San Diego's Urban Explorers

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.

“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.”

At the top of the hill, the base is made up of a series of buildings, the first a sprawling beige structure with two levels and an intricate pulley system, one that looks as though it could easily lift a small car. Its entrance is a gaping hole, likely a loading dock, the inside covered in debris. To the left is the belly of the pulley, a complicated contraption of gears and belts that looks not unlike a movie projector, to the right a staircase and a small room. Graffiti covers the walls, most of it illegible; it’s upstairs as well. In loopy, forest-green script one reads: “Aren’t you afraid? Sweetheart, you should be. Do you know what’s downstairs. Please stay. Do I watch…”

For Dan C., this is the ideal place for exploring; he quickly climbs to the roof of the building, peering down through the trapdoor.

“The more rooms the better, the taller the structure the better, and the older the structure the better.” He pauses. “I just like the mystery behind doors. Seeing what’s in there, especially if someone hasn’t been there in a while.”

The wind whips through the glassless windows, creating a low, haunting howl. A white SUV passes by and either does not see Dan C. and Nathan T. or ignores them; either way, the men continue about their business, undeterred.

There’s an element of fearlessness to urban exploring, says Dan C. Even so, he likes to “practice the buddy system” and go in groups.

“Typically, I’ll go with at least one person,” he says. “It’s good to, especially if you’re exploring abandoned buildings and things, to have somebody there just in case of emergency. You know, [if] you step on a nail or you just happen to fracture your leg or something like that, it’s always good to have somebody nearby, especially if you’re out of cell phone range.”

Nathan, while he often does his initial exploring alone, will usually make a group trip after he’s scoped out an area.

“I find places when I’m out driving around, so it’s just me and the dogs,” he says. “Once I find something I’ll share it with my friends, and more often than not, since most of my friends really aren’t into exploring, I’ll set something up with the urban explorers group.”

The path to the next building is snowy and treacherous, discarded metal and crumbled concrete hidden underfoot. It is almost completely demolished; sun pours down through massive gaps where the ceiling has been stripped right down to the frame. A sign, painted poorly on the outside wall,

warns DO NOT ENTER: ASBESTOS in both English and Spanish.

In case he gets caught exploring where he technically shouldn’t be, Dan C. always has a cover story.

“[I say] I’m there to document a particular place for a possible article or photo story, and of course if they don’t want me there I’d be happy to leave,” he says. “I’ve been asked to leave when I’ve been photographing some sites, but it’s usually done in a pleasant way, and I explain that I’m just there to document with the camera and not to steal anything or do any damage or put any graffiti up, which is basically what they’re trying to keep out.”

His experiences with authorities have largely been pleasant ones.

“If you’re nice to them, sometimes they’re nice to you,” he says simply.

As for Nathan, he says he’s largely been ignored when he’s come into contact with others while exploring.

“Maybe that’s because I’ve been pushing middle age since I’ve been doing most of my exploring, and if I do run into somebody, they see me and just keep right on going,” he says. “They don’t seem to care.”

His first time at the base, he came across a ranger parked right next to his car.

“I made up this whole elaborate story of how I was hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail and saw this off to the side and decided to check it out…but once I got down there, he didn’t really care. He said, ‘You really shouldn’t be there,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I know,’ and that was pretty much it.”

Outside, in the wind, it’s cold enough to numb. The buildings cast large shadows of shade, patches of sun the only real warmth.

Nathan T. and Dan C. enter another building that warns of asbestos, one that is covered in electrical boxes, each door opened to reveal dangling wires and cables. The place is massive, ceilings ballroom-high, a bank of windows on the left side letting in streams of sunlight.

It is here that Nathan T. mentions he met a pair of tweakers the first time he visited the base in the warmer weather. They were, Nathan T. speculates, hunting for copper wire remnants that might be worth some money.

“They looked kind of seedy, but one of the group members gave them water and they gave us the 411 on some of the features of the area,” Nathan says. “So they turned out to be helpful.”

Dan C. has also encountered transients and drug addicts in his travels.

“They’re usually just setting up their temporary shelter[s] in the abandoned place, and usually they just get out of your way,” he says. “The ones I’ve met [were] not hostile. You don’t show them any fear, and they just kind of move aside; I haven’t been attacked or yelled at or anything. It helps to have the gift of gab. Being able to talk your way out of a situation is definitely a plus.”

The uncertainty of a given site’s structural stability is, for Nathan, the biggest danger of urban exploring.

“Ideally, you’re exploring in a run-down, decrepit structure of some sort, so you need to use a little common sense,” he says. “If you’re going to climb down something, you need to make sure that what you’re climbing can support your weight.”

He cites the first building on the base as an example.

“That was burned out, and conceivably the steel beams could have been weakened and come crashing down on us,” he says. “But it looked pretty sturdy to me, so I didn’t think there was a big concern there.”

The duo presses on, walking along the main road, which curves sharply to the right.

The last — and largest — building in the compound is entirely made of concrete, little rooms extending out from the main structure. On the ground floor is a room for basic equipment, a spot for each tool housed there marked clearly on the wall. The other, labeled “Communications,” is empty.

Upstairs is a series of hallways and overlooks, all cast in eerie darkness. The sunlight, which is beginning to wane, peeps through the windows, which are small and located high, high up on the walls.

Dan C. pauses to take a self-portrait.

“I think people like to go places that most people don’t venture,” he says. “That’s why, I guess, they went to the moon.”

He chuckles.

“[There’s] not a lot of urban exploring up there, but it’s all curiosity, man’s curiosity about things,” he says. “You never know what you’re going to see, and that’s what makes it interesting. It’s not like walking into the supermarket.”

— Rosa Jurjevics

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Comments

Whan I was a kid, you could climb the El Cortez on the fire escapes. The ball room at the top was open and still had some of it's former elegance. The view of San Diego in the late 80's from on top of the 'Cortez was amazing. I still remember sitting on the edge of the building, hanging my feet off the parapet.

The climb up there was pretty hairy - you had to walk past some occupied appartments, clanging around on the metal fire escapes.

  • Joe

It seems to me that they didn't even get close to completely exploring the AF Base up there. There is like a whole area of abandoned buildings about an eighth of a mile past these buildings. They were sleeping barracks, a gym, old fire station, etc...its really awesome and there is a bomb shelter that you can explore but its not too easy to find. View my album of the place: http://s296.photobucket.com/albums/mm165/wasteofmoney/Abandoned%20AF%20Base/

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