Urban Underground

The wild places are now gone. The planet has been mapped. The highest peaks were conquered. Even space has tourists. So adventurous urban explorers are tackling the next frontier.

The roadside gate doesn’t say “No Trespassing,” but the barbed wire surrounding the rest of the property suggests otherwise. One by one, six trespassers climb the gate and hop over to the forbidden side. It’s 10 p.m. on a Monday night and quite dark, but no one clicks on their flashlights for fear of being detected. Their dilated eyes adjust quickly, thanks to the moonlit sky. As they descend deeper into the valley, the wind grows stronger, blowing dust and dirt from the arid trail into their faces.

About a half mile past the entrance, everyone stops and looks back toward the distant road. A flashing yellow light shines back from the roadside area where they conspicuously parked their van.

“Is it a cop?” someone asks.

“I don’t think so,” another person says, shrugging.

After a brief bout of group paranoia that freezes the intruders in their tracks, everyone returns to the mission at hand. Unfortunately, in the darkness they can’t find where they’re going. The ringleader, a slender twenty-year-old part-time bank teller from Pleasanton who wears a tie with a Freemason symbol around his bare neck, is the only one who’s been here before. “I think we passed it,” says this de facto tour guide, who goes by the alias 33rd Degree Freemason. His group, which he calls the Freemasons, backtracks about three hundred yards, and the escort climbs a hillside, looking for the entrance to the mine. After a few windswept minutes, he finally yells down, “It’s up here.” The others scale the hillside up to a ridgetop trail and follow their tour guide’s voice. People click on their flashlights and begin their descent into the mine.

They have come to explore an abandoned mine in the back-country of Livermore, home to a coal-mining town from the Gold Rush era until the early 1900s. What the intruders are doing is probably illegal. It’s definitely unauthorized. The possibility of getting busted is part of the thrill of doing it.

In the past, this loose-knit posse has ventured into storm drains in Hayward; steam tunnels at UC Berkeley; and sewer systems underneath San Francisco, for which one group member claims he obtained a map of by posing as a public-works hard hat. Tonight’s cast includes a contortionist, a recent high-school grad, and a champion video-game player planning to attend UCLA in the fall. Most of them grew up and live in the East Bay burbs. For some, exploring forbidden spots is a cheap way to cure boredom.

The whistling wind outside is immediately replaced by an eerie, all-encompassing silence inside the mine. It soon becomes obvious that the Freemasons are not the first locals to explore the place. Previous visitors have left behind a torn Fritos bag and empty cans of Coke and Coors.

There’s plenty of headroom in the so-called haulage area at the beginning, where miners would haul coal or clay outside. But even so, this is no place for claustrophobics. The walkway is only about eight feet wide and eight feet high, and breathing is made challenging by floating particles of quartz and silica dust. At least tonight there are no bats, which 33rd Degree saw last time he was here.

“This is like Indiana Jones,” blurts a twenty-year-old musician who goes by the handle Puke-fart.

With an echo-enhanced roar, someone else shouts, “Avalanche!”

But nobody laughs. After all, they are entrusting their lives to the decaying wooden support beams that keep the tunnel from collapsing in on itself. A historian familiar with the mine describes it later as “extremely dangerous” for anyone to enter. An earthquake, a nearby explosion, or even knocking on the walls too hard could cause the tunnel to crumble.

About five hundred yards inside the mine, the group stops to inspect a vertical mineshaft tucked away to the side. “This is the one,” 33rd Degree declares, peering upward through the vertical and horizontal wooden crossbeams. He begins the vertiginous climb up a five-foot-wide shaft, using the rotting crossbeams as ladder steps.

The footing is tenuous, and occasionally he sends an inadvertent shower of dust and sand to the bottom of the shaft while his boot gains traction. Falling would not be fun; from the top it’s about a fifty-foot drop. But a few minutes later, he’s at the top. He’s followed by Penelope, who looks hardly prepared to make the ascent in her denim skirt and sandals. Still, she makes it up without incident. Next up is Puke-fart. He’s leery, mumbling that he wants to go back the way he came in. But after some ribbing of the “don’t-be-a-pussy” variety, he screws his courage and climbs. Everyone makes it up safely.

