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Space Invaders 

Urban explorers hack into Utah’s subterranean jungle.

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All senses alert, the Rip Roarin’ Reverend slid his string bean form through a gap in the chain-link. Having ditched his professorial tweed jacket for a more punk-rock black T-shirt and fingerless gloves, he now blended effortlessly into the overcast night sky above.

His colleague, Hunter [not his real name], compact and hair spiked, followed suit and pulled up to the Reverend’s frame. They surveyed this evening’s project: A dark driveway leading up through a tunnel of cottonwood trees to a hill above. The floodlights that lined the way have been out for years. Except for the distant hum of cars, it was silent.

They each carried a tool--the Reverend a small digital camera and a flashlight--as they strode toward their destination.

They had been here before.

“Look at how the weeds have grown in,” the Reverend said, quickly noticing, noting and snapping the pattern of dead grass and clover that had grown in through cracks in a vacant parking lot.

Hunter was surprised at the lack of graffiti, but he spoke too soon: One concrete surface was tagged all over.

They approached an office building and saw a cash register smashed outside a broken window.

“That’s not cool,” the Reverend said, snapping another picture.

Finally, they stopped and looked above to the hill, a black form outlined in the lights of suburbs and the valley beyond. Eyes adjusted, it was a dark tangle of tubes and empty concrete basins. In other words, water slides.

Time to get started with the work that ties Hunter and the Rip Roarin’ Reverend into a global echelon of researchers. They are regional practitioners of a science unseen by most universities. They are explorers, writers and documentarians and whatever the grim fate of the industrialized world, their work may tell future civilizations why it was such.

Except for one thing:

They’re not “supposed” to be here.

The worldwide links page of Infiltration, the magazine about “places you’re not supposed to go,” floats in cyberspace, an ironic touchstone for a movement rooted in rummaging through sooty, crumbling old buildings.

The Toronto-based publication is the flagship for the theory and practice of urban exploration (U.E.), which it defines as the investigation of human-made structures not designed for public consumption. Infiltration’s Website is a crossroads and clearinghouse for explorers and their work. From the Cave Clan group of explorers in Australia to Dark Passages in New York City, it’s a sort of virtual cantina where explorers can hunker up and tell their tales of slipping into factories, crawling through sewer tunnels and eluding the authorities.

This is the geography of industrial ruin. As economies and demographics shift away from manufacturing and toward sunny suburbs built around shimmering corporate campuses, thousands of buildings, tunnels and drains are left empty. Where once world explorers looked outward from civilization over vast tracts of forests, mountains and desert unmapped and unconquered by civilization, this frontier has turned inside out: Now a great wilderness lies inside what we have created, used, altered, forgotten and discovered again.

Though this movement has blossomed in the past decade, its history as told by Infiltration has it going back to poet Walt Whitman’s 1861 visit to the abandoned Atlantic Avenue subway tunnel, the first of its kind in the world. “Dark as the grave, cold, damp and silent. How beautiful look earth and heaven again, as we emerge from the gloom!” Whitman wrote. “It might not be unprofitable, now and then, to send us mortals, the dissatisfied ones, at least, and that’s a large proportion, into some tunnel of several days’ journey. We’d perhaps grumble less, afterward, at God’s handiwork.”

Midway through the next century, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Tech Model Railroad Club began exploring the campus’s tunnels—a hobby they called “hacking,” or “vadding.”

In the mid-1980s in Australia, a group of spelunkers began to explore the “man-made caves” of storm drains, calling themselves Cave Clan. Over the next decade, more groups formed dedicated to exploring forgotten human-made infrastructure until explorer Ninjalicious founded Infiltration in 1998, implying a real-world version of computer hacking.

From there, urban exploration took off all over the industrialized world--groups formed in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, with many of them coalescing into a global Urban Exploration “ring.” Now, this hobby has its own Yahoo! category, ethics, lingo and celebrities--foremost among them Max Action, leader of Minneapolis-based Action Squad, whose field reports have him trudging through miles of the Twin Cities’ sewer tunnels to points just shy of asphyxia.

And just as the Bay Area and the Sun Belt lure bright young minds to tech industries, the Rust Belt pulls urban explorers to its grimy cities.

“Buffalo, N.Y. is a lucky city,” Ninjalicious writes in an article about the Buffalo Central Terminal, regarded as one of the best abandoned buildings in the world. In a spectacular exposé, he leads the reader through the halls, tower, basement and tunnels of the 20-story building built in 1929 and abandoned 50 years later.

