“I think this is the one.”
I point down at a rectangular steel plate embedded in the sidewalk. About four feet long and one foot wide, the plate rests loosely in a shallow concrete depression. Through a hairline gap shines an underground light. This is it.
My partner, Z, looks up and down the street. We’re on Northern Arizona University’s north campus. It’s 15 minutes after midnight. Normally full of movement, the surrounding stretches of road and lawn are choked still by the hour.
We listen. Nothing sighs under the muted streetlights. No witnesses. Z extracts the pry bar from his pant leg.
Without resistance, the plate clatters free. Seven feet down, a cinder bed runs along the floor of a narrow corridor. Fluorescent bulbs flash and hum below. We move.
Clang! Thud! Z drops down pry bar and backpack, then jumps in after them. I hasten down the hole, neglecting to remove my pack and camera. They catch on the edge of the narrow portal. I’m stuck.
“C’mon!” Z rasps from beneath my feet. Hanging half in and half out, at any second some guard or car could find me, a gopher in a black hoodie, up to my neck in no good, breaching the concrete. I can’t risk the time it would take to get out, unclip my bag and reenter. Forcing myself down, I scrape the nylon of my pack on the ragged cement. My weight falls free.
I’m blind. Glasses steamed opaque, an oppressive heat thickens the dusty air and I’m inhaling hot mud. Scrambling in a haze, Z and I reach up to replace the plate over our heads. Shimmying, sliding, it bangs into place, sealing like a tomb.
Silence again. We’re in.
I heard about “the tunnels” several years ago, during my first months in Flagstaff. Shape-shifting rumors mutated with each reporter, sometimes taking the form of opium dens and secret subterranean villages, other times waxing benign into utility passageways.
In my research, I found a short documentary. “The Forgotten Underground,” by Nikki Michelle, forayed for seven minutes into the truth and rumors of the city tunnels. Therein, several experts outlined an expectedly dry history. In brief, during the old days of Flagstaff, when the sawmill was driving industry, the Flagstaff Electric Company generated steam and electricity by burning mill waste. Old time recyclers, they used runoff steam to heat downtown buildings via a network of tunnels.
Unrelated were the connected basements of downtown businesses. Around the Prohibition Era these tunnels served as stealthy egress for illegal gamblers. In “The Forgotten Underground,” Pioneer Museum Curator Joseph Meehan explained, “There was a tunnel from a business downtown [allegedly where Majerle’s is currently located] that was used as an escape tunnel. At a time when there were illegal card games going, if the police were coming in the front door, the clerk up front could push a button, it would ring a buzzer down in the basement where the card game was going, and all the players could escape half a block down and come out in another business.”
In the same film, historian Jim Babbitt asserted that all the talk of opium dens, smuggling and the like “is really just a myth. Recognize that the real reality of the steam tunnels was a little bit different. It was a utility for the city and the building owners downtown and not a place for people to be walking around and doing things down underneath.”
Thanks, Jim, but show me good advice and I’ll show you the burns on my fingers. Authoritative equivocation of myth only makes me more curious. When I heard about a reliable entrance to the tunnels, I called Z to investigate with me.
Which brings us to tonight. Tonight, I learned some new math. Inquisitiveness minus common sense equals furiously ripping off your clothes in a rank hole beneath the street.
“Steam tunnels…of course,” I exhale, struggling to peel off my jacket, sweater and under layers fast enough. “Sorry I told you to dress warm,” I turn to Z, also stripping like his shirt was made of nettles. “I was thinking underground would be cold, like a cave.”
Instead, it’s like a giant rotting throat. Hot, pungent and…well-lit? Also unexpected. Fluorescents span the ceiling, disappearing around distant corners. I would’ve preferred darkness. Light highlights the nature of our intrusion, making this place seem inhabited. It feels like someone is waiting for us.
To our right, a squirming mass of pipes and wires jumble into an impassable mass. To our left, an open tunnel.
“This way,” I say unnecessarily. Z is already walking, pry bar swinging at his side. I pull out my compass. “OK, this one goes east. We want to skew north, try and connect to downtown.” I’m operating on the rumor that these campus tunnels network with the city as a whole. That connection is our query.
Babbitt was on to something. Straddling pipes and wires labeled in canary yellow “CAUTION: NATURAL GAS” and “HIGH VOLTAGE,” I start to feel that a brush of an elbow or a step in a puddle could be lethal. Mortally voyeuristic, we press on through the perversely exposed industrial underworks.
