Urban Underground 

The wild places are now gone. The planet has been mapped. The highest peaks were conquered. Even space has tourists. So adventurous urban explorers are tackling the next frontier.

The roadside gate doesn't say "No Trespassing," but the barbed wire surrounding the rest of the property suggests otherwise. One by one, six trespassers climb the gate and hop over to the forbidden side. It's 10 p.m. on a Monday night and quite dark, but no one clicks on their flashlights for fear of being detected. Their dilated eyes adjust quickly, thanks to the moonlit sky. As they descend deeper into the valley, the wind grows stronger, blowing dust and dirt from the arid trail into their faces.

About a half mile past the entrance, everyone stops and looks back toward the distant road. A flashing yellow light shines back from the roadside area where they conspicuously parked their van.

"Is it a cop?" someone asks.

"I don't think so," another person says, shrugging.

After a brief bout of group paranoia that freezes the intruders in their tracks, everyone returns to the mission at hand. Unfortunately, in the darkness they can't find where they're going. The ringleader, a slender twenty-year-old part-time bank teller from Pleasanton who wears a tie with a Freemason symbol around his bare neck, is the only one who's been here before. "I think we passed it," says this de facto tour guide, who goes by the alias 33rd Degree Freemason. His group, which he calls the Freemasons, backtracks about three hundred yards, and the escort climbs a hillside, looking for the entrance to the mine. After a few windswept minutes, he finally yells down, "It's up here." The others scale the hillside up to a ridgetop trail and follow their tour guide's voice. People click on their flashlights and begin their descent into the mine.

They have come to explore an abandoned mine in the back-country of Livermore, home to a coal-mining town from the Gold Rush era until the early 1900s. What the intruders are doing is probably illegal. It's definitely unauthorized. The possibility of getting busted is part of the thrill of doing it.

In the past, this loose-knit posse has ventured into storm drains in Hayward; steam tunnels at UC Berkeley; and sewer systems underneath San Francisco, for which one group member claims he obtained a map of by posing as a public-works hard hat. Tonight's cast includes a contortionist, a recent high-school grad, and a champion video-game player planning to attend UCLA in the fall. Most of them grew up and live in the East Bay burbs. For some, exploring forbidden spots is a cheap way to cure boredom.

The whistling wind outside is immediately replaced by an eerie, all-encompassing silence inside the mine. It soon becomes obvious that the Freemasons are not the first locals to explore the place. Previous visitors have left behind a torn Fritos bag and empty cans of Coke and Coors.

There's plenty of headroom in the so-called haulage area at the beginning, where miners would haul coal or clay outside. But even so, this is no place for claustrophobics. The walkway is only about eight feet wide and eight feet high, and breathing is made challenging by floating particles of quartz and silica dust. At least tonight there are no bats, which 33rd Degree saw last time he was here.

"This is like Indiana Jones," blurts a twenty-year-old musician who goes by the handle Puke-fart.

With an echo-enhanced roar, someone else shouts, "Avalanche!"

But nobody laughs. After all, they are entrusting their lives to the decaying wooden support beams that keep the tunnel from collapsing in on itself. A historian familiar with the mine describes it later as "extremely dangerous" for anyone to enter. An earthquake, a nearby explosion, or even knocking on the walls too hard could cause the tunnel to crumble.

About five hundred yards inside the mine, the group stops to inspect a vertical mineshaft tucked away to the side. "This is the one," 33rd Degree declares, peering upward through the vertical and horizontal wooden crossbeams. He begins the vertiginous climb up a five-foot-wide shaft, using the rotting crossbeams as ladder steps.

The footing is tenuous, and occasionally he sends an inadvertent shower of dust and sand to the bottom of the shaft while his boot gains traction. Falling would not be fun; from the top it's about a fifty-foot drop. But a few minutes later, he's at the top. He's followed by Penelope, who looks hardly prepared to make the ascent in her denim skirt and sandals. Still, she makes it up without incident. Next up is Puke-fart. He's leery, mumbling that he wants to go back the way he came in. But after some ribbing of the "don't-be-a-pussy" variety, he screws his courage and climbs. Everyone makes it up safely.

The passage opens up into a cavernous, sloping chalk-colored area known as the "working slope," where miners would dig clay and dump it down the shaft the explorers just climbed. The ground is covered with a blanket of what looks and feels like talcum powder. It's hot and stuffy. Water would be nice right about now, but none of the explorers remembered to bring any. 33rd Degree, who earlier went to scout ahead, calls back that he's found the exit. By now, everyone is sweaty, dirty, and ready to go.

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