El Bolsón: where even the dogs have dreadlocks. This is hippie country, through and through, a town effectively dedicated to that alternative lifestyle. It’s a place where the park benches remain empty – the citizens prefer to sit in circles on the grass, cross-legged, joints and acoustic guitars being passed around. Everyone here is exactly the same in their practice of non-conformity. Worship Che and Bob as twin idols, corporations are bad by some unspecified but passionate reasoning, the government is up to something evil, try to be vegan, all that stuff. Essentially, it’s the story of hippies everywhere – big ideas, but everyone is too stoned to start the revolution.
Hippies and backpackers are like poison ivy and sunflowers – we may be found in a lot of the same place but we’re very different things. We get lumped in with that barefoot, dreadlocked crowd for three main reasons: we occupy some of the same corners of the world, many of the first backpackers were hippies, and we share a general rejection of a conventional lifestyle.
Those first two points are rather incidental. Yes, hippies and backpackers wind up in some of the same places – lazy beach towns, chilled little mountain outposts – but how they get there, where they stay, and what they do there is generally very different. That’s rather obvious to the casual observer. And yes, historically, some of our most important traveling forefathers were hippies bouncing around Europe and India in brightly covered vans. But that stereotype is firmly “1960’s” in many people minds and not what they picture today’s vagabonds doing. The third reason is the most important because it’s where most of the confusion stems from.
Both the hippie and the traveler have, in their own way, declined the direct succession of things many people in the Western world choose to engage in: college-career-kids-retirement with no breaks in between. The fact that we both reject that path in life is what makes us one in so many people’s minds. We are irrevocably linked by the choice we’ve both made to do something alternative. But, just as it binds us together, therein also lies the key difference. The basis of the hippie ideology is a rejection of conventional society. They’re not only rejecting a lifestyle, they’re rejecting the entire culture that tried to force such a path upon them. Backpackers may take pride in rejecting standard ideas about career and routine, but as a group make no such claims about harshly disagreeing with society as a whole. Indeed, if anything, backpackers embrace “conventional” societal ideals – they travel the world in an effort to discover as many of them as they can. Hippies remove themselves from society because of fundamental disagreements about politics, ethics, or morals. Backpackers remove themselves as well - but only because irrepressible curiosity compels them to explore other ways of living. That is the critical difference.
Hippies leave home and all end up in the same place, regardless of where they are geographically. That place is surrounded by like-minded individuals, living life within the confines of a closed sub-culture, in the way they feel is right. There is nothing wrong with that. But they are not explorers, not in the sense that backpackers are. Because of the decision they’ve made about the status quo (that it is “wrong”, for whatever reason), there is no more exploration to be done.
Backpackers leave home and all end up in different places. They openly admit to not knowing what the “correct” way of living is, they’ve made no decisions one way or another. So they sample cultures, try to get inside and understand things. They feel their purpose is to experience all things, rather than live in a certain way that has been determined to be more “ethically correct”. Where the hippie brings his own vegan lunch, the backpacker orders the tasting menu of strange foreign delicacies.
Yes, there are backpackers who embrace some of the hippie concepts. And there are some full-blown hippies who backpack in the “traditional” way, but far fewer than you might think. I’ve met a traveling capitalist for every traveling hippie I’ve encountered, that ratio is 1/1. But, far more often than either, I just meet regular people. No extreme views on either side, no passionate speeches about things that need to change. They’re just curious about the world as it is and excited about the things they’re encountering. They sit down between the capitalist and the hippie and there’s no talk of politics or anything remotely in that realm. There’s only “Hey, did you guys hike up to the top of that hill? Wow! What a view!”