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.
Depending on whom you ask, urban exploration is either a harmless hobby or a subversive secret society with members in virtually every city on earth. Establishing a figure for the number of urban explorers is impossible, partly because there is no set definition of what an urban explorer is.
The phenomenon is fueled by one of the most basic human impulses, the desire to snatch back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. It's why you look through the hole in the construction fence, why you pause when you happen upon the battered service elevator in a luxury hotel. An urban explorer is someone who takes the next step: hops the fence or steps into the elevator and pushes the bottom button, searching for mystery in the mundane.
Some urban explorers stick to poking around abandoned buildings by daylight. Others try to infiltrate secure areas of working hospitals, office buildings or university campuses. Some, like Alexplorer, a 30-year-old graduate student from Fort Worth, prefer "draining," plumbing the depths of city storm sewers.
"It's much better than hiking when you circle the park and come back to where you started," Alex says.
"Everything you see underground is going to be new and different and weird."
The only universal prerequisites for urban explorers seem to be curiosity and a disdain for trespassing laws.
"What we do isn't wrong," Vale says. "It's certainly illegal, but it isn't wrong."
Central to this distinction is the code of ethics to which explorers adhere. In general, they follow a maxim borrowed from ecotourism: "Take only pictures, leave only footprints." Gradations, however, do exist, as evidenced by the fierce debates to be found on explorer message boards. Taking valuable items is taboo, but some explorers will collect small, common artifacts as memorabilia. Some will cut through a padlock while others won't even pry off a board. All true explorers, however, view looters with horror, vandals with disgust and graffiti artists with reservation.
"Sometimes graffiti can be funny or artistic," Alex says, "but it's only OK on a really boring stretch of wall."
Noah Vale, Dirtbag and Alexplorer are not real names. Most explorers adopt pseudonyms when they choose to talk about their extralegal pastime. Alex's real name, however, is easy to encounter on his Web site, a fact he doesn't mind much. "Honestly, I think most cops have better things to do," he says.
Not all explorers are so complacent.
"The number one priority is don't get caught," says Armed Geoduck, another dedicated Dallas explorer. His approach to urban exploration can only be described as militant. "This is not a hobby; it's a passion," he says earnestly. "It's like commando shit without guns."
Geoduck sprinkles stories of his escapades with words like "commando" and "ninja." In one instance, he says, he was hiding under a piece of factory machinery and pulled himself up off the floor in case the passing security guard knelt down to look. "I was like, 'I'm in Mission Impossible right now,'" he says. "That was so close—I loved it."
But if explorers like Geoduck were mere thrill seekers, they could race motorcycles or jump out of planes instead of rooting around in the rusting detritus of industrial society.
"I can't say I don't do it for the adrenaline rush," Vale concedes. "I love that sort of thing—but I love the photography, the history and just the introspection that comes along with it."
Geoduck, 23, is a muscular 6 feet, his black baseball cap and goatee making him look like the metal-band member he is. But when he describes the moment he discovered a forgotten chandelier lit by sunlight filtering through the dust of a derelict furniture showroom, his voice takes on a reverent tone. "It was so beautiful, I wanted to cry."
After a half-hour below ground, the darkness begins to seem less oppressive. Not because my eyes are adjusting—eyes can't adjust to ambient light that doesn't exist. It's just that the sure footing, the ample space overhead, the unwavering straightness of the path are all in defiance of my preconceived notions of storm sewers. I go so far as to switch off my flashlight, content to let Alex light the way with his.
We are pursuing the UE variant known as draining—venturing into the underground network that carries rainwater away from streets and urban areas. Storm sewers are not to be confused with the "brown water" variety that carries human waste to treatment plants. Instead, they are generally clean and odor-free, constantly flushed out by rainstorms. Some are also big enough to drive a bus into.
They're not everybody's idea of a good time, however. Suddenly Alex's roving beam stops, pinpointing a spot on the tunnel wall. "Hey, check this out," he says. "I don't know why they do this."
