DOWN IN THE DRAINS:
It’s on the first sunny day after a string of rainstorms when Robert R. slides his blue SUV to the side of the road somewhere in UTC. In the passenger seat is Dan-oh, who is playing the role of navigator.
“Right here,” he says, pointing.
Just visible from under a thicket of tall grass is the opening to a storm drain.
This is their destination.
The drain is about six feet in diameter, its mouth almost completely obscured from view by a curtain of hanging ice plant. Inside, graffiti splashes across the rounded walls, incomprehensible letters followed by cartoony, grimacing faces. Messages pop out from the mass of colors under the partial illumination the outside sunlight provides: “I was here.” “Now entering twilight.”
Both Dan-oh, 45, and Robert R., 31, are “urban explorers,” adventure seekers who find abandoned, forgotten, or forbidden structures to examine, photograph, and otherwise document. Their mission for the day is to enter and explore the storm drain — a practice known as “draining.”
“[Urban exploring] is visiting or exploring places that people don’t pay attention to,” Dan-oh, who works in the construction industry, explains. “Sometimes they’re abandoned places or places people don’t want to go to or [places] people don’t think they should go to. We’re looking at the underbelly, the forgotten areas.”
While there isn’t a true “profile” of an urban explorer, according to Dan-oh, most are men, though there are some women as well. They’re usually adults, not younger folks.
“Most people are going to be too timid or too scared of getting dirty or getting wet,” says Dan-oh. “[An urban explorer] might be someone that’s slightly more adventuresome, but other than that I think it’s pretty wide open.”
While many urban explorers keep to themselves, there is some internetworking. For interested San Diegans, there is Meetup.com, a popular social-networking site. Some urban explorers opt to go in small groups of three or four; but even with that loose kind of community there are certain rules; urban exploring is not, as Dan-oh explains, without limits or stipulations. Two things, he says, are important to remember.
“Don’t deface or destroy the location and don’t take anything from it, don’t cause change or harm,” he says. “[The second rule] is be cautious about who you share information with. That’s probably more along the lines of maybe the way surfers behave, they want to keep a spot for themselves, or they don’t want too much attention to a location [in case] the property owner or authorities clamp down.”
Dan-oh has been draining since he was a kid, when he first began exploring culverts with his friends, “swearing on a stack of comic books” not to tell his parents. His true draining experiences, however, came as an adult.
“I can remember going short distances into a drain with a friend of mine and just having the pants scared off me, thinking it was the most terrorizing thing I’d ever done in my life,” he says. “And then you get out and you realize afterward — it’s a little like riding a roller coaster or going into the haunted house — ‘Hey, I survived and that was actually kind of fun.’ That might have been the very first thing that attracted me [to it].”
Robert R., who works in IT as a computer hardware manager, is newer to draining. He got into it after joining an online group for San Diego photographers on Meetup.com. The leader of the group also happened to be the manager of one for urban explorers.
“I think as a kid I always wanted to explore storm drains but never had anybody willing to explore them with me,” he says. “[There’s] something about checking out a place that not many people go, or at least haven’t documented.”
Even before discovering the Meetup group, Robert R. had done some exploring, both on his own and with close friend and fellow photographer Josh B.
“The first adventure before the Meetup group was, I believe, the Loveland Reservoir dam,” he says. “[Josh B. and I] had read an article in the newspaper about them letting water out of the dam, sending the water about 25 miles downstream to Sweetwater Reservoir. The picture in the newspaper was spectacular. We began looking for ways to get to it on Google Earth.”
Robert R. has since started his own group, San Diego Venturous Urban Explorers, which has its own website, SDVUE.com. The group formed after Robert R. and a friend took a trip up to Mt. Miguel, the top of which is off limits to the public. The group, which has a handful of members, started with the website.
“I know this sounds nerdy,” Robert R. says, “but we registered the domain name from my laptop hooked up to my cell phone, on top of Mt. Miguel.”
Back in the drain, Dan-oh and Robert R. begin their procession, the bright mouth of the opening a smaller and smaller circle behind them. The graffiti ceases, leaving blank, gray walls in its wake. The air, which is cool, has a musty undertone of wet concrete and old water and dirt. Sound reverberates through the tunnel, voices mixed with the sloshing of water and a thudding pat pat pat of footsteps.
All that is visible under the light from Robert R. and Dan-oh’s headlamps is a short stretch of tunnel, which eventually drops off into a circle of blackness. Robert R.’s GPS device, attached to his belt, gets no signal.
Technically, what Dan-oh and Robert R. are doing is illegal, though Dan-oh says that drains are considered public property.
“There are some areas that are a little gray,” Dan-oh says, “like draining and exploring places that are actually public infrastructure, and you shouldn’t be down there — at least it’s implied and sometimes it’s posted — and then there are other times where very explicitly you’re forbidden to be there.”
Even illegal urban exploring, which can involve blatantly ignoring No Trespassing signs or other such markers, has gray areas.