from one of these thumbers. There were not many writers among them it seems.
Steven Abrams changed that. He dropped me a line over a year ago pointing to his on-line diary. He’s been typing it for over 7 years now, from his extensive notes of the time. He was one of those hippies, thumbing from Liverpool to Australia in 1968/69 . Well he wasn’t a hippie really, not even close, more of a proper young lad with a polite streak of larrikinism I’d say, but he kept a diligent, arguably pedantic diary of the trip – quite probably because he wasn’t a hippie (or he might have spun off volumes of acid poetry instead I guess).
His diary is quite a tome, in fact an epic according to the Fiction Factor, with its roughly 140,000 words. Far too long for convenient or comfortable on-line consumption. It’s longer than your average novel, and broken into about 20 chunky rambling chapters, one for each country on the way. Steven’s trying to make it easy for us, providing PDF downloads to print, take home and read in a more convenient format than hours of bleary-eyed screen staring. Even on paper though, I’ll warn you, it’s a slog to read through.
Let’s be frank, Steven’s on a journey, into his own past, reliving, reminiscing, and opening up for us to share. He’s not writing a book, nor pretending too, and as a consequence it reads much like a diary, an overly detailed, pedantic diary at that in all its unadulterated “I did this … then I did that … then I did that … then this happened …” detail.
Don’t get me wrong though, while it’s not exactly entertainment it is an historically significant and fascinating text. It lends insights into the time that are rarely found in writing, never mind so freely and easily accessible and so detailed and vivid (soooo detailed). And while it drags on, and could do with a major trim down, in places Abrams’ prose is excellent, and his tales just outright charming and evocative. There is material here worth reading believe me, some real eye openers, some hearty laughs, some gripping adventures!
He takes god advantage of the visual element the web provides too. It is beautifully illustrated with wonderful photos all the way, and some of the most impressive route maps I’ve ever seen accompanying a road trip diary (kudos). They add an incredible spice to the work I find.
It’s being on-line though, the all too rampant art of cut and paste is an indulgence I couldn’t deny myself in the effort to distil for you, in a digestible format the highlights and lowlights of this rather incredible contribution to our (hitch-hikers’) literature! I pulled some 5000 words of quotes which far outstrips what I can share in a reasonable on-line review, so I’ll dip into the short of it here, and share the long of it another time.
Abrams set out with a friend (Louis) from Liverpool on October 3rd 1968 and arrived in Darwin Australia on April 8th 1969, having (mainly) thumbed through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and East Timor on the way - 32,717 km in 181 lifts, and some train rides, bus rides, ferry crossings and a flight in slightly more than 6 months.
Abrams (and his partner Louis), both Jewish, do little to dispel stereotypes in their approach to finances. Abrams keeps meticulous records (and good on him) - can tell us to this day they spent an average of 35 pence a day on living expenses, 44 pence a day on transport needs and 34 pence a day on duty free electronics (the tip of his book-keeping iceberg). Lou puts in his entry for miser of the decade when in Singapore they …
One of the most striking features of the trip is just how populated the overland track was with backpackers and other travellers on the Europe-Australia route. They are constantly crossing paths with same travellers on the route, in one hostel or another – very reminiscent of the modern backpacking experience:
They even cross paths with a London to Sydney road race (an amazing idea reminoiscent of the Wacky Races of which I can find no other trace on-line)!
Abrams spins some wonderful prose along the way. A few short examples from India, one of the more slapstick countries on the route:
Good reading I thought. But to be fair, I’d have to confess the bulk of this text isn’t quite so palatable, interesting or entertaining. You’ll find gems like those nestled in among pages of detail like this:
As if we care? And if dismal detail on daily itineraries is not enough to numb your mind, you’ll find plenty of people mentioned once in passing, as you would in fact record in your diary), kind of like this:
None of these people play any further role or earlier role in the tale. They’re just there. Hi John, Loleks, Jose, Danny and Roger … nice knowing you.
There is a smile to be won in Abrams’ sexual prudishness:
Contrasted with his frank toilet tales:
Though I’ll grant, a budget trip through the Indian sub-continent erodes most anyone prudishness regarding toilet even today!
There is much more to this diary. In sharing some of its banalities along with its highlights I hope to have done it justice. It is a significant and worthwhile piece, though granted not much of a read, perhaps more suited to someone researching the era, or with strong personal experiences in common with the tale.
That then is, the (longish) short of it. I’ll walk you through the highlights I’ve extracted another time, and that will be the (shortish) long of it I guess (some 6000 words to come). In the mean time, a heartfelt thank you to Steven Abrm for taking the time and energy to share this experience with us!