I am at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, and the clock is stuck at 4.20. The summer of love was 40 years ago, and the smell that wafts through the most famous crossroads in the history of counterculture is not of marijuana, but of mocha java. Has the revolution gone limp?

Free your mind: The rainbow colours and Earthsong at Haight and Ashbury reflect the spirit of the town.

The colours around me are vivid and psychedelic. Orange and purple, green and yellow, red and pink: Everything is meant to shock and awe, but not in the militaristic sense; arouse, but not only in the orgastic sense; numb, but not in the anaesthetic sense; and calm, but not in the meditative sense; all at the same time.

Why 4.20? It has nothing to do with the blackbirds, though the stoned man on the sidewalk laughs at the nursery rhyme simplicity of the idea. He claims to be a Gulf War veteran, seeking donations from pedestrians with a banner by his side saying “Donate generously. Want to get stoned tonight." He tells me 4.20pm is the hour to get stoned. I tell him 420 is a section of the Indian Penal Code dealing with cheating and forgery. He laughs, as if saying the whole world is a forgery, man.

As we say goodbye to 2007, it is worth recalling that it has indeed been a year of anniversaries—of the summer of love, of course, but equally importantly, the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s monumental novel On The Road. During a month-long vacation in the US this summer, I had been reading the adventures of Kerouac and Neal Cassady (the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in the novel), encapsulating mad, meandering journeys across the American heartland, as soldiers returned to the US after liberating Europe and Asia, but did not fit into the conservative, Eisenhower-era US.

It was called the Beat Generation, a phrase the critic Louis Menand traces to an old carny slang. Menand says the poet Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac picked up the term from a man called Herbert Huncke, a gay street hustler from Chicago they met near Times Square in New York in 1939. Beat means beaten down and poor, exhausted, at the bottom of the heap of history. But it is only when you are flat out on the ground on a dark night that you can see stars shining in their full, scintillating glory. In what has been a difficult year, the balmy weather of San Francisco, and the spirit of freedom the city encapsulates, has just that sort of feeling for us.

The stories Kerouac wrote— the sexuality, the outré behaviour—may sound banal, boring and conventional today. We have all grown up and learned to get our hair cut every month and tell our children why drugs are bad and the only good sex is safe sex. But it was revolutionary in that time, and that spirit pervades through that city, even if all those revolutionaries now have iPods, drink coffee at Starbucks and even B&J’s, as a brand, has been sold to a multinational.

But the spirit isn’t lost. When I step out of our friends’ home in the morning and walk down from Noe towards Castro to board the streetcar, I find foot-stamp size silhouettes of George W. Bush on the road. The line below says: Impeach the Idiot.

Earlier that day, we have been to that temple of the First Amendment, the City Lights bookstore, co-owned by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which published Ginsberg’s Howl and Kaddish (and held open readings from those) at a time when many in the US would have wanted to see such books banned. There’s a banner there asking San Franciscans: “Where is the courage? Why is that man still the President?" Dixie Chicks would have been feted as queens at this bookstore, the intellectual counterpoint to the sensation of feeling spaced out that Haight and Ashbury induce.

We are surrounded by the musty smell of books, ready to lose ourselves in the magical tapestry of words. Banned books have a special section here as a kind of in-your-face defiance.

In a sense, that distance between Haight and Ashbury and the City Lights bookstore encompasses the trajectories of American counterculture. When Timothy Leary said: “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out," some dropped out at Haight and Ashbury, others at this bookstore. In the chasm between rose strait-laced skyscrapers, reflecting post-war American prosperity. But its conscience was rocked by the music strumming through parks in Haight and Ashbury, and the words, the inspiration, and the rebelliousness were nurtured at bookshops such as City Lights.

I had come to Haight and Ashbury to discover the mood of that summer of love. Standing with my sons at that corner of Haight and Ashbury, sipping magical chocolate milkshake, in a corner of the US where it is always 4.20pm, seeing people walking all over the face of the man who is their president, reading a book that in so many other countries would have been banned outright, we got a glimpse of the meaning of the word, freedom. Like the image of the Golden Gate Bridge surrounded by fog, freedom seems elusive; it is imperial and grand, it is within reach, it often gets clouded, but it is always there, within our firm grasp.

Write to Salil at detours@livemint.com