O, for the life of a 21st century gutter punk—the endless miles of railroad tracks, the STDs contracted at secluded squats, the distinctive terroir of moonshine varietals sampled at regional Rainbows, and the omnipresent itch of wanderlust and hatching head lice. One can only wonder what happens where they and their bandana-wearing dogs disappear to after they’ve stopped flying cardboard or busking off-key covers for whatever change they can get out of sympathetic ex-punks. Well, they go online, most of them. Even the poorest of runaways and homeless teens—up to 62% of them, according to a study done by the USC School of Social Work—own a cell phone and will spend the money on their data plan over food or shelter, since they can often find that for free. And they’ve got each other, as well as Punk Nomad, to fall back on.
Since 2001 until recently, Punk Nomad was known as Squat The Planet. Originally a blog set up by founder Matt Derrick (known elsewhere online as Matt Pist) to document his travels through Europe, STP eventually morphed into an international message board for squatters, train hoppers, anarchists, and transients of all stripes to bitch about the local cops, partner up on rides to destinations throughout the US, and share best practices on health, shelter, food, getting wasted, and survival on the road.
When the call went out to Occupy Wall Street last summer, STP was one of the first online communities initially approached to participate. Some of you may remember STP member Yell when she participated in thetopless protest and then got pepper sprayed by Sgt. Anthony Bologna a few days later. Whether it’s a G20 summit, the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Celebration, or any anarchist-themed confab, someone from this community will either be in the thick of the action on the street, or know someone who was.
But listen up: Matt Derrick is 32. He hasn’t hopped a train since 2008. And with his childhood a mere speck in the rearview mirror, he’s now starting to reimagine the site and its community as a portal for truly broke-ass travel tips and perspectives. So he’s rebranded the site as Punk Nomad, and has primed the pump with testimonies and video from his current home in East Jesus, an artist colony within the 50-year-old squatter outpost Slab City. Matt plans to transform his 5,000-member community into active content creators of a modern-day Hobopedia. It may not be Pinterest or Facebook demographics, but Matt figures if he can make $300 a month off the site, he’ll be fine. “I try not to plan more than six months into the future,” he declares. So apparently, some things haven’t changed. As for what has, here’s what Matt had to say for himself.
VICE: Tell me about getting involved with the squatter lifestyle. When did you first start to embrace it?
Matt Derrick: I went to a Christian high school and I left home at the age of 18 and I just fell into the entire lifestyle by accident. I was already into punk rock and some metal, crust music, things like that. But it wasn’t until I tried to move to LA and my car broke down in Eugene, Oregon and I ended up hitchhiking and meeting these other travelers that I really got into the whole scene.
How has the community changed over the past decade?
For a long time with STP, everyone was like, “Oh, the train hopping message board.” And that’s pretty accurate. But last time I rode a train was in 2008, and after riding trains and hitchhiking eight years or so, I got really bored. And at the same time, everyone was really into this website, but I didn’t feel like supporting a lifestyle online that I wasn’t really involved in anymore. Basically at that point, I started looking into turning it around to all different types of subgenres of traveling and alternative forms of independent travel. And that’s where I’m going with Punk Nomad.
What's your vision for Punk Nomad?
Right now, I’m just writing stories. I want to have a group of writers who want to contribute stories all the time about the different styles and forms of independent travel. And then beyond that, it’s going to be backed by the community of people interacting, meeting each other in the message boards. But then we’re also working on things like the Nomadic Wiki, which is a wiki system of information, so you can look by state, California, Slab City, and look up all the information about Slab City and people can update it. All user-contributed content. I don’t want to be like, the kingpin of this website or the scene at all. I want it to be a community aspect where everyone’s throwing in together.
Train hopping has historically been a pastime for society’s dropouts, so by design it encourages insularity. Prior to Occupy, the biggest conversation piece on the site involving a current events issue seemed to be Four Loko.
That’s true. A lot of things have happened in the subculture in the past ten years. There’s been this rise of what I call the Scumfucks, or Scumfuckism, where it’s just these completely apathetic douchebag kids with tattoos on their faces and drunk and stinky, all the time, who just don’t give a fuck about anyone besides themselves. That’s one of the reasons I’ve started steering the website away from train hopping, because that completely took over the train hopping culture, in my opinion. They wanna get away from the world and society and they do it with alcoholism, too. It’s all escapism, you know.
Back in December 2010, a squat caught fire in New Orleans—the most killed in a fire in 25 years, and it was all travelers. From what you know of that squat, could it have happened earlier?
Absolutely. It could have happened to anybody. Basically, from what I understand, everyone basically died of carbon monoxide poisoning before being burnt to death. When people get just totally blitzed out of their mind every day, something will happen, like they’ll leave the fire burning or a squat candle burning in a building and that’s how a lot of that happens—you pass out and you’re too drunk to wake up and there’s flames around you, or the smoke chokes you to death. It’s happened before.
Tell me about Oogles.
That word used to mean something completely different like ten years ago. In 2001, I used it to refer to junkie street kids. Today, the definition of it is basically an inexperienced street kid usually doing something stupid that kind of fucks things up for other people, because they’re new and they don’t know what they’re doing. I think it’s a little bit overused, and I don’t call anyone Oogles or anything like that, but I think it’s funny, the way people use it.
What's the story with the Rail Rider video you posted up on the site? That seems to be a fairly new bent on outlaw train culture.
Someone pulled up the other day here, and he literally had it on top of his car. And I was like, “What the hell is that?” And they’re like, “Oh, it’s a Rail Rider. You put it on the rails like a Go-Kart.” And I remember five, six years ago, seeing one or two videos of railriders you could bike down the tracks, and thinking that was so amazing. And so just to see someone pull up with it, I just flipped out. I was like, “Oh, my god you have to take me for a ride.”
Aside from hitchhiking and train hopping, what else do you plan to explore with Punk Nomad?
I’m really fascinated with sea travel. I don’t think there’s enough anarchists or punks doing this. There are a couple small groups which I’ve been really inspired by, like the Miss Rockaway Armada. They built a barge and then sailed it down the Mississippi, classic traveling tactic, but it was a huge art barge and just all this art and people playing music. That’s a really free, independent way to travel and see things that people never fucking see. And then you got people like the Floating Neutrinos, who are the first people to sail from the East Coast of America to Spain or France on a ship made out of trash. That was back in ‘91 or ‘92, I think. And then you got blueanarchy.org. There’s a guy in San Francisco Bay, Moxie, he takes over abandoned boats and fixes them up and teaches people sailing. And then there’s the guy who built his own island out of recycled plastic bottles. He was on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! back in the mid-90s, I think. And he built his own island out of 600,000 recycled plastic bottles, water bottles, just laid dirt down on it. It’s like 300 feet wide. It’s got trees and a two-story bungalow and he can move it with a stick down the river. It’s gorgeous and it’s like, why aren’t there more people doing things like this? That’s why I want to document them and show everyone else what’s possible out there.
So there’s sea, air would probably be difficult because of the FAA and their regulations.
I think there’s definitely room for airships.
Yeah, one of these days. And there’s other things, too, like trying to book passage on a cargo ship, instead of flying across the ocean. That’s one of the things I’m looking into, but it’s really expensive everywhere I’ve looked. I have a bucket list. Like, I want to drive coast to coast on a moped. I would like to build my own ultralight airplane and fly it across the country. Just like any way I can do amazing, incredible things and be free and live the way I want.
And help other people do it, too.
Yeah, that’s the entire point of Punk Nomad is to help other people gain more freedom in their lives and have better experiences.