Now that my Hippie Trails novels are finally available, we get a new opportunity to revive the vibe the redirected American culture.
The Midwest, especially Indiana, gets turned upside-down. A quarter-century of American history takes a rigorous, surreal probing. I’ve come to the conclusion that we never saw the Sixties and early Seventies, not as we were racing through them – and not since, either.
Those of us who were coming of age in those years were a generation that was declaring its independence, affirming that freedom in bizarre, often meaningless ways; yet we were also almost totally dependent on others for our income. We failed to acknowledge the inherent contradictions and conflicts in our quest of innocence and sophistication. In our celebration of Eros, we were blind to the toll Thanatos was claiming.
More than anything else, the Sixties and early Seventies were a collision of everything: generations, values, expectations, social strata, races, hopes, abilities, religions. We wanted it all, and were thus both drab and colorful, very open and trusting, yet also paranoid and secretive. After all, the friendliest guy in the dorm might turn out to be a narcotics agent or some other variety of big fink. Everything was an experiment, including Viet Nam.
While Subway Hitchhikers does not examine these issues in a systematic manner (that’s a task left to the other three novels in the series), it does raise the issues in ways I hope will open the examination in a fresh light. After all, in the end we discovered that there was really no such thing as a free ride – not for long. But somehow, nobody seems to want to admit that openly. (Just ask ex-hippies if they still pick up hitchhikers and watch the evasive answer!)
In this regard, my novels hold a mirror up to the face of many readers.
But it’s hardly dead history. Its streams continue in peace and nonviolence movements, racial and sexual equality issues, organic and natural foods, music and the arts, environmental and sustainable economics, and much more.
A half-dozen years ago, I was beginning to fear that this work was becoming too dated to a period, style, and places that were fast falling from public interest. Since then, however, news developments have convinced me otherwise. Who, for instance, would have envisioned a year when Yuppie hoboes would ride the rails for their summer vacation? Now, however, such tales abound. No matter how much I’ve tried to abstract the events that underpin the presentation in Subway Hitchhikers, I’ve faced moments when I felt myself being overrun by developing news events. Consider, for instance, one report of finding a Tibetan lama reincarnated as a Spanish boy – a decade and a half after my first draft of the novel! Or a plan being considered by Paris officials to build thirty-one miles of subterranean double-decked highway 100 to 165 feet underground.
Subway systems are receiving fresh interest. As public policy makers recognize their importance in the functioning of a major metropolis, the older systems are the focus of major upgrading. (New York’s MTA, for instance, was subsequently cited “as the most improved system on the continent and the man in charge received the manager of the year award. And despite the way the subway is pictured on TV, filmmakers are having a hard time finding the once-familiar graffiti sprayed on subway cars.”) Elsewhere, newer systems are flourishing, modeled on San Francisco’s BART and Washington, D.C.’s clean, quiet, efficient operations. As new systems, such as Los Angeles, open and expand, we can ask each city: “Where are your Subway Hitchhikers?”
While stories about Baby Boomers and Yuppies have run their course, we may be about to see a spate of reports concerning parents who were like the youth in Subway Hitchhikers but are now having difficulty facing their own children going off to college and doing similar things. The novel may help put some of that conflict into perspective.
Contrary to earlier impressions, the New Age spiritual fascination has not disappeared. The Tibetan Buddhist angle in Subway Hitchhikers may prove useful in discussions of the role of guru and community in a religious or spiritual practice. (Something I develop at length in my novel Ashram.)
I am particularly fond of the surreal vignette chapters within the travel – “Dinner Bell on the Tracks,” “Gross Fugue,” or “Double-Deck Steel Frame Construction,” for example. At their best, these brief chapters are (like good ministry in the traditional Friends Meeting for Worship) incantatory, distillations of intense clarity that do not require development from Point A to Point B to arrive at C; rather, for me, these are the unadorned moments themselves, to be savored as they are. For that reason, they stand in sharp contrast to most fiction and even poetry, at least as we’ve known them in the Occident.
The final chapters, beginning with “Unfolding Geometric Message,” move me deeply each time I return to them. For whatever reasons, they stir up intense memories of my leaving the ashram and the ensuing nexus in New York. Then, too, after so many pages of nearly contrapuntal development, the prose finally lets loose in a passionate, and ultimately optimistic, gallop toward conclusion. At several levels, the resolution expresses desires that remain elusive, yet intense. The union of sexuality and spirituality may be more basic and profound that we’ve been willing to admit; interestingly, several strands of intellectual inquiry are beginning to emerge, headed toward the same conclusion.
I believe Subway Hitchhikers is special in its attempt to tell a story that considers the Underground in its many embodiments as a pool of unconscious experience and opportunity. Because these deep recesses of the mind and heart cannot be conjured up at will, the metaphor of hitchhiking – conveying both the necessity of active waiting and of accepting the offer of a ride when it appears – operates on much deeper currents than the simple (and I hope entertaining) odyssey might appear to possess on first reading.
To learn more about my novels, go to my page at Smashwords.com. (Please note the gentle “adult content,” if the site’s filter is on. It was, after all, a time of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.)