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.

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Ducking under an entryway where some graffiti genius has sprayed "No escape," the explorers head toward the escape. They take small, cautious steps on a narrow slope that drops off into a black abyss. About thirty minutes into the journey, they reach the escape passage, which is not the same comparatively roomy space through which they entered.

Exiting poses yet another challenge: Crawling on your belly for about fifteen feet through a narrow, three-foot-wide crevice reminiscent of the portal in the movie Being John Malkovich.

"Just go toward the air," the 21-year-old contortionist advises the people behind him. It's good advice. A cool jet of air soothes the group's claustrophobic nerves, promising a safe return to the surface world. Emerging from the mine, someone shines their flashlight on the ground below.

"Turn off the light!" several voices shout.

Although they all could have been killed just minutes before, the young explorers are more worried about getting busted than leaving behind a dusty corpse.

The Freemasons are part of a growing global contingent of daredevil hobbyists most commonly referred to as urban explorers. Their guiding philosophy: Go where you're not supposed to go.

Going where you're not supposed to go means "infiltrating" all kinds of places: Bridges, sewers, storm drains, construction sites, abandoned factories -- even missile silos. Some New York explorers have been known to throw underground parties in subway tunnels. The Paris catacombs are practically Mecca for these urban explorers.

The Internet has fomented interest in urban exploration and connected like-minded adventurers who exchange information -- even maps -- about cool, forbidden places to check out. In 1995 there were only a handful of Web sites dedicated to urban exploration and no mailing lists. Now there are hundreds of sites, Web rings, and discussion groups. Urban exploration zines include New York's Jinx magazine, and Infiltration, published by the mysterious Ninjalicious in Toronto. Given the obvious dangers of burrowing underground into unstable mines or asbestos-ridden tunnels, practically every one of these sites contains some type of safety disclaimer.

But not all explorers take precautions. 33rd Degree Freemason says his group's excursions typically involve minimal planning. "We don't get really prepared; we just get up and go." Others are more deliberate. "I don't take stupid risks. I plan ahead, I seek out a lot of information beforehand, and I wear shoes with a good grip," writes Panic!, a notorious thirtysomething explorer from Australia who carries an extensive first-aid kit in his car. But as far as 33rd Degree is concerned, many explorers try to make what they do sound more dangerous than it really is because it adds to their mystique.

Perhaps fittingly for a community so rooted in the Internet, urban explorers share a philosophical affinity with computer hackers. Panic!, a self-described computer geek, likens urban exploration to "hacking" the physical world. "Urban exploration is sneaking into places where you are not supposed to go, and seeing what's behind the 'Keep Out' sign," he says. "But it is not destructive or invasive. The true spirit of the hack -- when the word was first originated -- was to see what you could see without people knowing. Leave no evidence, touch nothing. Many urban explorers have a similar credo: 'Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs.' "

On a more rudimentary level, the primary reason explorers say they do it because it's just a lot of damn fun. "It's just a way to get a sense of adventure," says Di_Ash, one of the six explorers who braved the Livermore clay mine. "There's not many ways to do that these days. It's kind of like exploring. You use your imagination to think what you possibly might find."

Economics also play a role. After all, there's no admission price to get into storm drains, and often no equipment is necessary outside of a decent flashlight. Wes Modes, a Santa Cruz artist who started one of the earliest urban adventure sites (www.thespoon.com) describes urban exploration as play of the proletariat. "You don't have to slap down two hundred dollars on a sailboard to do it," he says.

Some explorers, such as Mark Lakata, a 31-year-old UC Berkeley alumnus now living in Mountain View, like to enhance their inexpensive experience by doing historical research on places they explore. Lakata prefers to describe what he does as "urban archaeology" instead of the more popular "urban exploration." His Web site offers background information on modern ruins in the East Bay, such as the Nike Missile site in Tilden Park, and America's last whaling dock near Pt. San Pablo. "When I was a kid, I probably would have classified myself as an urban explorer, since me and my friends would go exploring tunnels and abandoned military bases just because it was illicit and foreboding," he says. "As an adult, I'm more interested in the nostalgia factor -- pretending to travel back in time and see things the way they were." Even so, he concedes, "The illicit and foreboding part is still cool too."

Of course, exploration isn't always foreboding. Sometimes it's almost surreal. Former East Bay resident Tobin Fricke, who now lives in Sweden, recalled one particularly goofy local expedition in an e-mail interview: "Once I went on an urban spelunking trip with CHAOS (the Cal Hiking and Outdoor Society) during which we walked to some public park near Rockridge BART. Our fearless leader walked to a specific area of the park and then began scraping away the dirt in a particular spot, revealing a manhole cover. We donned gaiters fabricated of trash bags and duct tape and descended into the murk. After a trek through these interesting environs, we eventually emerged at some lake, to the bemusement of those recreating there." In all likelihood, the lake was Lake Temescal, about a mile and a half to the east of the BART station.

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