Random Thoughts

General musings on the nature of this hobby as well as a few anecdotes.  Much of this page is composed of excerpts from personal correspondence with other explorers.

There were several threads in the UE forums where I found absolutely no information that finished things off for me.  The original post would read, "Anyone know about this tunnel over here?"  And the next dozen posts would say, "I've heard it's cool/haunted/full of mutant alligators, but I've never checked it out even though it's only about a mile from my house.  I mean, I could ride my bike over there, but I can't pull myself away from the forum to actually do any exploring because I would rather just b.s. about it."

I've been pretty lucky in finding other forums that have been fun and have good participation, but this was ridiculous.  It was a bunch of teenagers telling each other what to do and how to do it... even though they never did it themselves.  The last time I was around that, the subject was sex and I was in the eighth grade!

Adventurer or Explorer?
I didn't realize there was a distinction to be made here, but clearly there is.  For one thing, I'm not much on thrill-seeking, at least in terms of near-death experiences.  While there are opportunities for getting yourself killed doing this, you have to go out of your way to find them... even more out of the way than finding some of the places I have explored.  I think adventurers are always looking for some sort of confrontation: a battle between themselves and the natural world, the elements, whatever, maybe even vagrants.  I don't go out for that.

By contrast, an explorer explorers to know what there is.  If I don't make it to the end of a tunnel, that kills me.  I can't turn back until I find what lies at the end.  If I don't make it to the end because whomever I'm with can't finish it, I have to go back there again at some point.  It isn't so much that I'm in search of an "experience" as I am in search of knowledge that turns the unknown into the known.

In the beginning I rarely revisited any places I explored, but I've been doing this for a couple years, so when I hit a dry spell or meet up with people who I think will get excited by doing something I've seen already, I'll get enthused through their eyes.  In fact, bringing friends with me who aren't into UE is sometimes really enlightening.  I had a friend who pointed out all sorts of things I missed on a couple of previous visits to the same site.

I find the tunnels considerably more sanitary and safe than the woods.  To me, the woods present ever-present dangers and annoyances.  Mosquitoes are absolutely terrible in a humid forest.  You will get completely eaten alive.  More seriously, there is always the possibility of walking on a snake.  You just never know.  Add to that exhaustion and/or dehydration, and there is a real possibility of death.  Contrast that with the same outcomes in a tunnel.  Flash flood?  Bullshit!  You arenít going to get lost either.  Worst case scenario: the flashlight goes dim or out, and you run your hand along the wall until you make it back to the start.

Hard work = More fun, great story
A friend of mine wrote me after exploring and apologized for her "wimping-out moments."  She explained that she was "a little unprepared for the Indiana Jones routine. :-)"  I said I probably should have warned her before going in.  I never know how much people read on my site or read into my site that they get an accurate picture of what exactly we do.  My favorite adventures have always been the most arduous though.  Dani will grudgingly admit that the ones where we came home exhausted and scraped up with a sense that we barely escaped with our lives were always the best ones.  Everything else feels like sightseeing otherwise.  For example, there was one trip we took where we started off with an inflatable raft and ended up taking a cab rather than walking/rowing 3+ miles back to the car.  You can read the much longer version of the story here.

The most fun stuff we've done exploring has consistently been the most difficult.  Some of my favorite things were where we had to crawl through really tiny holes to get to something big or where we had to drag the canoe someplace really far (and then got to row it somewhere, of course).  The other day we rappelled 30' down a huge shaft with sheer walls.  It was exhausting and I ended up with pulled muscles, but I got to find out what was down there even though it didn't  turn out to be anything interesting.

Urbex dreams
For years now I've had recurring dreams (which always look different, but same plot) in which I find a secret tunnel that invariably leads into some sort of X-Files type of government lab.  I sneak around and am almost caught, but I escape back out the tunnel again.  I have no idea where this comes from.  Nothing like this has ever happened in real life, but I think the dreams impel me to continue the search.  Or maybe they are just a reflection of something intrinsic that inspires the dreams.  Who knows?

