Mike Brodie is your modern version of a ramblin’ man. Born in Arizona in 1985, Mike, like most youth, was struck with a sense of curiosity for the unknown, the only satisfaction being a constant search for new experiences. In 2002, at the age of 17, Brodie packed a small bag and hit the road . . . well, not quite. He hit the tracks, and in the most unconventional way.
He spent 5 years traversing a staggering 50,000 miles. He covered 46 states and spent most of it hiding in freight cars, sleeping in dirt, getting arrested and meeting new friends and partners. With an arsenal of film and a sturdy Kodak camera, he documented a youth subculture living a perilous life on the tracks, capturing all of it with stunning precision.
His first train took him across Florida to Jacksonville, a three-day journey that sparked a much bigger adventure and lasted until 2008, when he decided just as suddenly that he should “grow up and maybe try to settle down.”
Brodie said he probably could have train-hopped and taken pictures indefinitely, but the long-term risk and threat of prison (which was his fate in Sullivan, Indiana) was too great to bear, an unhealthy fit of paranoia even for the most stolid of hearts.
Brodie didn’t know anything about train hopping when he started. He said, “I just took like two or three stale bagels and put them in my backpack and that’s all I brought, I don’t think I even brought water. Maybe like I brought like a Gatorade bottle full of water. But it was like summer. It was like 95 degrees. So I didn’t bring much.”
Working under the moniker the “Polaroid Kidd,” Brodie uploaded his work on various websites as a way to stay in touch with his transient community which made him, as he puts it, “Internet Famous.” By photographing his friends, their homes and lifestyles, Brodie captured a marginalized segment of the American population. He said he wanted to document a culture of people considered “punks” and “hobos” – people whom Brodie knew as writers, musicians and artists.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Brodie said he was inspired by the portraits of Steve McCurry, a photographer for National Geographic, and by the photographs of Mary Ellen Mark. Brodie stated that he was “not really that big on photography” himself, but his keen eye for detail and his ability to capture the essence of experience speaks for itself.
Brodie’s work was released as his first book, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity by Twin Palms Publishers and TBW Books last year. He said he was against the idea of publishing the book at first because of the publicity, but he wants future generations to know there was a unique culture of people called train hoppers and that their culture and way of living is just as important as any other – well-meaning in its own right and appreciable by that standard.
Commenting on his experience overall, Brodie says a certain amount of tolerance is the key that leads to the potential to create many meaningful relationships. “So long as you like the outdoors life and you don’t mind getting dirty and not having a change of clothes for months, it’s pretty great . . . Three of the women in the book are ex-girlfriends and a couple of the guys are best friends.”