“The Great Hall is a fine memorial to travel,” he writes, “It recalls both the excitement and the sadness of travel, becoming a real-life monument to that which we failed to appreciate in the rush of life, and that which we fail to preserve now in a society afraid to confront its ghosts.”

If you go to Infiltration’s world map link and click on the United States, then on Utah, you’ll find Dead Places. It is “a Website for a loose collection of guerrilla historians, industrial archaeologists, thrill seekers and people who just don’t have anything better to do who stick our noses in places we’re not wanted all over Utah.”

Dead Places’ content is the equivalent of field reports and journal articles on the projects the site’s crew has logged: The Clover Club Potato Chip Factory (since fallen to the wrecking crew), an abandoned mortuary and cemetery, The Roundhouse. In the narrative and photo format of other U.E. sites, these places—and the journeys that led the site’s explorers to them—constitute an evolving history of Utah seen through the double lens of mischievous kids and industrial wreckage.

Hunter started Dead Places almost four years ago to organize and legitimize his new hobby. Since then, he’s given Utah a serious urban exploration site, recognized throughout the global ring. He said Dead Places is the third-biggest U.E. Website in the United States.

“The Canadians and Australians are kicking our ass,” he said. “We’re catching up, though.”

As urbane, intellectual and global as the urban exploration scene has become, Hunter and the Reverend first discovered abandoned buildings simply by being kids.

“When I used to drive around with my mom, I’d always see these abandoned buildings,” Hunter said. “When people say you’re not supposed to go somewhere, there’s a reason and it makes me curious.”

One night in 1997, they found themselves outside the abandoned Bingham Middle School in Copperton with a bunch of other kids. Hunter, the Reverend and the group had no other purpose but to scare the girls they had brought along.

They crawled under a fence and walked in a side door to the school. The first thing Hunter noticed was how the air seemed thick with the smell of pencil shavings, old books and wet newspapers. They walked around the building and opened some lockers, many of which contained 1980s relics from its most recent student body—neon trapper keepers and, as Hunter writes, “hilariously goofy clothing.”

“I can’t remember the ’80s very well,” he said, “Anything during the 1980s or before is history to me.”

This newfound sense that history lived not only in high school textbooks but in places you could smell and touch, that history could make your skin crawl, got Hunter thinking.

When he and the Reverend heard what they had done termed “urban exploration” at a computer hacker meeting years later, they knew they had found their hobby—and Bingham Middle School loomed as the obvious choice for a maiden voyage of serious exploration.

As Hunter found by probing the school’s history, it was built as a high school in 1908 to educate the children of the workers in Kennecott Utah Copper Corp.’s famous open pit copper mine above. After the high school moved down Bingham Canyon, the building continued as a middle school until it was abandoned in the 1980s.

One cold February night three years after their girl-scare outing, they gathered 12 people (since then they have learned that’s far too many), stationing one as a cop lookout who ended up only scaring everyone, quickly whittling the group down to six. By then, police had erected another fence around the school and boarded up its entrances. They couldn’t find a way into the school, but the seminary building door was open. The first-time explorers scoured its space and weren’t able to find much. Hunter returned home and, in four hours while he thawed, wrote Dead Places’ first article.

He describes this first organized urban exploration as “a horrible failure,” but it was the baseline for future Bingham explorations. In subsequent months, Hunter, the Reverend and the others returned to Copperton and found ways to explore nearly all of the school’s rooms. They found a nuclear fallout shelter, a set of mine tunnel maps and climbed up on the roof. Spent bullet shells and a noose hanging from one room’s rafters seemed to confirm alleged rumors about police use of the school as a training ground for the next possible Columbine and a recent suicide in the art room—showing that abandoned buildings not only reveal their lost pasts, but also their present underbellies.

Shortly after the group’s last exploration, Kennecott reduced Bingham Middle School to a few piles of rubble. Company officials claim they removed everything of “historic or architectural value,” including copper murals, which they sent to the new Bingham High School. But Hunter nevertheless grieved.

“Even up to [that point], I was still finding cool stuff inside,” Hunter wrote recently. “Probably the coolest U.E. location I have ever explored.”

Meanwhile, back at the water park, it didn’t take long to climb the hill to the top of the park. Along the way, Hunter and the Rip Roarin’ Reverend meticulously scanned the property for clues to add to the growing mosaic of what this place once was.

“I’ll bet a baby got sucked into that and that’s why they had to close it,” Hunter opined to the Reverend, pointing to a drain. “Get a picture of that.”

