Dumb Luck: The Discovery of the Drain of Sudden Death

posted 07/18/04

A frequent source of anxiety amongst would-be, wanna-be, and armchair urban explorers is just how it is, exactly, that one finds new locations to explore. The answers are pat - look at maps, read books, talk to people, and most of all, just get out and wander around and search your surroundings with your Eyeball, General Purpose, Mk. I. Some people really aren't suited to the latter, being inobservant and obtuse. For them, and the laypersons, this account of the quite accidental discovery of the Drain of Sudden Death should be instructive and entertaining.

It was the early hours of the morning on a weekend day in late spring, the cold, dark hours when few people roam the streets but drunks, transients, prostitutes, their clients, and police. That night, their numbers were augmented by a brace of urban explorers, myself one of them.

We'd already explored one drain that night - the spooky and enigmatic Easter Drain - but while it's partial conquest with other explorers left us elated, we remained unfulfilled, wanting, nay, craving more. So the two of us resolved to set out, and wander aimlessly, and see what could be seen. After eating, though. Explorers, like armies, travel on their stomachs. Literally, sometimes. But I digress.

Chicken nuggets, french fries and a fish sandwich nestled unsatisfyingly in our bellies, we pointed the car deeper into the city, and parked in an empty, desolate area on the edge of downtown. Fully armed with tripod, cameras, and related equipment, we ventured into the land of potholes, one-way streets, and drunken bicyclists in search of adventure, excitement, and photo opportunities. Some of these - photo opportunities, in particular - we found in plenty. Excitement was not in short supply - being young, white, and on foot in the less wonderful areas of the city late at night, dodging drunks on bicycles, trying to be ignored by the drug dealers and aforementioned prostitutes, is plenty of excitement for one night, thank you - but adventure... adventure was lacking, as were toilets or toilet-like objects.

After examining several interesting manhole covers and sidewalk hatches, a demolition site, a construction site, and a really huge pothole, we found ourselves on a grassy hillside, overlooking a roadway. Ahead and to one side were nothing much, and retracing one's steps is anathema. Progress in the other direction was impeded by a fence. I've nothing against fences; they serve a very important function. I've also climbed or otherwise bypassed many a fence in my time. Yet, while my companion scaled this pointy iron concrete-based barrier with the grace of a gazelle, some quick experimentation showed that my unaided passage over this fence was not to be. Not too terribly worried, I began parallelling the fence through a thicket of trees, hoping to find the end of the fence, or something easier to bypass, perhaps on the other side of the cluster of ersatz toilets.

This was not the orderly, picturesque woods of a public park; this was a thorny jungle of brush and trees, with no paths or other modern ameneties to ease an explorer's passage through it. I took the opportunity to releive myself in the privacy and solitude of this land that time and the city forgot, then forged on through the woodland.

I, quite literally, stumbled across it. Right there, in my path, in the tiniest of clearings worthy of the name, well back from the fenceline and treeline, was a manhole cover. A slotted manhole lid, no less. Some examination with a flashlight revealed a long shaft set with beautiful, sturdy, modern fiberglass stepirons, all the way down, and a tunnel at the bottom with water trickling through it. A storm drain.

Some time later, I convinced my fellow explorer to vault the fence again, and he joined me at the manhole. As excited as I by this chance discovery, he examined the lid, which I'd tried in vain to budge, and pronounced the problem was that it was a large, strangely-designed lid, and I was in fact standing on the edge of it as I tried to lift it. Doh. No manhole-cover expert I! Between the two of us, we managed to remove the lid, and then we realized our problem. While we had gone forth equipped for photography, and excitement, we were not so well equipped for adventure, and had only my one flashlight between us.

I was more tired than he, so he took the light and descended into the shaft, then spent several minutes giving the tunnel below a quick examination. His report, when he returned to the surface, was most interesting: the tunnel ran downhill for a ways, before becoming still steeper and then plunging, to judge from the noise of the falling water, a considerable ways down a dropshaft into another presumed tunnel. Steep and slick, it was an accident waiting to happen for tired, ill-equipped explorers... so we replaced the lid, found a better place to hop the fence, returned to the wonders of civilization, and proceeded with our night of skulking, sneaking, and photography.

Not terribly exciting, I admit... but it well illustrates how one finds something to explore. Chance and luck play big parts, but you still have to make the effort, to get out there and look, if you're going to find anything really interesting, or just anything that nobody else has explored.


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