We arrive at our first junction. “Left,” I tell Z. “Slap an arrow up there.” Pulling the can of red from his pack, Z paints an arrow on the wall adjacent our junction, a bread crumb pointing home, if we make it back that way.
“Look,” says Z, gesturing below the freshly painted arrow. I make out the faded remnant of another arrow, a white shadow paralleling ours. Another tunnel dweller, marking the exits.
Everywhere are signs of occupants passed. Dusty water bottles, crumbled papers, decaying wooden chairs; ostensibly the abandoned amenities of maintenance workers. Graffiti is few and far between. Rarely more than a rashly scrawled moniker. No buried masterpieces here. Onward, we grime.
The fluorescents end. Headlamps go up. I flick on my light to find a collection of lines from a black Sharpie.
“Those who are faithless know the pleasures of love;
It is the faithful who know the tragedies of love.” – Oscar Wilde
“Check this out,” I call to Z. “Didn’t expect to find Oscar Wilde.”
Somehow, the playwright is not out of place. Resident airs of musty squalor breathe odd life into the poetry. Wilde was a hidden man. I’m possessed by questions.
Why did T.T.G. write Wilde on this tunnel wall? Who is T.T.G? A bored maintenance worker? Unlikely on account of the incriminatory initials… An urban explorer? Perhaps. Square, shapely handwriting suggests slow calm and comfort, as if at home in this sour pit.
We must move on. Ahead, the tunnels twist us. North is elusive. Junctions are uncommon. We turn at the mercy of a single way forward.
Around another bend, we emerge into a cavernous chamber. Oxidized elevator engines and the usual refuse clutter the room, nearly obscuring a door on the back wall. I walk up to the frosted glass, examining the handle, almost grasping it, when I hear footsteps and murmuring voices from the other side.
“People!” I whisper-shout. “Z, let’s go!” I motion to the short portal at the far end of the room. Z ducks in. I follow, but as soon as I dip, my bag snags on something behind me.
I’m certain I’ve just ruptured a natural gas line, or opened a steam valve, or otherwise caused some catastrophic infrastructural failure.
I don’t have time to check. Getting caught is not an option. Z and I run, crouching, deeper inward.
When we turned enough to feel certain we lost any potential pursuer, we stopped running.
“What was that sound?” I catch my breath.
“Probably just the elevator,” Z assures. He’s probably right. Hydraulics hiss. I nod, sweating like a spooked horse.
A little further up and a junction opens to the left. I consult the compass.
Through this turn, the throat constricts. Strangled with steel, the passage shrinks to half our height. It will put us on hands and knees. But it goes north.
Hanging just before its mouth, a large steel box is inscribed with black marker lines.
A Jedi Craves Not These Things!”
“T.T.G again,” Z notes. Our mystery author is well traveled. We have gone a long way since the last inscription.
“Quoting Silent Bob,” I add. “In 1998.” Black ink from 20 years ago. Sharpie, I’ll do a commercial.
I feel mocked. The last wisdom you want to read when plunging into a dungeon is a condemnation of adventure.
Solaced by remembering the business of being wise is often conducted from an armchair, we keep on. Wisdom can keep the chairs. Z and I muck down on all fours and crawl through the hole to see how far it goes.
Despite a northern start, we’re once again creeping west. Luckily gloved, we palm cinders and broken glass and grind our knees.
“Damnit C!” Z curses me. “This is my last pair of jeans.”
“Mine too,” I laugh. “This will be a much-needed excuse to wash them.”
“I never wash jeans.”
After a stretch, west turns south, and the tunnel gains a few inches. We rise to a crouch.
“I shouldn’t have done legs today,” Z laments, squat-walking into darkness.
South intersects with dismay. We’re back in the elevator room, through a low, previously unnoticed lacuna on the opposite wall. Full circle. T.T.G’s was an honest warning of folly.
“We’ve been here before.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” I say, pointing to a cracked, stained piece of furniture. “I recognize the chair.”
That night, we dragged and tortured the tunnels for their secrets. Z and I made it out, but I can’t tell you how. We didn’t leave the way we came.
Now it’s my turn to tell you the stove is hot. It’s slow, dirty moving down there. It’s a fool’s journey. One can easily get hurt or lost. Still, I know the siren of the labyrinth sings loudly.
I wish I could give you a complete answer of what lies beneath. No evidence of opium dens, but we left many turns behind. I reserve the right of agnostic curiosity. Those who are faithless know the pleasures of adventure.
Editor’s note: C.G. is a pseudonym for a Flag Live! contributor who’s normally penning stories above ground. The adventurers in this piece have chosen to keep their identities in the dark.