Exploring is definitely a lot less predictable than video games.  That's the great thing about exploring.  You would think that after as many tunnels as I've been in, I would eventually run out of interesting finds.  Instead, I keep finding something new and sometimes strange in each and every tunnel I've ever been in.  For example, in a tunnel I did recently ("the chromosome"), the round "cap" is unique.  I've never run across anything like that in any other tunnel nor have I need such a dramatic shift from large to small to large as with the section that elicited claustrophobia in the rest of my party.

That's always been my main interest and what got me started.  A good abandonment is always interesting, but tunnels are more mysterious.  You never know what all you'll be under or where you'll come out.  Unlike a building, you never know how old it is, who built it, etc.  Going in, you never know how long the journey will last.  I like to be surprised, and I have yet to be in a tunnel that didn't offer a surprise every time.  Let me know if you ever run across any good tunnel sites (or sights).  I haven't looked around the web in a long time.  Those are the minority.

Hidden in plain sight
One interesting aspect of this "hobby" (or whatever it is) is that you can go for literally years without realizing something is right beneath your feet (or tires).  For example, about a month ago, I went exploring with some guys in Dallas who found a tunnel under Central Expressway where I used to hang out a lot.  If you know me, that was basically the center of the universe during a large part of my life.  This is a road I had been down about a million times, and to be right near somewhere I had stopped just about every time I'm in that area.  To me it was just amazing that this giant tunnel was just a few feet out of my view and yet I had driven over it for years.

Exploring while traveling
It's frustrating, because you're only there for a short while, so you sometimes can't find the time to check out the places you discover.  For instance, Dani and I were up in Arkansas visiting her grandfather about a month or so ago.  We were with her parents, so we couldn't slip away to explore except in the middle of the night, and although we didn't have any boots, we spotted a really incredible tunnel that will probably forever remain on my "to do" list.  Similarly, while we were in Louisiana, we were literally in the process of parking my (rental) car to go to my cousin's wedding when I found another great tunnel that I just can't wait to get back to.  Unfortunately, that's 500 miles away now as I write this.  It stormed right after the wedding, so we couldn't make it back there to check it out... even though we had the boots handy on that occasion.

Noticing new things
My cousin brought this up at his wedding.  He and I went exploring last January when I came down for a visit.  In one case, we were driving along and I insisted that there was a terrifically large tunnel visible from the road we were on.  He was skeptical and finally said that he had driven this way a million times and had never seen anything of the kind.  I cut him off half-way through that thought and said, "There!"  He couldn't believe the size of the tunnel to his left.  It was awesome... although it didn't lead anywhere, unfortunately.  He said he notices drains all the time now.

It's great to wonder about the story behind any manmade structure.  The way I think about these places is that every brick was placed there by human hands.  Every ounce of dirt was moved through an act of will.  There was determination behind these actions and money to back them.  This wasn't a force of nature or a random occurrence, so how did it come to be the way it is?
And there are so many peculiarities in the architecture of these tunnels that leave me wondering about them:  Why did they switch from old-fashioned brick and mortar to modern concrete at just this point?  Why is this section of the tunnel a dead end?  What is behind this sealed off section?  There are so many dead ends that extend for hundreds of feet and yet no longer serve any useful purpose.  So what changed to make this stretch unnecessary?

I hate to sound like an elitist, but yeah.  The "Invisible Worlds" episode of This American Life was great in drawing a parallel between Urb Exers and the crew in the Matrix.  We're aware of an underlying structure that keeps people's lives going, yet the vast majority of the population is blissfully unaware of these things.  There's a feeling that comes with that knowledge that transcends even the "I know a secret" attitude.