The passage opens up into a cavernous, sloping chalk-colored area known as the “working slope,” where miners would dig clay and dump it down the shaft the explorers just climbed. The ground is covered with a blanket of what looks and feels like talcum powder. It’s hot and stuffy. Water would be nice right about now, but none of the explorers remembered to bring any. 33rd Degree, who earlier went to scout ahead, calls back that he’s found the exit. By now, everyone is sweaty, dirty, and ready to go.

Ducking under an entryway where some graffiti genius has sprayed “No escape,” the explorers head toward the escape. They take small, cautious steps on a narrow slope that drops off into a black abyss. About thirty minutes into the journey, they reach the escape passage, which is not the same comparatively roomy space through which they entered.

Exiting poses yet another challenge: Crawling on your belly for about fifteen feet through a narrow, three-foot-wide crevice reminiscent of the portal in the movie Being John Malkovich.

“Just go toward the air,” the 21-year-old contortionist advises the people behind him. It’s good advice. A cool jet of air soothes the group’s claustrophobic nerves, promising a safe return to the surface world. Emerging from the mine, someone shines their flashlight on the ground below.

“Turn off the light!” several voices shout.

Although they all could have been killed just minutes before, the young explorers are more worried about getting busted than leaving behind a dusty corpse.

The Freemasons are part of a growing global contingent of daredevil hobbyists most commonly referred to as urban explorers. Their guiding philosophy: Go where you’re not supposed to go.

Going where you’re not supposed to go means “infiltrating” all kinds of places: Bridges, sewers, storm drains, construction sites, abandoned factories — even missile silos. Some New York explorers have been known to throw underground parties in subway tunnels. The Paris catacombs are practically Mecca for these urban explorers.

The Internet has fomented interest in urban exploration and connected like-minded adventurers who exchange information — even maps — about cool, forbidden places to check out. In 1995 there were only a handful of Web sites dedicated to urban exploration and no mailing lists. Now there are hundreds of sites, Web rings, and discussion groups. Urban exploration zines include New York’s Jinx magazine, and Infiltration, published by the mysterious Ninjalicious in Toronto. Given the obvious dangers of burrowing underground into unstable mines or asbestos-ridden tunnels, practically every one of these sites contains some type of safety disclaimer.

But not all explorers take precautions. 33rd Degree Freemason says his group’s excursions typically involve minimal planning. “We don’t get really prepared; we just get up and go.” Others are more deliberate. “I don’t take stupid risks. I plan ahead, I seek out a lot of information beforehand, and I wear shoes with a good grip,” writes Panic!, a notorious thirtysomething explorer from Australia who carries an extensive first-aid kit in his car. But as far as 33rd Degree is concerned, many explorers try to make what they do sound more dangerous than it really is because it adds to their mystique.

Perhaps fittingly for a community so rooted in the Internet, urban explorers share a philosophical affinity with computer hackers. Panic!, a self-described computer geek, likens urban exploration to “hacking” the physical world. “Urban exploration is sneaking into places where you are not supposed to go, and seeing what’s behind the ‘Keep Out’ sign,” he says. “But it is not destructive or invasive. The true spirit of the hack — when the word was first originated — was to see what you could see without people knowing. Leave no evidence, touch nothing. Many urban explorers have a similar credo: ‘Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs.’ “

On a more rudimentary level, the primary reason explorers say they do it because it’s just a lot of damn fun. “It’s just a way to get a sense of adventure,” says Di_Ash, one of the six explorers who braved the Livermore clay mine. “There’s not many ways to do that these days. It’s kind of like exploring. You use your imagination to think what you possibly might find.”

Economics also play a role. After all, there’s no admission price to get into storm drains, and often no equipment is necessary outside of a decent flashlight. Wes Modes, a Santa Cruz artist who started one of the earliest urban adventure sites (www.thespoon.com) describes urban exploration as play of the proletariat. “You don’t have to slap down two hundred dollars on a sailboard to do it,” he says.

Some explorers, such as Mark Lakata, a 31-year-old UC Berkeley alumnus now living in Mountain View, like to enhance their inexpensive experience by doing historical research on places they explore. Lakata prefers to describe what he does as “urban archaeology” instead of the more popular “urban exploration.” His Web site offers background information on modern ruins in the East Bay, such as the Nike Missile site in Tilden Park, and America’s last whaling dock near Pt. San Pablo. “When I was a kid, I probably would have classified myself as an urban explorer, since me and my friends would go exploring tunnels and abandoned military bases just because it was illicit and foreboding,” he says. “As an adult, I’m more interested in the nostalgia factor — pretending to travel back in time and see things the way they were.” Even so, he concedes, “The illicit and foreboding part is still cool too.”

