Can you imagine your young kids setting off to see the world, with no real plans, little money, and no phone or internet access? “See you in a few months or years, I dunno"? Today's parents would rather chain the younguns in the attic.
It can be hard to imagine at this late date, but just a few decades ago it was considered common, if not normal, for young people to set off to see the world with little thought to actual destination, money, or plans afterward. And being before the internet, cell phones, or even good telephone lines, those young people could be out of touch with home for weeks, months, even years. Heading off “on the road,” untold numbers of young Americans set out in search of the exotic, of adventure, sun, surf, and even, it must be said, spirituality — and/or were running from chaos at home, the prospect of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, or any number of reasons vague or explicit.
Of course the term for many or most of such travelers of the time was “hippie.” In fact, the most common routes and places they gathered, especially in Asia, Europe, and South America, came to be known as part of “the hippie trail.” Most people just wandered, traveling mostly overland by bus, train, car, foot, horse, camel and bike, on the cheap, solo or in evolving paris and groups, sometimes through now-dangerous or even forbidden countries. It was an unprecedented wave of western youth immersing themselves in foreign culture and landscapes, some never to return.
But most did. Ananda Brady was one, and all these years later he has produced a thick memoir of those times and travels, titled, yes, “Ten Years on the Hippie Trail.” He was born and raised in Kansas as Craig Brady, and his book is over 500 pages of detailed recounting of places, faces, internal and external questing, and more, which vividly evokes the heady times as “the sixties” ended and morphed into…whatever that era morphed into, as he became “Ananda.”
A longtime denizen of West Marin, Brady lives with his wife in a hand-built circus wagon, sitting on a 1955 Chevy truck chassis. So while the truck rests in overgrown brush and hasn’t been moved in well over a decade, it could be said that he is still, or maybe just ready, to be back “on the road.”
SH: When you arrived in California as a young man in the early 60s you were admittedly far from being a “hippie,” but then wound up on the “hippie trail.” What experiences set you on that path?
It was mid-1966 when I arrived in Santa Monica from Kansas. I was just shy of 21, so girls and sunny beaches were about all that was on my mind. But things were just beginning to heat up in the mainstream medias about these strange young people who were portrayed like — the pinnacle of debauchery, or the children of the corn, you know, scary, scandalous stuff — but interesting! So I watched from the wings with a wry cynicism like most of America until one day I read some article in the LA Free Press, or maybe the Oracle from up in San Francisco, and suddenly it hit me that what was going on was a religious or spiritual movement, on a Biblical scale! That was the first step, the switch from jeering to receptivity. The next one was 'wading in', getting wet, shedding naiveté — that was easy with pot and Jimi Hendrix, but the complete 'Experience' — the loss of virginity of the mind — was acid, you know, LSD. It was like a black hole that sucked you all the way in, but full of light and wonder — most of the time. There were casualties, because like anything we humans do, it can be dangerous. My friends and I didn't fool around with it carelessly like some did, because that's what gets you into trouble.
SH: Do you still take drugs?
I'm a total teetotaler, no pot, beer, wine or anything for the past fifteen years. I'm very boring.
SH: You write that you “defected” from mainstream American life and culture — what were you defecting from?
Short hair, and what it meant then.
SH: Why do you think so many people of that generation and time set off to travel the world, so much so that a distinct 'trail' was developed? Given what you just said about LSD, was it mostly Leary's 'tune in turn on, drop out' dynamic, or something different?
I think that along with all the stuff we've already heard plenty of, there was the mysterious undercurrent of India. There are many stories out there from people who'd had deep interior callings to India. That country was extremely important to us for its teachings, far beyond what the medias raved on about concerning the Beatles, or with any number of 'gurus' that made the news. Many of those guys were charlatans, not all, but enough to make India a laughing stock — well, it is that too — but India's like an iceberg, with most of it hidden. And it's an infinitely deep well of living wisdom that I'm sure I'll never properly find the words for. There's nowhere on this planet that's anything like India, and it reached out to us in our dreams, to put it poetically.