I'm kind of fanatical about exploring... to my girlfriend's disgust sometimes.  She's okay with tagging along on most expeditions, but she gets cranky after we've been through the fourth tunnel in a day.  She would like to turn back once she gets tired, whereas that's where my obsession manifests itself.  You know that footage of the rats on cocaine where they'll run across an electrified floor to get their drugs?  Not even the starving rats will cross that expanse for food or water.  It doesn't matter how exhausted I am, I have to finish the length of the tunnel, no matter how many miles it stretches.
The so-called "Beaver Tunnel" on my site was like that.  We went for somewhere over a mile and a half (it's hard to tell when you're underground and the GPS doesn't work), but we never finished the final (perhaps) stretch.  I'm dying to know where it leads.  I talked to Dani about it on the phone just a few minutes ago.  After a series of non-stop downpours for the last couple weeks, it hasn't rained here in just enough time for the water to be shallow enough to climb into the tunnel where we enter... which is somewhat involved (i.e., down a rope into a ravine filled with water that is several feet deep).  I doubt we'll check it out tonight, but I'm hoping for maybe one of the other smaller tunnels around here later tonight.

Homeless encounters
I stayed over at Dani's place last night, but didn't bring much to work on, so I went out exploring a little on my own this afternoon and re-visited a site.  There's a sizable tunnel nearby that we explored part of but never finished a while back.  It's odd, but the tunnel goes for a ways, then opens into this valley, then starts right back up again.  Unfortunately, there are several homeless people living in the valley, and they're well encamped.  They have tents, lawn furniture, and a clothes line.  When we explored the first part of the tunnel we heard them talking just as we reached the valley, so we were very quiet and peaked around the corner just long enough to see them without being spotted ourselves.  We were tempted to keep moving through to the next tunnel, but that would have made our presence known, and I am not keen on being cornered in unknown territory.  This afternoon I parked nearby and reconnoitered the area taking pictures of the encampment.  I didn't see anyone, but they may have been in a tent and were aware of me.  Spooky thought.
So far, we've seen evidence of homeless people more often than the people themselves.  I've been tempted to talk to them and maybe interview them and find out their story, but I'm not sure I'm willing to take that kind of a chance, especially when I'm trespassing on their territory.
We see possessions left beneath bridges all the time.  I was scouting a spot next to a RR bridge a couple weeks ago and found a small stash.  The time we went canoeing we spotted another such stash of bags beneath a pedestrian bridge over the river.  On the way back we saw what we believe to be their owner.  Last weekend, we went scouting locations in Dallas (and found three very promising ones!) and we visited an old dorm that Dani's mom had occupied in nursing school.  The place was closed down and we imagined it would be abandoned.  Naturally, it wasn't.  (See gallery)

Elsewhere in Dallas, we went around downtown hoping to find what we anticipate with be the mother of all drainage systems (NY City and LA, not withstanding ;-).  We found a really great entrance in this canal on the outskirts of the metroplex where the tunnel headed right toward the skyscrapers.  It was right next to this convenience store which was surrounded by loiterers (most of whom were obviously homeless) and the canal even had three guys hanging out right by it.  It was pretty depressing since this was clearly a great place that we would never be able to enter without some serious protection.  But there were two other interesting tunnels, so we'll see....
There's a book called The Mole People about the homeless in NY, NY.  I have never read it (I tried once), but it apparently details how they get by.  However, I have heard that it was largely fabricated.  I am hesitant to believe that, but who knows?  You might be able to find it at the library, but it is definitely available through Amazon.
Rather than wondering what to do in an actual confrontation I would prefer to be proactive.  One night Ben and I went out in Dallas and honestly looked like a couple of bums.  He has wild, curly hair and both of us are bad about shaving on a regular basis.  Naturally, we were wearing old clothes we didn't mind getting dirty and we had our boots in a couple of backpacks.  We happened to be traveling through a part of downtown that is loaded with homeless people, so we blended in and no one bothered with us since we looked like the last people who would have anything worth stealing.

