How stealthy photographers get great shots where others fear to tread.
But I'm a West Coaster, and although there's some decent devolution underway out here -- haunted old theaters in Hollywood, abandoned shipyards in San Francisco Bay -- this is no Rust Belt. Our ruins are less dramatic than a chemical plant or a desiccated amusement park.
Still, like every other American city, San Diego, where I live, has storm drains, all of them off-limits, most of them regularly explored by a small group of urban adventurers. So one Saturday morning I met Dan C. and Rob R. for an excursion into a 12-foot-diameter drain that extends from Balboa Park to the bay.
First aid kit -- check. Headlamps -- check. Nylon socks and running shoes so we can get our feet wet but dry out quickly -- check. Deflated rubber rafts -- check. Short-handled paddles -- check. Raft pump -- check. Heavy-duty lights for photography -- check. Cajones -- uh, well...
We skulked down behind a parking lot and crossed a busy street, three guys with curious loads rolled up and tied onto their daypacks. We passed through an unlocked gate, butt-slid down into a concrete culvert, and trudged about a quarter-mile until the channel disappeared into a 12-foot-wide steel gullet, which swallowed us into perfect darkness.
Once past the imbecilic graffiti tags near the entrance, we crept along the dry pipe under a major highway. Some decent graffiti art appeared in our headlamp beams, reminding me of the elaborate murals under Los Angeles a drainer had told me about. Cave art in the pitch blackness beneath our cities was a comforting thought. It distracted me from wondering if antiterror agents in black Ninja outfits were lurking somewhere, like the full-time catacomb patrol unit of the Paris police department.
The Compleat Explorer What to Carry
What Not to Carry
We'd already passed beneath the downtown and had seen many small feeder drains leading up to grates in the gutters above us. Occasionally we encountered high-vaulted chambers with ladder rungs leading up to manhole covers, faint shafts of light shooting down through air holes in the iron discs. "'When it rains, stay out of the drains' is one of our mottos," Dan explained helpfully. More darkness slipped behind us.
More than a mile in, we came to a split in the round pipe where it branched into two square concrete channels with a lower ceiling. I shined my dive light into the void, and there was a River Styx clogged with floating plastic jugs, cigarette butts, and a waterlogged mattress. It was time to grab the pump and become blackwater rafters. Our voices sent eerie echoes down the pipe in front of and behind us. Mine was the highest. I'd had enough. No subterranean rafting today. We shot a group photo and turned around.
In a Dry Country
4 WD drive vehicle -- check. Desert camping gear -- check. GPS unit with topo map programs -- check. Canon EOS 30D with tripod -- check. Six-gun -- check.
Lewis Shorb has to be able to shoot more than pictures when he hikes into the high deserts of California and Nevada, looking for ghost towns. "You've got to assume everybody you encounter is armed," he explains. "And we're running across more meth labs set up in old mine shafts."
Shorb, 48, is a serious photographer devoted to chronicling humanity's footprints in godforsaken places (see his work at www.ghosttownexplorers.org). He's not interested in touristy ghost town parks like Bodie or Calico. "Anywhere near a road, there's not much left," he says. "Old cabins become firewood. Treasure hunters are how ghost towns disappear."
Shorb and his small clan of historians and desert rats pore over out-of-print government mining reports for clues to the locations of especially productive mines, which would have had sizeable settlements nearby. When he bushwhacks into a remote area and hits pay dirt, "sometimes it's hard to believe how many people lived out there in the middle of nowhere. You'll see the remains of what were beautiful brick structures, all gone."
Some of these tough old towns are still on working claims, most guarded by a caretaker. "It's usually a crusty guy with a gun, but that's part of the fun, those characters," says Shorb. "At the Blue Jasmine Mine in the Western Sierra, a couple of hours from Nevada City, there's a caretaker who hasn't left the property in three years. He looks like the Hobbit, bald on top with long gray hair around the sides. Lives on the Yuba River, generates his own electricity with a little water wheel connected to a Ford alternator. He has a satellite hookup to the internet and sells gold nuggets on eBay."
Shorb says if you're nice, and interested in history, and maybe bring along an extra case of beer, most caretakers will allow you in to see the old mining equipment or wander the bleached clapboard buildings. But it isn't for the ill-equipped. When I told him I was going down in the storm drains, he asked, "You taking an O2 analyzer?" He cautions that exploring mine shafts and other tunnels is inherently dangerous, and that two men died in Nevada a couple of years ago from poison gas just 75 feet into a mine shaft. "You want a breathing mine, one you can feel cool air blasting from. That means the miners cut a ventilation shaft."
The desert mummifies everything into jerky, so Shorb's pictures have more of a frozen-in-time feel than images of the asylums or other structures more actively rotting back east. But they offer the same message: Only in retrospect does the true nature of existence become clear, when the fragility of all living things, animate and inanimate, is revealed.
Steal This View
This hit me at an inopportune moment above hazy San Francisco Bay, as I was gripping welded-steel rungs and climbing up through a man-cage toward the working end of a towering dockside crane.
The rust-pocked behemoth was left to the gulls and the corroding sea along the quay of Mare Island Naval Shipyard when the base closed in 1996. Jef Poskanzer, a Berkeley-based urban explorer and "industrial archaeologist" who was climbing up behind me, had wanted to document the base for his website on the Bay Area, www.jef.poskanzer.org.
We'd already inspected the base hospital, with its 1919 sundial still keeping time and a dried-up therapy garden with sweet purple grapes hanging heavy from a spindly arbor. But up on the crane, stepping lightly on rusty steel decking, the tannic aftertaste of the grapes was replaced by the metallic tang of fear.
"At least it isn't windy," Poskanzer chuckled as he brushed past me in the trashed winch room, climbed some more rungs into the glass-enclosed operator's booth, and started aiming his Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10 with a 35-420mm (equivalent) Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens.
Below us spread an end-of-the-world diorama. Three immense dry docks, piles of rusting steel ship innards, a dead forest of reeking pier pilings, gutted cranes lined up like exoskeletal dinosaurs. The hulking black sail and diving planes of a nuclear submarine was silhouetted in the luminous mist. We spied the rip in a chain-link fence we'd need to crawl through to reach all these goodies, and descended into the heap.
In person, the view seemed historical, a peek at time's back lot, but in the pictures uploaded later that day, the scene was transformed by the camera into a vision of the postindustrial future.