Photography by Mike Brodie COUNTERCULTURE / September 2014


Photography by Mike Brodie
Text by Sophie Pinchetti

The open road conjures something deep and elemental in the American spirit. This is, after all, the so-called “Land of Freedom”, home of the Pioneer, and the “American Dream“. So what happens when so much has already been conquered? Well, you hop the freight train, exit society and get ready for a ride into the unknown. Or at least, that’s what American photographer Mike Brodie did.

At the age of 17, Mike Brodie spontaneously embarked on a five-year adventure, hopping the freight trains and crisscrossing the vast expanses of the United States several times over. He took his camera with him. His wanderings took him on a journey on the fringes of American society, living alongside modern tribes of teenage nomads, who call the road their home.

Part punk, part tramp – the teenage train hoppers and hitchhikers documented in Mike Brodie’s recently published book “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity”, are both his friends and people he met along the rails, such as Corey, Blake, Rocket, Soup, Savannah, Lost and Trinity. Brodie soon became known as the “Polaroid Kidd”, as he began documenting daily life travelling with his fellow teenage outsiders. “I got obsessed with riding trains“, says Brodie.




Going to sleep in one state and waking up in a new one by dawn, these modern nomads can travel hundreds of miles per week by hiding inside empty freight trains. “I added up all the mileage I rode on the freight trains, it was just over 50 000 miles”, says Brodie. The first train he rode illegally took him across Florida to Jacksonville. The thrill of the sudden three-day journey spurned off a much bigger adventure that was to last until 2008, when Brodie decided that he should “grow up and maybe try to settle down“.

Tattooed, dressed in torn t-shirts, striped shirts, denim and leather with a resolutely post-punk aesthetic, all possessions are flung into a backpack. These travellers roam in the footsteps of their nomadic predecessors, such as the hippies blazing trails through America, and the post-war Beat generation nomads immortalised in legendary American writer Jack Kerouac’s cult book “On The Road” (1957). It’s the bohemian American frontier, where the marginal yet mythical identity of the American hobo comes alive – that wandering and vagabond adventurer with endless wanderlust, disappearing into the horizon.


A train-hopper gets a hand-up to draw graffiti on a train.

Two travelers catch a free ride in coal porters returning to the Powder River basin, North Dakota.




Life on the rails isn’t always an easy ride as Brodie’s photographs testify. Sleeping rough, being radically self-reliant and resourceful are essential for survival. Brodie remembers: “We didn’t need much and we still thrived in the world and got by, and developed good relationships, found places to sleep, we fed ourselves. […]. I would do an odd job here and there but for the most part, my friends and I would just dumpster dive, go behind grocery stores and find good produce and food that wasn’t quite perished yet. And we would just eat that.” Sometimes there’s hostility, with the rails occasionally attracting unsavoury characters running from the law. “But for the most part, everyone was open and we became close”, remarks Brodie.


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Speeding along the rails on an adventure without beginning or end, Brodie’s photographs tell of a youth’s romance with the road. No destination, no schedule – only the open road and the journey! “We didn’t follow the normal routine of a 9 to 5 job, or bills and all that. We just kind of worked our way around it and figured out this new system to live”, explains Brodie. For some, it is driven by curiosity and restlessness; for others, it becomes an act of rebellion against the mainstream, an escape from the constraints of society, as well as broken homes and low wage jobs.

But aside from a few train hopping veterans, the lifestyle is ultimately very ephemeral. “A lot of the kids I knew have since gone back to their old lives. It was something they did for whatever reason before they settled down. Some were running away, some were out for adventure. It’s like being homeless by choice, I guess, but, living like that you learn a lot of American values like self-reliance, independence”, says Brodie.


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Praising the value of his experience as a train hopper, Brodie affirms it was “a better education than going through a 4 year college… I learnt a lot about people and how our country works…I didn’t do a lot of bookwork and studying, but I just looked at the world around me and learnt a lot, vicariously, through what I was seeing”.

Nowadays, Brodie works as a car mechanic, following his recent graduation from the Nashville Auto Diesel College. “So far, I just can’t seem to stay put, but I’m trying. I’m still drawn to that old, free lifestyle. I still miss the trains, but I’m not a kid any more. I have to move on, settle down.”


Soup sends a message to society.




The lure of train hopping might not convince the masses. But for Brodie, the freedom that comes with this alternative lifestyle of constant motion was “a beautiful experience”.

And what of the choice of title for his book? “A friend of mine who’s in the book – his name is Soup, he wrote an introduction for the book. And the last sentence in his introduction stated: A Period of Juvenile Prosperity. And I really related to that. I was like, wow, this period in my life really was a period of juvenile prosperity.

A Period of Juvenile Prosperity (2013) by Mike Brodie. The book is available in a trade edition by Twin Palms Publishers and a slipcased limited edition is available from TBW Books.


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A young woman rides in style with a used mattress found near the tracks in Dunsmuir, California.

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A traveler lies in the grass, patiently waiting for a westbound train in Hauser, Idaho.

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Travelers passed out from intense heat lay inside of an empty coal porter in North Dakota.

All Photographs from the series A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity 2006-2009 © Mike Brodie, Courtesy of the artist, Yossi Milo Gallery / M+B Gallery.


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