It was hot the day he hopped the train. Mike Brodie stood sweating under the I-10 overpass by the railroad tracks and watched his girlfriend pedal her bike to work.
He wore cutoff work pants and a polo shirt from a thrift store, a JanSport backpack slung over his shoulder. Inside: two stale bagels he found in a trash bin behind a coffee shop, a copy of Fast Food Nation and an old Polaroid camera.
He had recently traded high school for Pensacola's punk scene. He met a train rider through his girlfriend, Savannah. It's where he got the idea to start riding rails. That and a song called Trains and Cops by a band called This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb:
"I won't care where it takes me because as long as I'm moving fast,
call it easy riding, call it hard traveling."
He was supposed to go to Mobile, Ala., but the first train he saw was headed east, and it was "hauling a-- by." Brodie ran full speed, grabbed the ladder and ran with it, then pulled himself onto the flat bed of an empty car. Getting on was a feeling of relief and momentum, like when he landed tricks on his BMX bike.
He lay down. The air smelled like worn metal and creosote railroad ties. He didn't care that the train was going east. He figured he would just see friends in Tallahassee instead. But the train didn't stop.
He read his book. The sun set. The train rolled on.
"It can take me east or west I don't care,
by that time I'll be glad to be most anywhere."
At 1 a.m., stadium lights blared and toploaders craned over the train cars. The train stopped. A sign nearby read CSX Intermodal Terminal. Jacksonville.
Brodie hopped off the train. Weeds scratched his legs and mosquitoes swarmed him. In a daze, he walked around the massive rail yard and thought, "How the f--- am I going to get out of here?"
Across the yard, a train car lurched into motion. He barreled after it, matching its speed. In his haste, he ran into a track-switch lever and fell, not realizing the train was going to stop a few yards away.
He climbed in and waited until dawn when it set off. But this train was going south, not home.
Sixty-five miles later, Brodie leapt from the car and skinned his elbows and knees on the track-side gravel. He wandered into a Walgreens in Hawthorne, dirty and bloody.
An older woman asked if he needed help. He said he was fine. She handed him a church pamphlet.
A map said he'd need to make it 53 miles north to Baldwin for a westbound train. He stuck out his thumb on the side of U.S. 301 and waited.
An old man gave him his first ride. He, too, was a train hopper in his younger years. He said he'd been beaten up once or twice.
Brodie sat on the tracks to wait in Baldwin and an old homeless man yelled at him to get off or he'd call the cops. It was one of the only times someone would yell at him for the rest of his rail-riding years.
A sudden summer rain came down and he ducked into an abandoned house. The sun went down for the second time since he'd set off.
Around 11 p.m., another train came rumbling through the dark. He hopped onto a boxcar that pitched and bucked and kept him awake the whole night.
He took eight photographs on the way back, the first glimpses of a new wayward life that would years later offer him some minor celebrity as the Polaroid Kidd. Photos shot along the 50,000 miles of rails he'd ride would be shown in art galleries in New York City and Los Angeles.
But early on that summer morning in 2003, he was 18 and tired. Two days after he left, he got off the train in Pensacola and shuffled down Belfast Street to Savannah's house. She thought he'd died.
They sat on her porch and watched the sun rise together. He told her all about where he'd been. Two weeks later, they would hop another train and make it to Mobile. Then Atlanta. Then California. Then everywhere.
Contact Times staff writer Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.