Going Underground (continued)
The first time I went in a drain to explore, bringing a bike wasn’t much of an option; the entrance was an outflow where the drain emptied into a creek and water I waded was up to my waist and flowing, so I really wasn’t interested in schlepping my bike in there. Myself and a fellow sandal-clad adventurer stooped around beneath the low concrete ceilings for at least a couple miles, peeking out manholes along the way, and only able to stand up straight at choice spots every so often. It wasn’t until we followed our headlamp beams out a bone-dry exit across town I realized getting a bike down there was even a viable option.
The next time I visited our local drain, it was just me and my bicycle: a Diamondback Viper. I got it for Christmas as a kid, but I never really got into BMX. Up to that point, it was just an awkwardly sized neighborhood beater. Now, it was exactly what I needed. A taller bike would have forced me to lean forward under the low ceiling, the way I had to do when walking down there. With a shortie though, I could ride the tunnels in comfort. So I did.
Riding in a storm drain is part exploring and part tourism. If you really wanted to explore every detail of the subterranean passages, you could walk, photograph and map every inch of them. Lots of people do, all over the world. On a bike though, a drain is a whole different experience. Even at slow speeds, you come close to outpacing your own eyes. If you aren’t careful, you can easily knock your head on a low pipe or tumble over a pothole before you have a chance to see it and react in the dim light of your headlamp. You lose all sense of where you are, too, once you get deep in the system of smooth and featureless walls. So, with eyes quickly and cautiously scanning floor and ceiling, you coast along at a speed that feels oh-so-fast, but it is barely enough to keep you balanced in the narrow passages really. Just when you feel like the drain is never going to end, or that you may never get out, you will find a landmark. Maybe it will be a gutter-box with a view of a familiar aboveground haunt, or maybe you’ll come across graffiti, and it will be a striking reminder that you are not the only one coming down here, you are just part of a discreet minority.
Once, I was riding along in a typical narrow corridor with just a stripe of water going down the middle. I was a rolling island of LED light, and it was lulling and pleasant until I came around a corner and was met suddenly by bright light and loud noise. Fifty yards up, Public-Works engineers were busy at work in the pool of light spilled down by an open manhole. They didn’t see me in the darkness, so I slunk back around the corner behind me to douse my light and stash my bike, and then I came back to peek out and watch. There were three engineers: an older one who was obviously the boss, a middle aged one who looked like the hired muscle in a b-list action movie, and a younger guy who was perpetually whistling the same few bars of “Purple Haze.” The young one piped up several times to ask his mates if they had heard or seen something strange in the tunnel off in my direction. My heart stood still. The meathead told him not to be a wuss. I have no idea what they were up to, but it was interesting to watch. When I finally rode out, I decided to find the spot where they were working from above ground, so I could better understand what they were up to. I wouldn’t have known where to start, but I was lucky enough to catch a Public Works truck headed across town. It wasn’t an easy chase on an old