The night’s exploration was a minor one, just a return to a place someone told Hunter about in exchange for another piece of closely guarded information. With the proliferation of urban exploration groups—sometimes, as in New York, spawning dozens within the same city—glory and bragging rights are harder to come by. Consequently, information is as valuable a commodity in U.E. as the necessary audacity and guts.

Even in Utah, Hunter said, he has to be careful about who he turns on to this hobby—for a different reason. As the Dead Places Website disclaims, “We do not encourage or condone trespassing, by anyone who visits this site. In fact we do this so you don’t have to. Urban exploring is an activity that carries a pretty big risk of death, injury or arrest.”

Indeed, explorers have died in drains. One of the Dead Places crew once stepped on a rusty nail. And they are often running from—or sweet-talking—cops.

The hobby also gives property owners some grief. “Of course you’ve got safety concerns, regardless of how well you might secure or patrol a building,” said Kennecott spokesman Louie Cononelos, noting that the company was well aware of trespassing in the Bingham School before its demolition. “And then there’s an underlying concern of liability.”

Hunter said the place they explored that evening carried a minimal risk of police disturbance. The first time they came here, it was raining and a bunch of inflated tubes sat in a heap at the bottom of the slides. Other than hurtle down the slides into the empty pool basins, they didn’t get much done. Now, they had returned to get pictures for Dead Places.

The crew’s regular photographer was out of town. Sometimes Hunter’s brother comes along—but his friend is a guy who Hunter refered to as his urban exploration “opponent.”

“He’s just into houses,” Hunter scoffed. “I’ve only been into one house that didn’t suck.”

Since the Bingham Middle School, the Dead Places crew has explored dozens of sites including factories, mills, a mortuary, storm drains and tunnels. Hunter said he’s been to Magna’s Webster School, perhaps Utah’s most famous abandoned building, so many times he feels like a tour guide. As for their projects in progress, they’d rather not say, lest the authorities or competing U.E. crews be listening.

They realize Salt Lake City is no Buffalo; it doesn’t have nearly the amount of industrial ruins of a Rust Belt City, nor the vast drain systems explored by Cave Clan. But Utah’s abandoned structures, from pioneer ghost towns to mines, church infrastructure to military outposts, occupy a unique place in the U.E. pantheon. With such little organized exploration throughout the American West, Hunter said he sometimes feels that he has the whole expanse of alkaline Great Basin desert to himself.

Projects materialize through tips from other explorers, newspapers, and other explorations. Hunter keeps an eye on the EPA Superfund list. The best places are those that haven’t been touched since they were abandoned, free of graffiti from “amateur Satanists” and broken beer bottles from homeless camps.

Once they find a building they want to explore, they gather as much information as they can, on the Internet and in old news clippings, even rumors. It’s surprisingly hard to find, Hunter said.

On average, they explore once a month, depending on whether Hunter is slogging through university classes and holding down a job—both intermittent obligations. They gather at someone’s house and play video games until it’s late enough to head out. They try to keep their gear to a minimum, usually just gloves, a flashlight or headlamps and a camera. But recent projects are demanding more specialized equipment.

“I’ve got a spotlight now,” the Reverend said. Hunter turned to him and asked under his breath: “But do you really think that will work in the furnace room?”

The lack of gear allows them to move around with ease, but it’s also tied to the ethics of urban explorers, which are more in line with leave-no-trace backpacking than those of their tomb-raiding forebears: Never take or destroy anything. As the Rip-Roarin’ Reverend emphasized, the point is not to souvenir-hunt, but to document.

On breaking and entering, opinions differ: Some groups won’t go in a building unless they can find a way in using only a flashlight. Others pick locks. Hunter believes breaking into buildings is unnecessary and sidesteps one of the great challenges at the heart of urban exploring.

Just over the fence, in a subdivision, a man walking his dog stopped and looked over to where they stood at the top of the hill. Time to slide. The explorers hopped up on a slide and plunged down into darkness.

Entering the water park office, even with a few smashed open windows, was difficult: Shards of glass poked out from every sill. But the Reverend had no trouble sliding through the space, curling around the sharp edges until he was in.

An eerie quiet waited inside. Coming in from the expanse of slides and pools to cramped halls and office space was disconcerting. Everything was still intact, if a little messy. It was as if, when the announcement came that the park would close, everyone just walked out, the scene preserved in a Pompeian still.