Serendipitous finds
...the tunnels by the meat packing plant ruins!  I found one of them without ever expecting to.  I saw that there was a nature trail right across the street from the ruins, so I went along the trail just for the hell of it... and came upon a pair of tunnels almost as large as the ones I just described finding with Kurt.  Well, right after that, before we had even explored those tunnels, I was out looking for an easy place to access the canal that the tunnels emptied into when I ran across another completely separate tunnel right there.  It was amazing.  Dani was in the car both times (the first time was because she was still sore from the car accident the night before; you may have seen the pics on my site), and I came back just gasping and grinning.  She's like, oh hell, another one?!

Putting a name on it
I didn't know there was a name for this hobby until I looked up "urban exploration" on the web after hearing the words on the Infiltration episode of This American Life.  It reminds me of the story "I Like Guys" by David Sedaris.  He has a line in it where he talks about how parents always say that kids think they invented sex.  Being gay, he says, well, didn't we?  With no instruction manual and no authority to consult, didn't we have to figure it out for ourselves?  That's how our early days of exploring were like.

Once I've finished exploring a site, it's finished!  I don't want to go back unless we didn't get to the end of it.  I wouldn't mind seeing a few places again with new people, but I would much rather see new sites and let my friends discover my old ones for themselves.

They aren't sewers! (a rant)
One thing that really galls me is that people frequently refer to this as exploring sewers.  Well, to reference the title of this rant, They Aren't Sewers!  What we are in are drainage systems.  These carry rain water and sprinkler run off.  Admittedly, yes, we have seen (and even smelled!) some less-than-pleasant things underground, but raw sewage has not been a problem.  The reason is that the sewer system is completely separate from the drainage system.  This is in order to minimize contamination of water being directed into the environment and, conversely, to minimize the volume of waste water that requires treatment at water purification facilities.

Granted, there are ways of accessing sewers.  Manhole covers abound, and these undoubtedly lead to impressive systems of tunnels in some places, but no one wants to risk contact with raw sewage and the potential for contracting all manner of diseases.  We'll stick to the drains, thanks.

The search
In searching for tunnels, you really have to know what to look for or you have to be crazy/desperate enough to be willing to climb down drains and look.  I've always been a combination of these traits.  I do my best to figure out where tunnels are most likely to be found before I attempt to find them.  I'm not just going to climb down any old drain and crawl on my hands and knees for miles hoping to reach a larger tunnel.

Maybe I'm so fascinated by this in part because I grew up in Louisiana (New Orleans area).  You couldn't dig more than six inches below the surface without hitting the water table.  There were no such things as basements, subways, or even drainage tunnels really.  The streets would flood every time it rained more than a little bit.  It's always a surprise to go below the surface and see this whole other world.

Normally batteries aren't an issue, but sometimes the law of averages works against you, and on a few occasions we've had several lights go dim over the course of a long trip.  When that happens, it distracts you from your "mission," so you just end up turning back.  The smaller lights are just for back-up and wouldn't be useful for the exploration itself, just to keep from tripping over things.  I think there have been only two trips where this has ever been enough of a problem to worry me, although we've never had anything approaching a disastrous event.

Gender differences?
People always tell me they're surprised how my partner and I end up there together, but almost half the people I've been exploring with have been female.  Maybe it's just the friends I've known over the years, but the girls almost without exception seemed comfortable with most aspects of it.  The only difference seems to be that guys are willing to go it on their own whereas the girls want someone to say it's okay to do this.  I only had one girl freak out about things at one point when we couldn't leave a tunnel without being seen by cops and she thought she was going to get arrested or something, but she was always high strung.

Literary references
The following passage from Miss Wyoming by Douglas Coupland summed up some of how I look at the urbex experience.

John tried to explain to Ivan that until then, he'd always un­thinkingly assumed that the built world was something that was simply there. But now he understood that people made and maintained all of the roads as well as the convulsing pipes of sewage that ran beneath every building, as well as all the wires that carried electricity from the center of the planet into the hair dryers and TV sets and X-ray machines...