By "they," he means roaches. Not just one or two, but what seems like dozens, creating a perfect shiny oval on the otherwise clean concrete wall. The line from Raiders of the Lost Ark leaps to mind: "Why'd it have to be snakes?" For me it's roaches, and chills march up my back like an army of them.
"You see that all the time," Alex says. His voice is full of satisfaction, and he scans the wall with his light. "There won't be any, and then you'll see them all in one spot for no apparent reason."
Sure enough, there is no difference in this spot in the wall, other than the fact it's covered with roaches, some the size of cell phones. There is no moisture, not even a crack in the wall to attract them. Perhaps it is the scientific fascination in Alex's voice that does it, but gradually my curiosity overpowers my revulsion.
"That's weird," I say, venturing a closer look. "I wonder why they do that."
The cockroach conclave is the first of many times I wonder aloud at some discovery. Alex had prepped me as best he could for what to expect, but the network we're exploring to the west of downtown Dallas turns out to harbor an endless supply of mysteries.
"That's how it is down here," Alex says. "Everything I think ends with a question mark."
Equipped with rubber boots and flashlights, we'd followed a sunken stream bed running alongside a commercial building to get to the two arched, gaping tunnel mouths, each delivering a flow of water less than an inch deep. Our first choice eventually narrows into a bell-shaped channel less than 4 feet high, and we decide to turn around to explore the other one.
The second tunnel, however, isn't exuding the benign wet-concrete smell of the first. Instead it has the nauseating stench of a brown-water sewer. I hesitate to enter, but Alex is undaunted. As it turns out, the source of the fetid water is a side tube just 20 feet into the tunnel, and as we continue upstream the smell recedes. Still, I wonder if sewer gas collecting in the tunnel might pose a threat.
"The thing about drains is that they're all sloped," Alex assures me. "All those gases just go straight up and out the manhole covers and drain grates."
Later I find out that isn't always the case. In an interview, Dallas storm drain inspector Roy Bruce recalls an incident years ago when some kids exploring a drain ignited trapped gases with a lighter and suffered horrible burns. Afterward, Bruce was assigned to see if the flash had damaged the tunnel.
"That was real creepy," he says. "You could see the bloody handprints where they were stumbling against the walls when they were trying to get out."
Blissfully unaware of this precedent, Alex and I continue to march up the tunnel. At its mouth the tube is easily 15 feet in diameter, but after a small room marking a turn in its course, it narrows to perhaps 10 feet wide.
Alex begins peering up the various side passages, looking for light shining in through a roadside drain. He wants to take a GPS reading, an invaluable tool for calculating the distance and route we've traveled. When he spots daylight, we head to the source, forced to move in a backbreaking crouch through the narrow passage. The light shines down from a room overhead, and Alex hoists himself up to take a reading. He's always careful not to be seen, eager to avoid well-intentioned calls to 911 reporting someone stuck in the drains. Quickly he turns to me below, putting a finger to his lips.
"There's a guy," he breathes, almost mouthing the words, "walking his dog." He snaps a digital picture and passes the camera down to me. On the small screen there's the guy, facing away from the drain, unaware that eyes are studying him from below ground. Something about the situation fills us both with silent laughter.
A few hundred yards farther on, still in comfortable 10-foot pipe, we come to what can only be described as The Lid. The mouth of our tunnel opens into a large brick-walled room. Three more large openings beckon, but the room is dominated by a massive concrete disc, 10 feet in diameter and 6 inches thick, lying on the floor like a gargantuan quarter. Its edges are lined with black tar that corresponds to a ring around the tunnel mouth we had just left.
For some reason, the city of Dallas had seen fit to cap off this enormous trunk line of the storm sewer with a giant concrete lid—and then open it up again.
Why? We couldn't have been more perplexed if the room were wallpapered with $100 bills.
Later I ask Roy Bruce if any large storm drains had removable lids or would be temporarily closed for any reason anywhere in Dallas' estimated 2,500 miles of storm drains.
"Naw," he says. "There's nothing like that down there."
We push upstream, and after a half-hour the pipe is still a roomy 8 feet wide. We pass a side pipe delivering a trickle of water. The floor beyond is completely dry.
