Exploring the World, Exploring Ourselves

posted 02/06/07

Why urban explorers do what they do is a source of puzzlement for many. Even those who understand the attraction of rooftops, for example, or utility tunnels, often fail to understand the attraction of abandoned buildings, or drains and sewers. The appeal varies, of course, but for many, it's likely much different than most people expect.

Even if you've never been in one, you probably have a fair idea of what sewers and drains look like. You might think of small, cramped, round concrete pipes, or large, vaguely gothic brickwork tunnels with a channel down the middle of the floor. You probably think of rats, and bats, and spiderwebs; mud, and sand, and decaying animals. Maybe you think of raw human waste, or the tangy smell of a stagnant pond in summer. Whatever the origin of the ideas, pretty much everyone thinks they know what a sewer looks like... and they expect them all to look the same.

It's just not so, Joe.

Imagine, if you will, that you're standing in a tunnel, a real storm sewer thirty feet beneath a large midwestern city. You're in a square concrete tunnel, about twelve feet across. There's an inch or so of very cold water flowing quickly through the tunnel that numbs your wet feet and makes you wish you'd worn rubber boots. The floor of the tunnel is a brownish color, from what are probably mineral deposits, and somewhat slippery. There's mist in the air, easily visible in the beam of your flashlight. There's a not-unpleasant, vaguely musty smell, carried on a gentle breeze, and every twenty feet or so, at the joint between cast sections of tunnel, water drips to the floor. The temperature, regardless of the time of year or weather above ground, is about fifty degrees Fahrenheit. And the noise, oh, the noise...

There's a watefall a few hundred feet behind you. Not really a waterfall, in the traditional sense, but a large, round concrete pipe a few feet across that's pouring a torrent of water into the main, square tunnel with a speed and volume that would make most firefighters envious, and the thundering roar of the water, echoing and reverbrating through the dark concrete tunnel is a deafening sensory assault of white noise that numbs your mind and makes speaking, hearing, thinking impossible.

You feel a little light-headed. It's not from anything you're breathing; it's sensory overload. You're relying on instinct, and visual clues now, to tell which way is up. You walk ahead, the splashes of your footsteps drowned out by the roar of water. The tunnel twists and turns, around each corner of wet, glistening concrete more of the same. Without anything familiar within range of your flashlight's yellow beam, perception becomes distorted. How big is the tunnel? Eight feet? Ten feet? How far have you been walking? A hundred yards? Five times that? It's hard to guess.

It's absolutely, completely dark here. Your flashlight illuminates perhaps eight feet of foggy tunnel; outside that beam of light could be anything, or nothing. It's about here, perhaps, that you begin to realize just how far away from everything this other world is; you're less than a hundred feet from a four-lane interstate, there are scores of homes and businesses within a quarter-mile, yet down here, you might as well be a thousand miles away from everything. It's you, and the darkness, and your flashlight; the way out is perhaps a half-mile away. What seems here like a very reasonable fear that you might never see sunlight again keeps your hand clenched in a white-knuckle grip on your flashlight. Light is safety, light is comfort. Light, in a place like this, might be life.

You walk on. Time passes, you seem sure of it. The roar of water fades somewhat; underneath the adrenaline-fueled edge of excitement, paranoia begins to eat at you. You keep walking, yet the tunnel doesn't change. Are you really getting anywhere? Have you been walking in a circle? How long have you been down here, anyway? Minutes? Hours? In a place like this, reality seems malleable, subjective, and it's easy to believe your mind is playing tricks on you. With no-one else here to voice your thoughts to, you keep them to yourself, and continue, one foot in front of the other, as you have been for what seems like ages.

Suddenly, without any warning, the tunnel ends. The floor continues in front of you, but the walls and ceiling open up into what seems like nothingness. There is still loud white noise coming from all around; after this time, you perceive it more as a subaudible pressure than a sound. Yet, here, the character of the sound, the pressure, changes to something lower, duller.

You walk forward. The floor has become well-worn red brick, like they used to pave streets with, fifty years ago. There seems to be nothingness stretching away in all directions but down. You adjust your flashlight beam, and shine it around, subconsciously cautious. What you see takes a few moments to process, and understand.

Concrete has given way to brick, and also stone. High above you and the slippery bricks beneath your feet, rises arched stonework. Scale seems impossible to judge; how high is that ceiling? Fifty feet? A hundred? You step towards one wall, and the scale of each block of stone becomes apparent. Slightly over one foot by two, and who knows how deep, each of these cut and dressed stones probably weighs more than you do. You guess they stretch some twenty feet above you, in a curved display of masonry more suited to a castle entrance than a storm sewer. You walk on, careful of your footing on the slippery bricks; the stonework continues far longer than the thickness of any castle wall. A hundred paces, two hundred; you stop counting as the scale of your location hits you.

For many, it's experiences like this that make urban exploration worthwhile. When we speak of knowing about, and going, places few others know exist, it's not attics and crawlspaces we're talking about, it's places like this drain. Seeing, experiencing such an incredible architectural feat, buried thirty feet below the city, that tens of thousands pass over every day without realizing it's existance, is exhilirating. In a lot of ways, the hidden, unknown nature of these places makes the experience all the more powerful. The beauty, the majesty, the sheer unbelievable improbability of it all combine to produce something akin to a spiritual experience. The first time you have such an experiencing, it's magical, an awakening that forces you to confront a lot of your assumptions about the world. Urban explorers don't change the places they go; rather, it's the locations we explore that change us.


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