People driving or walking around town the last few weeks may have spotted an unusual pair traversing the streets of Lodi.
Riding a brown horse is a man with a full beard, his straggly brown hair tamed by a black baseball cap. He’s dressed in layers to keep him warm during the cool morning hours. Tied to the saddle alongside his gear is a blue plastic bucket, inscribed with “Pics for tips” in both English and Spanish.
The man’s name is Frank Jack Fletcher Turpen, and he’s from “everywhere,” he says. Wherever Turpen goes he is accompanied by his horse, Tommy Girl.
“I didn’t want to give her any gender identity issues," he chuckled when asked about the horse’s name. “She’s a tomboy.”
Turpen has made his way to Lodi to raise money for winter camping gear, in particular a good sleeping bag. He and Tommy Girl made their way down from their high elevation camp in the Sierra, where he normally lives a quiet life camping out. His needs are simple — a hammock strung out between two trees, a camping chair. He gets his water from nearby springs. He pans for gold, and says he once found a 1 1/2 ounce nugget.
“It’s a lot mellower than down here,” he said. “There is nothing around me, anywhere. There are no fences, no nothing. Got a creek down below. Every once in a while the rainbow shows the way to the gold,” he says, showing a picture of a rainbow he took with his phone.
Turpen says he had a rough childhood, which made him turn to horses for friendship.
“I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s and they threw me in special ed, saying I was mentally retarded, even though I spoke two languages. I went through schools cause I didn’t take bullying too well. I had to fight back, I had to defend myself.
“I was never retarded, that’s just what they labeled me. That’s what I spent my whole life called. So the horses became my friends and I avoided people. Horses always love you.”
When younger, Turpen’s curiosity and vagabond lifestyle took him on a long voyage which lasted for over five years. His travels on horseback took him all over Central and South America, including Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras. He spent another 25 years crisscrossing the United States, mostly on horseback.
“I have been doing this my whole life, basically. Done my fair share of hitchhiking too, but I prefer the horse. Better company. I just don’t like sitting still,” he said.
He spent time on ranches as a horse trainer and also found work as a translator (he speaks Spanish), a tour guide, a body guard and a bouncer.
Turpen said he is partially crippled now, the result of being kicked by a mule. He says the kick left him with a busted hip and pelvis, and a hernia.
“That put me out in the streets really quick,” he said. “I can work now, but they still won’t hire you with a hernia.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Turpen was sitting on a curb outside Raley’s on Lower Sacramento Road rolling a cigarette when a man came up and handed him something. It was a small, blue book with a dollar bill on top.
“I gave him the New Testament,” Lodi’s Mike Kaminski said. “It’s part of my faith. It changed my life. It looks like he needs it.”
But Turpen already has a Bible, albeit in a digital format. He said he has a King James Bible and the Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible on his phone.
“Do you know what follows birth?” Turpen asked. “Death. It’s what you do in between that matters. Birth and death are inevitable, so I am having fun while I can. I am doing the best I can while I can. When I can’t get on my horse anymore and get the saddle on, just shoot me.”
Turpen’s wanderlust has abated now, but his independence and wish to go his own way has not.
“Now I just want to be a hermit. I just want to sit in my camp and pan for gold. Have fun riding my horses around, and go back to camp.”
To many, Turpen is a homeless horseman. He calls himself a mountain man, but says there is an even more suitable term for him.
“The real thing you want to call me is a term from a century and a half ago, an American saddle tramp. I am probably the last American saddle tramp. They were cowboys who roamed from place to place looking for odd jobs, and when they didn’t have work they were riding what they called the grub line, looking for free food wherever they could, if there was nothing to hunt or fish.”
Turpen says that if he has any unneeded equipment remaining after acquiring his winter gear, he’ll give it to other homeless people who could use a helping hand.
“I like to pass it forward,” he said. “If you don’t do that, you don’t get anything back. I am a firm believer in karma.”
While sitting in the Raley’s parking lot, Turpen strikes up a conversation with a man in a sleek car. The man is sporting a large, white mustache. They share stories and memories from an era long passed, and as the man readies to leave, the conversation turns to the end we will all face some day.
“I’ll probably just fall off my horse sideways,” Turpen said. “Yeah, as that old expression goes, ‘I hope I die in my saddle,’” the man answers back.
“Yeah,” Turpen responds. “And bury me in my boots so I got some good footwear where I am going.”