"That's a good sign that it's probably blocked off up ahead," Alex says. Sure enough, a dozen yards farther we encounter a claustrophobe's nightmare: The tunnel is permanently sealed by a wall of bricks set in concrete. We have access to a side tube that seems to bypass the barrier, but it is dauntingly narrow, so we decide to turn back.
The weather is always two days behind in the storm sewers. At least that's what Alex tells me, and I can't deny that the temperature underground more closely matches the sunny spring weather of two days ago than the cloudy, chilly atmosphere that now prevails topside. This is one of two laws Alex has formulated in his years of exploring the tunnels.
The other is that the farther upstream you go, the smaller the pipes get—which is why I'm scratching my head again back in the Lid Room. We're facing downstream, yet one of the tunnels in front of us is smaller than the upstream one we've just come out of.
"Isaac Asimov has three laws of robotics, but I've only come up with two laws of draining—and we've already broken one of them," Alex says.
We take the smaller tunnel, which quickly turns into a rectangular concrete hallway about 8 feet high and 4 feet wide. After a stretch of this, we come to a brick-walled room whose concrete roof is partially collapsed, exposing jagged, brittle shards of rusted rebar.
Downstream the tunnel profile narrows again and takes on the familiar shape of a bell. Five minutes of waddling, stooped progress confirms our suspicion that we are back where we started, in our first tunnel. As we head to the exit we marvel at the apparently haphazard layout, and, of course, The Lid.
One of Alex's laws did survive the trip, though—the air when we finally reach the tunnel mouth and daylight is still two days colder than the air inside.
Urban exploration is an awkward fit in any category: It is a sport, a hobby and a discipline all at once. The skills it demands come from all fields. UE is sometimes called "urban speleology" in recognition of its kinship to caving. Rock climbers also share some of its equipment and techniques; so do burglars. "Buildering," climbing tall buildings, is another close cousin, as is BASE jumping. BASE is an acronym for "Building, Antenna, Span, Earth," and gaining illicit access to such features is part of that sport's underground allure.
At the core of UE, however, are more traditional pursuits. Abandoned buildings are, in a sense, historical documents, and many explorers exhaustively research their sites on the Internet, in libraries and in public archives. Urban exploration also provides almost unlimited opportunity for compelling photography, and some UE Web sites are packed with stunning images. Ruined buildings provide rich contrasts of texture and depth, as well as an air of haunting melancholy.
Photo equipment also serves as a useful "credibility prop," anything designed to allay the authorities' suspicions. "I can't tell you how many people have used the 'photography course' excuse," Vale says. Some explorers use disguises to "social-engineer" their way into challenging sites: suits for office buildings, coveralls for factories. Ninja attire might help explorers avoid getting caught, but it's awfully hard to explain if they are.
"Don't wear all black or anything like that," Vale told me before the factory mission—but then he added, "Don't wear white either."
In other words, an urban exploration mission might require you to read up at the library, don a disguise, foil a motion sensor, climb down an elevator shaft, take a light reading for a photo and concoct a convincing story for a security guard. For a certain kind of person, it can be the perfect adventure. Such exploits, however, aren't exactly commonplace. More often, expeditions consist of explorers quietly wandering a site—if they get in at all.
"We're probably about 80 percent unsuccessful," Dirtbag says. "But even when you fail, it's just driving around with your buddies."
Dirtbag, a 28-year-old Dallas resident, is tall, rangy and clean-cut. He habitually wears a placid expression and speaks economically, leaving Vale to dominate the conversation. Vale, 24, sports a dark beard and shaggy hair, and his habit of thinking aloud reveals the mind of a philosopher. The two met in college in Corpus Christi, and though Vale now lives in Amarillo, he often comes to Dallas to explore, lured by the continuous cycle of construction and abandonment.
"Dallas is a really metabolic city," Vale explains. "It's constantly digesting itself."
