How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Buildings

posted 10/28/03

(This first appeared as a post on a private forum... it's reproduced here in a significantly edited fashion.)

Vis-a-vis urban exploration, I'm a drain photographer, first and foremost. The 'photographer', I think, is the most important word in the label. I explore for the photographic opportunities, the chance to document places that few people know exist and even fewer have been. I'm not an adrenaline junkie, or one who "gets off" on breaking the law; I don't do this for the thrill, or the excitement, or because I need the exercise (though I do).
Drains are reasonably safe. The odds of seriously injuring one's self, of meeting someone or something else, or of getting caught where you're not supposed to be are relatively low. For me, anyway, there's no adrenaline rush, no heart-pounding fear, no thrill from just being in a drain. They're interesting and photographically exciting (as well as photographically challenging) but seem otherwise "safe".
When I entered my first drain this past summer, I was not terribly excited, or scared, or moved. There was no sense of danger to me.
When I entered my first caves, it was the same sort of deal. A little more dangerous, and greater odds of meeting someone (the North Star Brewery and adjacent caves), but there was no real thrill or rush, just the satisfaction of having found the place I was looking for.
When I somehow got the privelige of entering the Labyrinth, the vast interconnected network of tunnels beneath Saint Paul, the entrance was scary as all hell - a manhole at a major intersection. While many of the tunnels are somewhat dangerous, it was not a terribly scary place - some parts are well-lit, there are signs and markings, the odds of encountering someone else or getting caught are still pretty low. Once I realised we'd made our entrance undetected, it wasn't that thrilling.
Don't get me wrong, it was amazing,fascinating, awe-inspiring, and neat as all hell, and I've been back and would gladly go again. It just didn't seem that strange, all things considered.
Some time ago I got tricked into exploring a local abandoned brewery. I say "tricked" because the question was phrased like this: "Would you be up for visiting the such-and-such brewery caves?". I said sure, having already been in one set of brewery caves that night already. I realised that, duh, it was going to be near the brewery in question. But to be honest, I'd assumed it would be, oh, adjacent to the brewery, in much the same way that the North Star caves were adjacent to the site of the brewery. I only vaguely remembered seeing other explorers' webpages about the brewery, which dealt more with the brewery than with the caves, understandably. So I didn't really know what I was in for, and I was, to a large extent, wary of exploring buildings - the (perceived, anyhow) risks, especially of detection, seemed significantly higher than drains and tunnels.
We stopped outside the brewery, by what was the "preferred" entrance. We hung out for a while, observing some activity in part of the complex and completely failing to attract any police attention despite our admittedly suspicious behaviour. I knew at this point that we had to enter the brewery grounds, but I was still expecting a hole in the ground somewhere that we'd slither down, or maybe a hatch and ladder...
Those who were with me would no doubt have laughed at me at that point had I voiced my expectations...which is why I didn't.
Having determined that the "preferred" entrance was a no-go, our leader suggested we try the back on a scouting mission and, if the back entrance was still viable, to return to the cars for our photo gear. I still thought "Oh, we're going to sneak up behind the buildings, out of sight of the people by the other entrance, and slither down the hole or whatever". Doh.
I'll gloss over a lot of the entrance details, just because they weren't real interesting, and this is not the sort of place that the idle curious should be trying to explore. Concertina (razor wire) is a bitch. Clearly someone was reasonably serious about keeping people out. I got cut on the leg going in, but didn't really notice. Ouch.
So, there we are, standing in the grounds of the old brewery. I'm looking around, enjoying the atmosphere (no drain fog! Yay!) and tagging along at the back of the group. Eventually we get to the building we entered through, and even at that point I was still expecting a basement-steps sort of thing just inside the door. I'd only ever infiltrated one building before, dammit, and that was small and unexciting and boring and clean. And I'd always, every time, had a camera with, and been focussed on photography. This was much, much different...
I'll cut to the chase here - we explored several buildings, or parts of several buildings, as well as the caves we came to see. Exploring drains, the labyrinth, caves, and an abandoned liquor store did not adequately prepare me for this brewery. Not that I'm complaining or anything, you understand - I was just caught very off-guard.
I went along, trying to remain cool, calm and unemotional, though it was incredibly hard. It took a lot of self restraint to not bounce around the place shouting "Wheee!" or, worse yet, slip up and hug the leader of the group and tell him that I loved him for showing me this place. It was far and away the coolest thing I've ever done, bar none. (Please understand that I don't go to movies or parties, I rarely drink, and I've never tried an illegal drug, so...)
The thrill of the brewery never really ended. While doing stuff, moving around or looking at things, everything felt normal, reasonable, understandable. Every once in a while, though, we'd pause, lights out, and listen after hearing a noise (probably pigeons or raccoons), and that's when it would hit me. 'I'm somewhere in or under an enormous complex of old buildings, I'm not sure, doing pure exploration - no photography, just some good, straightforward infiltration - at two in the morning. I'm not supposed to be here, and I don't know the way out. What the hell kind of movie am I watching? This is not me... is it? This cannot possibly be me and my life, can it? I don't do shit like this!'
It really seemed, sometimes, like part of a movie. In storm drains, you light the place up with as many flashlights as you want so you can see through the mist, not worrying "does this room have windows to the outside?". I'd never had to worry about making noise before. It was hard to reconcile what I was experiencing, what I was going, with my perceptions of "me". Complacency - the whole "OK, we're in, we've been in for an hour, if someone had spotted us we'd have been busted by now" thing - never set in. Unlike in the labyrinth, or any of the drains I've been in, there was never a feeling of safety; I was uneasy and on edge the whole time I was in there. It's probably better that way, and certainly added to the (unusual, for me) thrill. Maybe I'm just more paranoid than everyone else that was with. Every time I entered a new area, I did a quick scan of the floor, for holes/puddles/other unpleasantness, a scan of the walls for windows, and a scan of the ceiling for cameras, just because that's how I am. We'd hear sirens go by, and I'd get nervous, even though I know damn well that the local police don't go lights 'n' sirens to trespass calls, or burglaries of businesses. It was a whole new experience.
I now sort of understand and appreciate the kind of thrill others get from non-drain infiltrations. And, while I'm not going to make a habit of buildings, I'm certainly more open to the idea now.
Yes, it's against the law - a misdemeanor in most circumstances here. Is it immoral or unethical? I don't think so. There was a lingering feeling of doubt, in that we had no photo gear with us; it's easier to rationalize harmless trespass with a tangible goal - photography, for instance - than with just being there to "be there". But I fail to see the harm in responsible adults who abide by the Sierra Club motto - 'take nothing but pictures, and leave nothing but footprints' - exploring these strangely beautiful locations while causing no damage.
Thanks to everyone who was with me that night - you know who you are. :) Apologies all around for being paranoid, and for boring some of you with photographic conversation. Let's do it again sometime soon.


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