Of course, exploration isn’t always foreboding. Sometimes it’s almost surreal. Former East Bay resident Tobin Fricke, who now lives in Sweden, recalled one particularly goofy local expedition in an e-mail interview: “Once I went on an urban spelunking trip with CHAOS (the Cal Hiking and Outdoor Society) during which we walked to some public park near Rockridge BART. Our fearless leader walked to a specific area of the park and then began scraping away the dirt in a particular spot, revealing a manhole cover. We donned gaiters fabricated of trash bags and duct tape and descended into the murk. After a trek through these interesting environs, we eventually emerged at some lake, to the bemusement of those recreating there.” In all likelihood, the lake was Lake Temescal, about a mile and a half to the east of the BART station.

Although there’s no formal research on the demographics of subterranean scofflaws, anecdotally the typical explorer tends to be a college-educated member of the middle class under the age of thirty. “Urban explorers are normal people,” writes Panic! “They just happen to have a different and interesting hobby. They are students, IT professionals, parents, public servants, university graduates. Sure, some do it to escape from society, and others do it, and some feel like they don’t fit in. But we are not revolutionaries, rebels, or crazy. It’s just a hobby. … For me personally, it is the thrill, the buzz, the adrenaline rush. I know what I am doing is risky, but it is also fun, an adventure.”

Due to its secretive nature, it’s also an adventurous hobby without much written history. Still, there’s widespread agreement that the seeds of urban exploration were sown 25 years ago right here in the Bay Area.

In 1977, a group of four eccentric pals met at Fort Point near Golden Gate Bridge for what they cheekily called “storm watch.” Each of them would take turns grabbing onto a dangling chain and waiting to be baptized by a thirty-foot waves. If you held onto the chain, you lived; if you let go, you’d be washed out to sea.

From those early Golden Gate gatherings sprang the San Francisco Suicide Club. “They decided they wanted to start a group where people would challenge their fears, have fun, learn new stuff, and push their limits,” recalls Oakland signmaker John Law, an early member of the club. They called it urban adventuring. “We just looked at the urban environment as a playground to explore,” says Law, who is cowriting a book about the club.

The Suicide Club engineered a variety of stunts, which included infiltrating a Calistoga weekend retreat of the Unification Church and an Alameda barbecue held by the American Nazi Party. It also held potluck dinners on the Golden Gate Bridge, scaled buildings and bridges, and gave black-tie tours of Oakland’s sewers. The Suicide Club only lasted five years, but its influence stretches much farther — as evidenced by the antics of current culture-jammers such as the latter-day urban explorers; the Billboard Liberation Front; and the Cacophony Society, which played a role in launching the Burning Man festival. Like today’s urban explorers, Suicide Club members advocated not damaging or vandalizing any of the environments they infiltrated.

Nearly a decade after the demise of the Suicide Club, Berkeley’s Ten Speed Press published a little-noticed 150-page book by author Alan North. The illustrated how-to manual, The Urban Adventure Handbook, gave tips on sewer-crawling, riding on the center line in rush-hour city traffic, and scaling buildings or “buildering” (as opposed to “bouldering” in rock-climber jargon). The author says he never heard of the Suicide Club, and coined the term “urban adventure” on his own. North recalls coming to urban adventures as a substitute for rock-climbing and other outdoor mountain sports. “I used to be a climbing bum, a skiing bum, sort of an outdoor adventure junkie,” says the Berkeley resident, who occasionally still indulges in a little urban adventuring. “When I first came to San Francisco, I had virtually no money, I couldn’t get to the mountains; I didn’t even have a car. I was bummed out about being stuck in the city. Then I just started noticing when I would ride my bike to the movies in traffic, I was kind of getting a mountain buzz just by riding in traffic. … Somehow, I thought, there’s an urban equivalent to mountain sports, and I felt the need to write about it.”