Dirtbag agrees, calling Dallas "the smorgasbord of UE," but in their quest for new sites the two have explored much of Texas. They document their peregrinations on their Web site, www.texploration.org. Vale has gone even farther afield, including Toronto last year for an urban exploration convention. More than 60 explorers met to compare notes on favorite sites and techniques. Characteristically, the convention had its own fake name: OPEX, short for Office Products Expo 2004.
In a sense, even the name "urban exploration" is misleading, because many factories, airports and abandoned military bases are found in rural areas. Nevertheless, for sheer variety, the supreme American UE playground is New York City.
In 1993 a journalist named Jennifer Toth wrote The Mole People, a book that revealed the society that thousands of homeless tunnel dwellers had constructed beneath Manhattan. Though critics said Toth's account was exaggerated, some of its substance was confirmed, and interest in New York's tunnels soared. New York exploration gurus the Jinx Society added to the genre with Invisible Frontier, and last year the grande dame of subterranean New York, Julia Solis, came out with her much-anticipated New York Underground.
Interest in UE may be stronger outside the United States. Many consider the legendary Paris catacombs as the discipline's birthplace, while some of the earliest known UE groups were formed in Australia. In terms of Web presence, the Canadian UE scene dominates its southern neighbor. Canada boasts both UE's definitive forum, Urban Exploration Resource (www.uer.ca), and its best known e-zine, Infiltration.org.
Since its founding in 2002, UER has mushroomed into a community with more than 6,000 registered users. Yet it is impossible to tell whether the growth of urban exploration's Internet presence is fueled by increasing interest in the hobby or by existing explorers simply finding each other on the Web. In the forum, the enthusiasm in the first-time posts from explorers who thought they were alone in their odd obsession is almost touching. Vale describes his feelings when he discovered the online community two years ago: "It was like, 'You mean I'm not the only weirdo out there?'"
Explorers take their inspiration from movies as well. Many cite Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels as early influences. Others include Fight Club and the Matrix series. Vale and Dirtbag's favorite is Goonies. (One post on an Internet UE forum reads: "Pirate ship—best find ever!!")
Though most explorers are film fans, the same doesn't hold true for coverage of urban exploration in other media.
"Ninety percent of the articles suck," Vale says flatly. "They try to turn it into an MTV extreme sport."
Now worse may be on the horizon. The community at UER is up in arms over a series set to air in coming months on the Discovery Channel. Produced by Washington, D.C.-based Hoggard Films, the show is titled Urban Explorers. The UE faithful are worried that the visibility of a series will raise alarm bells among property owners, especially with the risky nature of exploring played up for entertainment value. A fear of lawsuits could prompt tighter security at sites that even post-September 11 paranoia didn't reach.
Hoggard raised hackles right off the bat. In the casting call issued in late 2003, the company said it was looking for "an adventurous, dynamic, structural engineer" and "a hip, buff female rock climber/extreme athlete," among others. "All should be telegenic, fit, engaging, with unique and memorable personalities," the text says. "We're looking for people with the desire and charisma to become national TV celebrities."
In other words: the antithesis of explorers' traditional self-identity. Online reactions have ranged from resignation—"It won't help the UE scene, but there's not much that can be done now but watch it and see how they handle themselves"—to outrage—"I hope all the TV network guys that thought this up die slowly and go to hell."
Just minutes into a UE mission with Armed Geoduck and his brother, a gangly teenager who goes by the name Big Tex, I learn another lesson: Going last can be just as hazardous as going first. We are walking toward the gate of an abandoned chemical plant just south of downtown when a voice rings out behind us.
"Hey, where are you guys going?"
I had been hanging back behind the other two, so when we about-face, I am suddenly the closest to the security guard.
"Uh, nowhere. Just looking around." I manage to keep my voice nonchalant. Inspiration strikes, and I add, "We're trying to cut through."
"Well, you can't go in there," the guard says. He is standing next to the open door of a black sedan. We'd spotted a guard at the other end of the site and hadn't expected another one. "That's private property," he says.
"Really?" I say, feigning utter astonishment at the information. "It looks like a public street."
"No, the public street's that way," the guard says, pointing. His tone is genial now, amused at my confusion.
