“It’s the concept of a victimless crime, who’s really being hurt here,” Dan-oh says. “Are you just trying to protect me from myself, or you don’t want me to see what’s going on, or are you protecting yourself from a lawsuit?”
Robert R. adds, “I hate to say it, but it’s definitely less fun if you’re not trespassing. But that’s kind of my dividing line too. If I am not trespassing, I feel it’s not really urban exploring.”
Neither Dan-oh nor Robert R. has ever been hurt urban exploring, despite a slew of dangers: unstable structures, unknown terrain, and in the case of draining, an increase in water flow that could, if the levels got high enough, cause drowning. Dan-oh has slipped and fallen a few times, while Robert R. says his friend, Josh B., had a close call with dehydration on their trip to the Loveland Reservoir.
“I think he was hallucinating and everything,” Robert R. says. “He wanted me to climb out for help and bring a helicopter back down to pick him up. Of course, because we were trespassing, that was kind of a last-resort option.”
The duo, however, made it out of the reservoir relatively unscathed. Since then, they always bring extra water on their exploring trips.
Soon, the draining expedition slows; mineral formations are appearing against the sides of the drain, ringing the circumference with ruddy, solid deposits. Small stalactites hang like teeth, casting eerie shadows in the dim light. The formations below look not unlike spent candle wax, piled in hard puddles against the concrete.
Typically, before they enter a location, urban explorers will go on scouting exhibitions, sometimes doing intensive research before and after discovering a new site. Dan-oh both scouts in the field and scours the Internet for available information once he has discovered a drain of interest.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve climbed down an embankment full of brush and [gotten] scraped and gotten to the bottom of a canyon to find that that pipe isn’t an eight- or ten-foot pipe, but it’s three [feet],” he says. “For every drain that you find that’s good, there [are] 20 that aren’t. So it takes a lot of research.”
For online research, Dan-oh and Robert R. both use the popular mapping tool Google Maps, which gives an aerial view of almost anywhere in the world, including, in some cases, street names and specific sites. Dan-oh also uses the Thomas Brothers street guide and has, in the past, tracked down topographical maps to track streams and creeks that may provide good draining sites.
Dan-oh and Robert R. have another drain on their agenda, a much larger one hidden by a thicket of trees. It’s made of corrugated iron and, after a sludgy pool of shin-deep water, leads to a large, boxy landing, a convenient resting and picture-taking spot. Dan-oh and Robert R. estimate that the drain is 40 or so feet under ground, judging from a ladder that stretches from the floor of the drain all the way up into the blackness. Aside from the ladder, the walls are uniform, yards and yards of corrugated iron that lead to the unknown.
For Dan-oh, this is part of what makes draining so appealing: the element of mystery. Framed against the gaping mouth of the drain, he looks tiny.
“There’s [that] line from The Wizard of Oz, ‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,’ ” he says. “There’s some of that, wanting to know what you don’t want me to see or what’s around that corner that I can’t see.”
UP AT THE AIR FORCE BASE
Even though in downtown San Diego it’s 70 degrees, Cleveland National Forest is blanketed in snow. Tree branches and ice plant fronds are covered in glassy cocoons of ice. In the distance is the Salton Sea and miles and miles of dun-colored mountains amidst graying blue skies.
Somewhere within the forest, Dan C. and Nathan T. trudge up a steep incline. The thud of feet mixes with the sound of heavy breathing; they are headed for the now-abandoned Air Force base that was once active on Mount Laguna. Both Dan C. and Nathan T. are dressed for the weather in hiking boots and Gore-Tex, their breath hanging in the air. The two men have set out on this cold day to explore the base and take photographs.
Dan C., like Dan-oh, began urban exploring casually as a kid.
“It kind of grew into hanging with my friends and exploring old abandoned hospitals and whatever we could find,” he says. “Anything that looked interesting and a little bit dangerous, or not so much dangerous but different.”
He’s been exploring, he estimates, for the past 40 years, a pastime he considers a “product of the inner city.”
“If you’re an investigative type of person, your curiosity gets the best of you when you see a building with a door open and it looks like nobody owns it,” he says.
Dan C., who is 55 and maintains properties, in addition to working as a photographer, is the moderator of the Meetup.com urban explorers group, the same one that Robert R. joined. According to Dan C., there are nearly 400 members, 50–100 of whom are active.
“I just…built it up by running events, finding places to explore,” he says. “[I] invited a few people I knew to come on as co-organizers, and it’s just kind of snowballed. It’s pretty much done its own thing on Google and [with] word of mouth.”
Nathan T., who is 39 and currently between jobs, also started exploring in high school. A fan of the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, he and his friends would often reenact game battles in a local storm drain.
“Friends of mine used to talk about these storm drains down below Cal State L.A. and steam tunnels, and for some reason they always intrigued me,” he says. “I tried for a couple of years without success to find them, and [then] I finally did, and I went down there and it was pretty cool. My friends and I would go down there and actually make torches. We used to take them and have little mock Dungeons and Dragons battles. I guess it was pretty geeky, but it was a lot of fun.”