North, who boasts of having rock-climbed the vertical face of Half Dome, is pictured in the book climbing buildings all over San Francisco, from the Financial District to the Mission. The risks of this kind of climbing are often quite different from those found on the sheer granite walls of Yosemite. North says his urban climbing adventures have been interrupted by police officers on more than one occasion. “It’s usually like, ‘What are you doing up there? I’m gonna arrest you, stop doing that.’ For me what I do is, ‘Oh yes, sir,’ acquiesce and let them do their authority trip. And, you know, I walk away.”

Although the Bay Area boasted a strong role in the early days of organized urban exploration, the scene here now is small and disorganized compared to places such as Chicago, Buffalo, Toronto, Paris, and Melbourne. Santa Cruz-based explorer Modes believes the reason is because California isn’t as well-suited to urban exploration as older Rust Belt states. For one thing, development here is usually newer than back East, and land is too valuable to let most abandoned factories go vacant too long without being redeveloped. “The West Coast — it’s young,” Modes says. “On the East Coast, they’ve been doing the industrial revolution since it was the industrial revolution.”

Still, one local tradition that dates back decades had managed to remain vibrant in recent years: spelunking through the labyrinthine underground steam tunnels at UC Berkeley. Until recently, that is.

It’s a weeknight, and the sun went down about ninety minutes ago. Students are still walking and biking through the central campus area. Munching on a slice of Blondie’s pizza, 33rd Degree Freemason doesn’t look too optimistic about finding an unsecured grate leading to Cal’s dark and cramped underground steam tunnels. He also doesn’t look too disappointed. After all, the six-foot-by-eight-foot tunnels are intensely hot; temperatures sometimes reach 130 degrees, and water condensation covers the floors and walls. Then, of course, there’s the asbestos to consider.

Portions of this ten-mile underground system were built at the turn of the twentieth century, and contain the often-scalding pipes that supply steam heating to buildings across the Cal campus. Universities across the United States boast similar tunnel systems, and in recent years they’ve become a major attraction for urban explorers. Not too long ago, there was an Internet discussion group devoted just to tunneling — alt.college.tunnels — but explorers abandoned the group after it was bombarded by commercial spam.

At some colleges, such as the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, tunneling is practically a rite of passage for undergrads, who have filled the tunnels with poems and drawings. The tunneling tradition is not so strong at Cal, but the mysterious and foreboding steam tunnels here have been part of the university lore for decades.

“Students have been getting in there periodically over the years,” acknowledges UC Police captain Bill Cooper. “We have not really had problems with students damaging anything, but it’s a certainly a risk to them and there’s the potential that something could get accidentally damaged or, you know, that somebody could use them for some criminal purpose. We take reports of people in there seriously, and have in the past stopped people and made arrests.”

Captain Cooper says that after September 11, the university beefed up security even more to keep not just explorers but terrorists out of the steam tunnels. “I can’t really go into all the details … because we don’t want to publicize specific security measures we’re taking,” he says.

Three years ago, local explorer Tobin Fricke launched a Web site called “UnderCal” that was dedicated to Cal’s tunnels (http://splorg.org/undercal/). The site contains a rudimentary map of entry points and destinations, as well as a detailed description of his clan’s trip through the tunnels: “The first thing we did, after looking around with flashlights, was to take off our jackets,” Fricke wrote. “It was time to explore. We began heading east, up campus, away from the power plant. To our left ran three large insulated steam pipes. To our right, a periodic line of industrial-looking fluorescent lamps created an X-Files-esque landscape, leading one to almost expect to see the dull green fluorescent lamps come on all at once, illuminating the way for a stream of big-eyed gray aliens to run past, through the eight-foot by four-foot tunnel to a clandestine facility deep in the salt mines. We walked along. The tunnel was clean and our progress uninhibited. We stopped under a grating adjacent to Dwinelle Hall to enjoy the fresh, cool air filtering down. All at once there was this tremendous racket, a thunderous rumbling noise. ‘The light!’ exclaimed Brandon. The beam revealed nothing unusual in either direction. Our hearts pounding, we saw a car drive overhead over the grating.”

It’s been a long time, maybe even years, since 33rd Degree Freemason toured these steam tunnels himself. About a year ago, he and his crew came to the campus hoping to cruise through the most popular stretch of tunnel that goes underneath the Valley Life Sciences Building to the west and Wheeler Hall to the east. Unfortunately, when they got there they found the primary entry point north of Sproul Plaza locked.

