This is the second entry in a series titled, “Ties that Bind.” If you missed the first entry, you can check it out here.
I felt alone as I maneuvered my way down the overgrown path, vulnerable to the eyes of the forest and the movements in the shadows.
Working off vague directions to the campsites, I trusted the path for what felt like a mile until I finally found myself at a fork in the road.
The directions I was told said to take a right at the fork, but something caught my eye as I looked further up the path.Through thick cover I saw what looked like a blue tarp roughly fifty yards away at the bottom of a gully.
I followed the path as it wound around the top of the gully and brought me down around a bend. As I came into a clearing I found myself right on top of the campsite.
When I realized how elaborate the campsite was, my first instinct was to turn and take off. The guys who invited me told me they’re just staying in simple tents, I had no idea who lives here, no clue who could be under that tarp.
To my great surprise, a voice beckoned from inside the shelter, “Chris? Is that Chris?”
“Yeah, it’s Chris.” I responded shakily, “Who’s that in there?”
My tensions eased as a familiar face popped out from the shadow of the tarp.
“Holy shit man! Matt how’s it goin’? I didn’t know you live out here!” I shouted excitedly as Matt Coffey sauntered over to me with his hand outstretched.
I first met Coffey in the summer of 2013 when we were each collecting signatures to get on the ballot for one of two at-large Portland city council elections.
Although Coffey fell just shy of the 300 signatures needed for an at-large seat, he has stayed active at city council meetings, contributed letters to the editor to various local newspapers, and even started a small publication of his own called “Hobo News,” which he edits, publishes, and distributes by hand at downtown places like Monument Square.
To give some context to our familiarity with each other: I wrote a story about Hobo News over a year ago in my old column for The Portland Daily Sun, and also when he was considering running for city council again last summer, and I also published a blog with an email I received from his father after reading what I had written about his son.
As any gracious person would when a friend shows up at their doorstep, Coffey invited me into his home.
“Please, come inside and relax for a minute,” said Coffey with a smile, “I just got outta work but if you give me a minute I’ll show you around the neighborhood.”
I told him that I was there to write a story for this blog, and asked him if it’d be OK to take some pictures. “Yea man no problem,” he laughed gently.
“Actually, I just went into City Hall today and officially declared to run for city council again this year. They know where I’m living and they said it’s legit, so I’m gonna try to get on the ballot again.”
“Maybe you could include that in your story,” he said with a chuckle.
I took out my camera as he sat down and cracked open a can of Milwaukee’s Best.
“You know what?” I thought aloud, “that’s a story in and of itself.”
I paused before taking a picture, “you’re sure you’re OK with me taking pictures of you drinking a beer?”
“Yea man, what do I care,” he said as he took a sip, “I just got outta work and I’m having a beer on my couch. Just like any other blue-collar guy like me.”
After a few minutes he brought me out to show me around his yard. He has three gardens that he maintains, and a pet cat named Linksy.
He brought me up to the top of a small hill overlooking what appears to be endless forest and overgrowth.
“I gotta tell you man,” I said as we stood there watching the sunset turn the sky into a fiery pink and orange tapestry, “being out here, seeing how you get by, it just makes me think how simple it all could really be.”
“You’re right, it could be,” Coffey replied, “it has been, and it still is that simple.”
As he turned to look over the forest, he raised his hands above his head and shouted, “this place is like the land from The Last of the Mohicans man! It’s beautiful here and it’s wild!”
As we walked down the hill back towards his yard, Coffey reflected on his time spent there and the inherent lack of insecurity that comes with living in the woods of a city.
“I’ve been here for three years living off the land, caring for the land, but the whole time I know that it can all be snatched up from me in an instant. The cops could decide to come and tear my place down, or anyone else walking through here can do whatever they want. I have no legal way of protecting the place that I call home.”
After stopping off at his tent for a few more minutes, Coffey agreed to take me to the sites of the people who had invited me there in the first place.
“If I hadn’t found you I’m pretty sure I would have gotten lost trying to find them,” I thanked him as he led me down a narrow artery of the intricate, yet largely hidden system of pathways.
“Don’t mention it, I know my way around these woods like the back of my hand,” Coffey turned to say with a smile.
“Just stick with me, I’ll make sure nothing bad happens to you.”