Editor's note: This article was first printed in Bizarre magazine. It is reprinted with the author's permission.
The physiology of Urban Exploration (the case of Stephen W.)
Mr. W., author and New York Times reporter, husband, father, and part-time resident of Ecuador, is instructed to "get into the body bag." He stands in a switch house to a New York aqueduct, beneath the forests of the North Bronx. Entering the aqueduct requires sliding through the six-inch gap under a steel door. A trickle of frigid brown water streams through the gap; the body bag is to keep Stephen W. and the other explorers dry as they pass through.
Stephen W. is not an experienced urban explorer; he is here as a guest, and he has not been briefed about the details of the operation. He had not anticipated being sealed in an airtight body bag. As he slides into the cold rubber, the arousal of his sympathetic nervous system accelerates: his heart hammers into his rib cage, the pulse throbs in his temples, his pupils dilate. As his circulatory system diverts blood flow to his skeletal muscles, his skin blanches and feels prickly. This is the so-called "fight or flight" response, and the sudden infusion of adrenaline and noradrenaline into his system triggers the manufacture of dopamine; in the midst of this massive physiological alert, the dopamine ensures a latent feeling of pleasure will follow. This dopamine-adrenaline cocktail may plausibly be implicated in the "danger-addiction" that drives urban explorers into the off-limits sectors of the modern city. Scaling bridges and skyscrapers, tunneling through drain pipes and live subway lines, picking through the rubble of abandoned buildings; these singularly hazardous occupations are undertaken voluntarily by a growing number of groups and individuals worldwide.
Immobilized, Stephen W. watches the zipper pull shut. It occurs to him only now that he is helpless; if his hosts are unable, or unwilling, to release him, he'll suffocate in four minutes. He closes his eyes and tries to slow his breathing. They're dragging him now, down into the hollow at the aqueduct floor. He feels water rushing over the bag - not much above freezing, but at least it isn't leaking through. The bag scrapes against the concrete. He's a big man, well over six feet and solidly built, so they tug him along in jerks of a few inches at a time. He tastes the depletion of the oxygen, tastes his own breath mingled with the mildewed rubber. Sweat beads across his face, burning his eyes, but he can't move to wipe it away.
The zipper tugs, then rushes down to free him, and Stephen W.'s head involuntarily lurches forward into the cool air. As his eyes focus and he sucks in his breath, he sees H., dreadlocks and hulking frame, still wrestling the zipper down to the bottom of the bag. Stephen W. smiles awkwardly, his head reeling. He's about to crack a little joke when H. catches his gaze.
"Next time you're in one of these," H. says, "There'll be no one there to let you out."
The phenomenology of Urban Exploration (the case of D.B.)
"Train!" somebody shouts, and DB ducks down, pushing his body against the sooty concrete, trying to make himself small and invisible. The others have been in this particular tunnel before; he hasn't, and he's looking to them for cues. Why the hell couldn't somebody prep him on what to do if a train came through?
The team is dressed secret-agent style; suits and sunglasses incongruous with the dark, filthy cavern. DB is in street clothes; he's a photographer, and the uniform codes don't apply to him. Still, he recoils at the feeling of his knees pressing into the damp floor beside the tracks. All eight explorers crouch there on an incline, where lower-level trains can reroute to the upper level. The present threat is bearing down from the south along an adjacent upper-level track. It's a ten-car commuter train, doing thirty and blaring its horn. DB blinks, and the train is rocketing by, its wheels a noisy blur twelve inches from his face. He feels the backdraft sucking him forward. Jesus Christ have mercy.
"I'm starting to freak out," he hisses, climbing to his feet as the train pulls past them and around a bend in the tunnel.
"Huh?" says Lefty L., the leader of the team, still staggering in the train's wake.
"I said, I'm starting to freak out," DB looks at Lefty seriously, and Lefty sees.
The onset of panic involves a syndrome of psychological experiences. Leaning now against the guard rail that separates the two train lines, DB fights a rush of unreality, a vivid feeling that his body, his hands and feet, have ceased to exist, a dread that this is actually a nightmarish hallucination.
"You gonna be okay? You want to abort the mission?" Lefty asks.
"What?" DB replies, turning again to see himself in Lefty's shades. "What? I don't know. I think I have to get out of here," He seems unfocused, unable to concentrate, but this is not quite true: he is rather too intensely focused on survival, on escape, to concentrate on anything else. The adrenaline has heightened his senses, quickened and focused his mind.
This narrowed scope, this rapt attention to the immediate threat, transforms the tunnel for DB as they make their way for the exit. Details that might otherwise have evaded him are sharply prominent: the weave of steam pipes along the damp concrete walls, the smell of axle grease and rat poison, the blazing red of the signal light. Everywhere he sees the approach of doom.
This phenomenological shift is harrowing, but essential: it makes ordinary sneaks into urban explorers. The mind is no camera, no passive receptacle for sensory input. It is an active creator of perceived reality. The empiricism of the urban explorer, sharpened by the edge of terror, is a rich, focused record of the forbidden city. Sartre wrote, "For an occurrence to become an adventure, it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it." Yes, recount the occurrence, but recount it in the vivid light of mortal fear.