But tonight he’s trying again. Two of his companions, Doug and Di_Ash, try and pry open a grate next to a building on campus, but with no luck. So they check out another iron grate nearby. This one is not locked down, but it must weigh at least fifty pounds. The two manage to open it up enough to descend into what looks like a small boiler room that leads nowhere. They try a handful of others around the campus, including one adjacent to the Campanile, but all the grates are either locked or don’t lead anywhere. The evening turns out to be a photo op, not an adventure.

Unauthorized tunnel access is practically impossible now, grouse explorers. The campus newspaper is largely to blame. A year ago, Daily Californian columnist Dev Chatterji wrote two columns about his tunneling experience. Chatterji also used his tunneling columns to advance a preposterous conspiracy theory about a secret underground society of university administrators — including the likes of Chancellor Robert Berdahl — controlling Cal policy. “The secret society upon which we had stumbled was known by an elaborate name — the Order of the Golden Bear,” Chatterji wrote. “The Order was formed in 1901 and has met twice a month ever since. As they meet behind closed doors, these figures of influence prevent any outside opinion from breaching their wall of exclusion.”

Nonsense though it was, shortly after the column ran, university hard hats went around campus and secured grates previously used by explorers. The university is now in the process of installing special locks that will keep trespassers out, but allow tunnel workers to escape in an emergency.

The fallout from Chatterji’s Daily Cal column neatly illustrates why most urban explorers eschew media attention. One glory-seeking tattletale can ruin a good thing for everyone else by giving authorities a heads-up they otherwise wouldn’t have. But there’s also a sort of reverse snobbery that characterizes some explorers’ disdain for the press. The thinking goes that news stories will attract the attention of “tourists” with no respect for the explorer code. “Having such a great passion for our hobby, many fellow urban adventurers prefer to keep quiet about themselves and the places they explore,” Panic! writes. “It allows for continued exploration of our favorite sites.”

For instance, after a story in the March 2000 issue of Details magazine featured the leaders of Jinx, an irritated practitioner wrote them, “You guys just had to go for the glory, didn’t you? … It would have stayed a nice, nifty operation we all had, just quietly going on about our business, harmlessly dropping into places, and taking a quiet look around, but now every IDIOT and his cubicle partner is going to try.”

Still, some longtime practitioners such as Panic! don’t mind talking to the press. “I like promoting urban exploration in a safe and responsible way,” he reasons. Later this year, in fact, he will embark on a worldwide urban exploration tour armed with a video camera and an itinerary of cool places to check out. Of course, he plans to hit the Paris catacombs. His other planned destinations include an abandoned subway system in the Midwest, underground steam tunnels at various college campuses, an old missile silo, and just maybe a pit stop here in the Bay Area. “Maybe the Discovery Channel will discover me one day,” he jokes.

The day the Discovery Channel and the rest of mainstream society discovers urban exploration may not be too far off. 33rd Degree Freemason and his crew were featured last year on Fox News 11 in Los Angeles. Thanks to the Internet, urban exploration has become a worldwide phenomenon in less than a decade. In turn, recent media attention has created an even broader and more mainstream audience than ever before.

But just because the secret is out, that doesn’t mean yuppies in designer galoshes with waterproof flashlights will start storming turd-filled sewers. As the editors of Jinx note on their Web site, “The natural habitats of Urban Explorers are not conducive to tourism. They are always illegal, usually dangerous, and often dark, cold, filthy places.”

Panic! calls urban exploration an “evolving sport,” albeit in the X-treme milieu like bungee jumping. To an extent, the rising popularity of urban exploration coincides with the rising popularity of other extreme recreational pursuits by bored members of the middle class looking to add a little danger to their overregulated, safety-seal-protected existence. But there’s a key distinction that separates explorers from X-tremists: the law.

As the X Games show, even X-treme sports operate in officially sanctioned venues, earning corporate sponsorships even as they promote socially acceptable risk-taking. In contrast, urban exploration could never survive the albatross of such societal legitimacy. The explorers’ rallying cry is, after all, “Go where you’re not supposed to go.” That means trespassing. That means breaking the law.

“The illegality of it … does make it harder for the majority of people who walk the straight and narrow to experience that kind of adventure,” acknowledges Modes. “And maybe that’s just as well.”

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