SH: As for books, you start your book with a tribute to Jack Kerouac — how much did his writing influence your desire and decision to travel?
I don't remember any of his books floating around in my particular crowd, in Topanga Canyon during those times. Rather we were reading more Alan Watts, or Yogananda, or The Hobbit. Or Winnie the Pooh. But Kerouac was a three-syllable mantra that carried the whole world with it whether we'd actually read him or not, like, “Yeah man, I'm gonna hit out on the road, you know man, like Kerouac!” And everyone knew what that meant.
SH: You note that you set off at age 25 with no resources and no real plan. Was that frightening, exciting, both? Where did this sense of adventure and risk-taking come from? How did you support yourself on the road?
With a good bamboo walking-stick. But seriously, yes — especially in the first month, it was frightening. While I was still in Southern California I'd tried to find work-passage off the continent aboard the proverbial tramp-steamer, but failing that I dropped down into Mexico, just to get out of the country. I didn't know anything about a 'Hippie Trail' at that time, I happened upon it later because many points south of the border was the western hemisphere's major part of it. But I was way off the beaten path in those first weeks, and all alone. I had to figure out some way to make money, and it took awhile, but a great idea came to me one morning, after I'd ground up some peanuts the night before in a hand-crank corn mill, and successfully made some peanut butter. Even though my friend and travel-mentor Gypsy Jerry had been a master smuggler, I'd decided not to get involved with any of that, to find other ways of making money. So I became a peanut-butter pusher instead of a drug pusher.
SH: The Vietnam War was raging as you left on your travels and continued for years. How did that influence you and your traveling?
It certainly was a factor in my decision-making process to abandon everything as I did — going to war is a complete renunciation for a cause and my reasoning was that my cause of 'no more war' warranted a comparable surrender from the opposite side of the spectrum. But once I was out on the road, I don't remember thinking about it much — it was 'over' in '73 anyway.
SH: While still in Topanga Canyon, you met Charlie Manson…
It still gives me shudders to think about. Ours was totally a hippie neighborhood and he was just another freak like all the rest of us. But he set his rabid dogs on those whom he'd perceived had crossed him and it could have been any 'reason' from any one of us.
SH: Travel was much cheaper then, even in a relative sense — and w/o the internet, cell phones, and such, more isolating. Were there upsides and downsides to that? In retrospect, do you think the experience would be much different now at least with regard to communications?
Oh yes, for instance, when I traveled across Afghanistan by horseback I was completely unreachable for six weeks. If anything had've happened to me, well, who knows? My poor parents. I only phoned home a couple of times in ten years, but I remember once from a 'telephone center' in Kabul — there were four or five booths and a queue to wait through — seriously, you had to set aside a whole day to make an international call, and it could take two. It was extremely expensive, the line was crackly, and if you got a busy-signal or no one was home, you had to start all over. It was harrowing, and often you'd see otherwise blissed-out hippies run crying out of the office or screaming at the poor guy behind the counter. Letters, or 'aerograms' — very lightweight pieces of postage-stamped paper you could buy, with glue at the edges that didn't require an envelope were the cheapest, but might take two weeks to arrive and another two to get a reply. We all got our mail at the 'poste restante' area of the general post office. Now you can probably find the nearest chai-shop in Old Delhi with your GPS.
SH: Was your family worried about you while you were 'on the road'?
I'm sure they were, but they gave their blessing too. My dad used to take my aerograms down to the bar and read them to his friends while they were having beers. There was a certain fascination about what I was doing, even though it probably kept them awake some nights.
SH: Traveling amidst poverty can be intimidating, depressing. What was it like first experiencing the 'developing world' for you?