“If people leave a house, they take all the interesting stuff with them,” Hunter said. “With factories, it’s always someone else’s job, so nothing gets done.” The Reverend, who had kicked back in a swivel chair and propped his Chuck Taylor sneakers up on a huge desk scattered with paperclips and business cards, noted that one factory they explored still had showers spouting water, around the clock.

They began to poke through adjacent rooms. Hunter found one in the back, full of file cabinets and slides, and inexplicably, glitter spilled all over the floor.

“Oh wow,” he said, picking up a slide and holding it up to his flashlight. “Think this’ll scan? This would be good to show what this place looked like when it was open.” He paused. “I don’t usually take things from places, but I don’t think anyone will miss this.”

Then, half-muttering to himself: “One of these days, if I find a baby in a jar, I’m keeping it.”

On the glittered floor was a print, a bright exposure of a river of tanned bodies on black tubes bumping down one of the slides.

“I guess this was before they had that lame one-at-a-time rule,” Hunter said, stepping over the photo, on to another room full of file cabinets.

“Each building has its own history,” the Reverend said, looking through his own pile of slides. “Urban exploring and archaeology, it’s the same thing, really.”

And like archaeology, urban exploration inevitably crosses paths with ghost stories and the spiritual inhabitants of these dead places. “WE CAN SEE YOU,” reads some graffiti on a wall in the next room.

“Oooh, 12-year-old secret club,” Hunter said in mock fright. “Oh, man, we’re dealing with sorcerers.”

But one time he really was scared.

It was at the place they call The Roundhouse, a geodesic dome in Harriman. Like many of the sites the Dead Places crew had explored, it was supposed to be haunted, that when you stood in the center of the top floor, something weird is supposed to happen. With the rest of the group downstairs, Hunter was standing there, waiting, when he decided to mess with the others. But just as he was beginning to jump up and down, he heard footsteps on the roof.

“There were two possibilities,” he said. “Either it was a ghost, and I kind of do believe in that stuff, I’ve just been to too many places that were supposed to be haunted, I’m kind of jaded about it, or it was some drunk kid.”

He said one of the party’s members was scared to the point of tears. As it turned out, the noise was a loose board rattling in the wind. It’s easy to be skeptical of these ghost stories from afar. But inside the dark, disorienting halls of the water park office, a place that during its life would never have come within a mile of inspiring fear, any sound prompts you to ask questions. What was that noise? Can someone see them? The silence was oppressive. It is not whether or not ghosts live here—these places have themselves become ghosts.

They snaked through more junk-strewn halls, finally coming to a metal door. The Reverend scanned the surface with the flashlight beam, found the deadbolt, unlocked it and pushed.

The air had never felt fresher.

These buildings aren’t going to be around forever, and that’s a mantra that propels Hunter to re-create his experiences on the page in as much detail as possible. Once, he and The Reverend found an abandoned car dealership and explored it without a camera. The next day, when they came back for photos, the building had been demolished.

When Hunter started writing about his explorations for Dead Places, he says he would return home past midnight, chug a bottle of Mountain Dew and type sentences haphazardly until morning. Now, he waits a few days to collect his thoughts.

Still, it’s the thrill and curiosity that keeps them exploring. While documenting their finds may be satisfying, they live for the experience itself.

“Buildings are most interesting when you first discover them,” Hunter said. “In hindsight, it seems kind of lame.”

On the way back to the car, they walked in silence, each lost in his own agenda for fresh projects.

“Hey we need to get that rappelling gear,” the Reverend said suddenly, as if adding to a grocery shopping list.

Hunter nodded, but his thoughts were scanning the big picture, his specific geography of exploration.

Four years into their urban exploration careers, Hunter and the Reverend admitted they are running out of places to visit in the Salt Lake area. But that just means they now must go to other parts of the state, as well as adjacent states whose U.E. scenes are not up to snuff.

A 1999 survey conducted by Urban on Urban Exploration demographics indicated that three-fourths of its respondents were younger than 30, and a third were younger than 20. Most had been exploring since before they were 18.

Is this an extension of childhood curiosity that one grows out of—or the watermark of a new generation?

The survey also said that half of its respondents worked in the tech industry, and three-fourths had a college education. Could it be that the very people who represent the economic and societal shifts that have left these buildings dead to the world are re-creating them as part of this century’s landscape of hyper communication? Or is it all just destined for another brand of high-concept tourism?

For Hunter, these are moot points. He’s convinced he won’t live past 30.

“I’m sure we all,” he said brightly, “have plenty of lungfulls of asbestos.”

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Tim Sullivan

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