We thank him and amble off in the indicated direction. After we're out of earshot, Geoduck speaks up.
"You handled that pretty well," he says. "Most first-timers are just like, 'Uhhh...'"
The praise doesn't go to my head, but the rush of talking my way out of a jam does. Bullshitting a rent-a-cop is junior high stuff, but it's just as much fun as an adult—maybe more so.
We circle back around the factory via some train tracks, walking for a quarter-hour before we see a gate opened in invitation. To get to it, we cross a gravel driveway. I feel faintly ridiculous as I cover the distance in a crouching run. We take shelter in the shadow of a working warehouse, only a swath of concrete pavement between us and our target.
But the road, a channel between two lengthy buildings, is naked under the orange glare of floodlights. Anyone on it would be clearly visible, with no place to hide. Geoduck decides to look for another avenue of approach, and we cut through a strip of woods to the street on the far side of the objective. We head up the sidewalk looking as normal as three guys casing a warehouse at midnight can.
We see another open gate, but this time the driveway it serves will take us right where we need to go. A cop car rolls by. I no longer feel even remotely foolish: All my mental energy is focused on getting into the building unseen. Geoduck, with his flair for the dramatic, gives us a countdown as another passing car disappears around the bend.
"Three, two, one, go!"
We sprint across the parking lot and through the gate. In this case, the haste is necessary: Until we get far enough into the factory, we're in plain view of the road. I keep an anxious eye out for cars as we pound along the driveway. None appear, and we reach the darkness of a tanker filling dock and kneel down, our chests heaving.
From there we go up—the filling dock is connected by overhead pipes and a catwalk to the main building. A wooden ladder in lamentable shape gives access to the catwalk, whose planks are in even worse condition, warped and buckled. The metal pipe handrail is useless, its anchors virtually falling out of the rotting wood, but Geoduck and Big Tex make it across to the roof. I follow cautiously, but about two-thirds of the way across I step on one end of a loose plank running lengthwise. The other end lifts in the air and comes down with the rattling smack of board against board.
I cover the rest of the distance in a few steps, and we wait on the roof for any reaction, my imagination conjuring a barking Doberman, a wailing Klaxon and the metallic chatter of a machine pistol.
The first ventilation hut we reach is paneled in, so we head to the second, which is open. We turn on our lights for the first time and shine them down into the darkness. They penetrate unbroken to an empty concrete floor 20 feet below.
Big Tex climbs into the opening, searching the darkness with his feet. As he hangs on a rusty roof beam, his legs dangle without finding any purchase. After watching his brother flail in midair for a few minutes, Geoduck goes to check the other ventilation hut and quickly waves us over. Below this opening, intersecting pipes and valves form a lattice that reaches nearly to the bottom. Still, the darkness between their rusty lengths seems to eat the flashlight beam, giving the impression that we are descending into the maw of an industrial monster.
"Every time I go exploring my balls get bigger," Geoduck had said earlier. "I must have planet-sized balls by now."
Now, however, we have run up against his one weakness: a fear of heights. To compensate, Geoduck often tries to play a mental trick, thinking of any vertical space as the distance between him and his fear. It doesn't seem to be working. He remains frozen for an eternity halfway through the descent.
Finally, gingerly, he reaches the factory floor. Our flashlights reveal machines that look like preposterously huge car engines connected with a steel spaghetti of tubes. Chemical stalactites have formed at the joints of some of the pipes, making it appear as though they are melting. We tread carefully, mindful that guards might be passing outside.
The office upstairs is a mess, not necessarily ransacked but filled haphazardly with equipment nobody could be bothered to take along. Geoduck illuminates a chemical hazard warning sign on the floor.
"Oh, man, that is awesome! Can I take it?" Big Tex asks.
"No," his brother responds.
"Come on! Let me take it!"
"Can I at least look at it?"
Big Tex, it seems, still has some UE indoctrination to absorb, but in his older brother he has an instructor for life.
"When I'm 60 years old," Geoduck says, "I'll still be crutching in there."