By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
We squeeze through a hole cut in the chain-link fence and crunch across a gravel yard, using the moonlight to avoid the crates and pipes scattered among the weeds. The factory complex is enormous, with cavernous white metal buildings two or three stories high in some places. On one roof three rusting silos tower another 40 feet into the midnight sky.
My guides are Noah Vale and Dirtbag, two veteran "urban explorers." They've brought me to this abandoned bathroom fixture plant two hours east of Dallas to introduce me to their secretive pastime: prowling around forgotten, half-ruined buildings, construction sites, even storm sewers.
It can be dirty, dangerous and downright creepy. It can also get you busted for trespassing. But the payoff is adventure that's an equal mix of archaeology and adrenaline.
We enter the building through an open door and click on our flashlights. A labyrinth of massive, enigmatic machinery extends into the darkness, and we begin to thread our way through, flashing our lights overhead at a network of pipes, wires and belts.
I take a detour to investigate a hissing sound, and when I point my beam down it reveals that I am already standing in the spray issuing from a broken water pipe. The corner of the building is inches deep in water. Later we come out into a loading area, an open concrete pad where a group of work benches is illuminated by overhead fluorescent lights. Apparently that happens a lot in abandoned buildings. It seems unlikely that owners who have left a factory to rust are paying the electric bill, but somehow the lights stay on.
Even more unlikely is the amount of inventory left on the dock. What seems like thousands of toilets stretch away into the darkness. Later we find stacks of elegant pedestal sinks, many stained beyond repair with rust from the adjacent metal walls. The best discovery, however, is a room overflowing with toilet tank floats.
Someone has been tearing open the boxes--local skateboarders, judging by the graffiti on the walls--scattering thousands of the plastic balls. Vale and Dirtbag begin pelting each other with the floats, then seeing who can kick them through an open door.
In the next building the dust from the white clay used to make porcelain grows thick, and I can feel it caking in my nostrils and the back of my throat. Vale offers me a surgical-type face mask.
"Here you go--fresh out of the box."
In the masks we look even more like visitors from the planet of the living, wandering among the ruins of a dead world. The offices are in bad shape, thoroughly vandalized and looted by the skaters. The complex is so sprawling, however, that most of it is untouched, as if the workers walked off the job the day before. (In fact, the plant closed in 2002.) A row of unfinished sinks still sits in the molds. One work station is lined with pictures of two blond toddlers. The photos are glued to the wall--obviously this employee hadn't anticipated the plant's closing.
We find ledgers, coffee mugs, a form on a clipboard lying on a bench. A stack of textbooks for a first aid class sits on a chair in a storage closet. We also find a blue plastic 50-gallon drum, full of liquid and boldly labeled "sulfuric acid."
After three hours of exploring and snapping photos, we turn to make our way back to the exit, but Vale happens on what looks like the control room for the whole factory. Banks of buttons, switches and dials shine under our flashlight beams like new Christmas toys.
The lure of the big red button is too powerful.
Vale pushes it, and incredibly, some part of the hulking machinery looming in the darkness rumbles to life. Dirtbag and I race across the factory floor, leaping and ducking in our search for the source of the noise. Eventually we find that a section of overhead conveyor belt leading to a central vat has awakened from its slumber, and with another push of the button Vale shuts it down.
As we return to the control booth, I spot a set of metal stairs I hadn't noticed before and clamber up.
"Hey, guys," I call down in a low voice.
"Whaddya got?" Dirtbag inquires.
"It's the roof."
That is enough to bring both of them racing up the stairs to behold the rooftop silos, a ladder beckoning between them. We ascend one at a time, but the structure still groans under the weight. At the top we are rewarded with a view of the entire site.
"Good spot, man!" Vale says. I can't help but grin. Somehow, finding the stairs to the roof of an abandoned toilet factory at 3 a.m. has become a source of immense satisfaction.