In my opinion 'developing worlds' are much freer and more fun than worlds that have made themselves firmly established. Food is cheap and very good, lodging was and still is only a few bucks a day, sometimes less. Those are the no-star hotels, of course. It wasn't so hard for me to come to terms with their poverty, I was usually at the light end of that scale anyway, so the beggars felt sorry for me. I don't mean to make light of their poverty, but misery is common to poverty in both our nations — what is more uncommon over here is joy, which I saw plenty of over there.
SH: What's the difference between what you and your co-travelers were and a “bum”?
Travelers, pilgrims, are curious, awakened people with ideas and goals in mind, with elevated spirits. A bum is commonly thought of as a derelict, depleted. Kerouac wanted to put the two together, bringing adventure and purpose into a homeless, knock-about existence, with his idea of the Dharma Bums. It's two words which encapsulated a huge idea, another mantra which dovetailed perfectly into the idea of getting out on the road.
SH: On all your travels, what were some of your most favorite spots or sights?
Hmm, let's see. Lake Atitlan, the Mayan Ruins at Copan, the Parthenon, the Taj. I didn't write about Gangotri, the source of the Ganga, or Ganges Rivers because I went there on a recent journey, making my way alone, right up to its mouth. That's a power that dropped me to my knees, bringing tears. It's a glacier melt that runs underground for miles before roaring out of an icy cave. Varanasi is one of my favorite places. There's Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained his enlightenment. Oh yes, McCleod Ganj above Dharamsala, the home of the exiled Dalai Lama... the mosques of Isfahan, the Sahara, the high plains of Afghanistan, some of my girlfriends...
SH: How do you recall so many details from so far ago?
Oh, I'll have to kill that old joke, 'if you can remember the sixties, you weren't there.' I was there.
SH: How did you get your name, Ananda?
It was deep in the night of a full moon, and deep in the heart of India, at Benares — or Varanasi — which is the oldest living city in the world. By that I mean that the culture, the rituals, the way of life is essentially, even exactly the same as it was five or more thousand years ago. Like if you went to the pyramids and the pharoah system was still fully intact. So I had been living outside, on the banks of the Ganges river with a family of Sadhus, the ones who stay aloof from the pursuits of society, the ones with the dreadlocks who remain homeless their whole lives. One endowed me with that name, quite extemporaneously, on that particular night, and it's stayed with me. It's a common name referring to an attainment, or level of happiness.
SH: You've returned to Asia over the years since the time covered in your book — what are the primary changes you see there since then?
Cars, motorcycles, blue jeans, computers, cell phones, lots more people, a breakdown in standards of morality — the same changes we've made over here, curiously. My personal favorite though is ATM machines.
SH: Many 'hippie trail' travelers went in search of, or at least out of interest in, “Eastern” spiritual insight. Was this part of your quest, and in any event, what were the lessons for you in that regard?
Just being there, especially India, is living life in the raw — therein lies the power. It's all encompassing, and the 'spiritual' is somehow embedded and fused together with the everyday. You have to stay in a calm state through the loudest, fumiest, most cacophonous country in the world that is not a war-zone — you either stay calm, go ballistic, or just leave and go back home. The Indian people have nerves of steel, and average, well-to-do men, women and children can sleep like babies on a cement floor all night long under a screeching PA speaker, and underfoot of hundreds of scurrying feet and vending carts missing their noses by inches. I've always had the idea that the entry-level meditation courses should be conducted in a railway station, or alongside a major street in Calcutta or New York before you can graduate to the quiet hills.
SH: Finally, how did you wind up in Marin?
Well, Cilla and I were newlyweds. She's an Aussie. We met in Kathmandu and had a wonderfully eventful and romantic bonding three months together. She suddenly had to go back home to Australia, and after seeing her off I decided to end my travels too. We got back together a few months later in Topeka, Kansas and got married in the rose garden in the beautiful park where I used to play and go fishing as a young boy. I built a little house in our VW van and we drove out merrily to the west coast looking for a home. My friend was living in, um, 'a little coastal town in Northern California' and we looked around, liked the little town ... and there we stayed, living happily ever after.