The philosophy of urban exploration (the case of Ninjalicious)
Exploration serves no purpose when its results remain obscure; Leif Erickson found the Americas half a millennium before Columbus, but his discovery failed to reach influential ears, and so is a footnote. The records of urban exploration, like any exploration, are therefore published for laymen and fellow adventurers alike. The chief forums for this are self-published magazines, email list serves, and the Web. It was only the advent of this publishing tradition that transformed the desultory trespasses of scattered souls into a coherent movement. The first successful attempt at this was Infiltration.
Infiltration (http://www.infiltration.org) is called "the zine about going places you're not supposed to go," by its founder and publisher, Ninjalicious. This tag is mere modesty; it is not a "zine," though published on an office copier. It is a revolutionary pamphlet, a front-line journal, a manifesto of usufruct. The philosophy, boiled down to essence, is, "Trespass for adventure's sake." The simplicity of the idea has burned it into the culture, and now there are tens of thousands following it across the world, many publishing magazines and Web sites of their own. Of course, many individuals and groups have always searched the city's underbelly, some even publishing their stories or photos, but Infiltration told them they were urban explorers and started a worldwide dialogue.
Today, the increased flow of information has uplifted urban exploration, and the discourse that surrounds it. What was once kids breaking into warehouses and smashing windows is now serious research. Academics, scientists, artists and photographers join the swelling ranks to contribute their knowledge, their art, their literary flourish. Explorers post data banks of abandoned subway stations, ruined architecture, graffiti masterpieces. Forgotten and abandoned corners of the world's cities suddenly are rediscovered, their treasures made available to the public, and, one hopes, to experts who might recognize some precious datum overlooked by its finder. With Infiltration magazine, then, the urban explorer truly parted company with the mundane trespasser. Ninjalicious became an explorer when he faithfully published his observations and enriched posterity by them. The trespasser, by contrast, always consigned his story to silence; he,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe.
The protocols of urban exploration
No summary of method can replace years of experience. This acknowledged, a few techniques must here suffice:
1. Do not attempt urban exploration. It is unacceptably dangerous. Activities under this heading pose the risk of serious bodily harm, including, but not limited to: loss of limbs and/or the use of limbs and/or extremities; first-, second-, third- or fourth-degree burns; internal injury; blindness; cuts; abrasions; suffocation; broken bones; inflammation; infection; sprains; claustrophobia; acrophobia; panic; dizziness; dry mouth; yawn; tremor; paralysis or death. Physical threats inherent to urban exploration include: great heights, viz. Bridges, ledges, rooftops; electrocution, viz. Third rails, exposed cables; vicious animals, especially guard dogs; lethal and non-lethal force by police officers, security guards, itinerant tunnel-dwellers and squatters; crushing, viz. Cars, trains, subways, collapsing roofs, floors, ceilings, and skylights. Urban exploration is almost always illegal; charges range from violation (trespassing) to misdemeanor (reckless endangerment) and in rare instances, felony (breaking and entering).
2. Should you ignore the above warning, remember there are no guidebooks to urban exploration. Take basic precautions against dehydration, starvation, and extreme temperatures. Bring three sources of light for any underground missions. If possible, bring a means of communication: a wireless phone or radio could save your life in an emergency. Do not explore alone. Make sure someone you trust knows where you're going, and expects you back.
3. Shoot, and ask questions. A camera can turn a reckless legal violation into a valuable research opportunity. Bring a reporter's notebook to take down your thoughts and observations. Write down anything unusual. If you can't publish your findings on a personal site or self-published magazine, there are several Web sites and online message boards where you can share them. A detail that seems mundane to you now might later prove critical to some archaeologist, historian or other researcher. Though you might have no scientific background, remember that scientists have always depended on the faithful observations of lay persons.
4. Your equipment needs are minimal. As mentioned above, you should bring food and water, flashlights, and a radio if possible. The impromptu nature of the avocation, and the need to seize unexpected opportunities, make it likely you will undertake a great many searches with no equipment at all. Some explorers, especially those on the paramilitary fringes of the UE movement, employ sophisticated communications technology, police scanners, night vision, and mountaineering gear.
5. Attire is discretionary. Most urban explorers seek to blend into the crowd: they wear everyday street clothes and avoid equipment or accessories that would draw attention. Some crews place propaganda warfare above personal safety, and adopt a uniform that identifies them. The Jinx Project was the first team to organize itself as an espionage agency; its members, or Jinx Agents, wear suits and sunglasses. Dark Passage is a noir creation; its adventures, and its style, flicker with celluloid menace.
Urban exploration lures by its beauty; the city's graceful decay stirs the hearts of new arrivals. The hope of discovery in a secret frontier keeps initiates coming back. But it is danger that drives the movement. The atavistic lure of the unknown, the physical need to engage the environment, and the instinctive will to overcome fear, tonight ensnare the strongest hearts of the city.
Recommended for further research:
Infiltration: The zine about going places you're not supposed to go. This magazine, and its website, single-handedly launched a worldwide movement. http://www.infiltration.org
Dark Passage. The favorite site of blind archeologists and connoisseurs of underground style. http://www.darkpassage.com
The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit. Detroit's great buildings, past and present, live here as a gallery of photographs and paintings. http://www.detroityes.com
Urban Adventure in Rotterdam Rotterdam's UE gateway features an extensive index, running the gamut of urban challenges. http://www.euronet.nl/users/kazil/
Cave Clan Australia Visit here and be drawn into the unique subculture of Australian draining. http://www.caveclan.org/
Forgotten New York The most jaded New Yorker will be startled by FNY's historic discoveries. http://www.forgotten-ny.com