In a perfect world...
The ideal tunnels for me would have the following characteristics:
   1) large size (diameter)
   2) branches (most tend to be the "trunk" with feeds from tributaries as you head upstream)
   3) several "rooms"
   4) frequent turns
   5) lots of variety in "found" objects, and
   6) go under cool places visible through grates along the way

Honestly, I'm always very careful.  Although I do have "thrill-seeking" tendencies (e.g., hang gliding and contacting strange women over the internet), in general I'm less about trying to get myself killed than trying to find new things and interesting things.  I think that sums up my attitude to explorations of all kinds.  There are a few dangerous places I've found that I have flirted with, but I haven't managed to get myself killed yet.

I applied this name collectively to the homeless denizens of Dallas.  I have some friends who live just outside of downtown.  As I was driving around that area to pick up the friends from their various residences, I would see a lone homeless person walking along.  We were passing through areas that are economic dead zones.  There are no residences to speak of, and the few remaining businesses are warehouses and such that close up at 5pm.  This was in the early evening and there would be solitary individuals walking aimlessly.  They wouldn't even be moving in a typical straight line.  It would be like 25 degrees from the path of the roads and sidewalks, but there was no traffic, so they could cross the street at their own pace and move more or less how they liked from point A to point B where there were fresh human brains.

One night we happened to be out exploring and ended up passing through an area outside a shelter not too far from downtown.  It looked like one of those scenes out of, say, Dawn of the Dead (or any other in that genre) where the zombies all descend on the protagonists and congregate around their fortified hold-up.  Only in this case, they were milling around a food truck.  Apparently they served brains because these guys totally surrounded it.

Archaeologist or Explorer?
>You're an Urban Archaeologist
Kind of, but the explorer label is a better fit since that's what I do first and foremost.  I rarely settle down and take the time to dig around to see what's buried.  However, there's a lot to be discovered if you have the patience to be stationary for a bit.  For example, while taking a break on the trip through a tunnel down the street from my house (actually, we were several streets away by this point), we sat down in a dry patch and started noticing all sorts of things within about a five-foot radius.  Artifacts included: the jawbone of a small ruminant (cow, probably, or a really, really big goat), an M-16 bullet (unfired), the coin return component from a pay phone, handlebars from a bike, and a sand dollar.  This was brief survey of a small patch in a fairly large tunnel.  Who know what else you might find?

We had a homeless character near where my parents live now.  She used to always be seen sitting on the side of the rode at a traffic light where people typically turned to get onto the interstate.  The odd thing (well, one of them) was that she always used to wear this giant sun hat with lots of fake(?) flowers on it.  She looked like she was in her sixties.  I think she used to bring a small folding lawn chair and she was surrounded by loads of blue Wal-mart bags, filled with what I have no idea, but there were like a dozen of them almost every time.

Eventually she disappeared, and someone wrote into the local paper and asked about her.  Apparently there was so little worth reporting on around town that someone took the time to ask around about her.  The story was that she was always waiting for a ride out to a town about 50 miles down the interstate where her disabled son lived, and she was visiting him.  Neither she nor he had a car, but there were certain people who gave her rides if they saw her out there, and sure enough, if she waited long enough, one of them would happen along.  She didn't even act like she was hitching a ride.  I thought maybe she was selling something, surrounded like she was by all the bags (albeit with no indication of their contents).

Her disappearance actually turned out to be a happy ending.  Another lady who lived in town got to know her and eventually took her in to live with her.  She was able to give her rides out to see her son on a more dependable basis, although this probably meant that countless truck drivers now had to pay for toothless blow jobs instead of getting them in exchange for a ride in the direction they were going anyway from beneath the flower-covered bonnet.

I hope you enjoyed the above and/or got some use out of it.  If you have anything to add, feel free to write me.
--the Urban Ale[x]plorer.

Copyright 2004-2008 Alexplorer.
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