Truth be told, if you ever see my name on any jail’s inmate registry it will be for one thing and one thing only—urban exploration. [Urban exploration is the exploration of man-made structures; usually abandoned ruins or unseen components of the man-made environment.] Charges may vary—anything from “trespassing” to “breaking and entering” to “public intoxication” (for the liquid courage, of course). While I’m not particularly trying to spend time in jail anytime soon, I accept that it’s consequentially conducive to the endeavor. The way I see it, it’s a silly thing for someone to charge a person for—unless of course the property isn’t actually abandoned. I don’t think it’s hurting anyone for these places to be visited from time to time. For life to be banned from returning to these once bustling man-made structures is truly shameful and rather self-defeating, might I add.
Silly as it is to have these juvenile tendencies, I find the risk to fall short of reward—the sights, the smells, the quiet, and the discoveries. There are so many abandoned places that have been left untouched for years, decades, even sometimes a century. Could you imagine the feels walking into a place that was once cared for deeply, for people that have likely passed? Like taking a step into the past, quietly. Iowa is a gold mine for dilapidated barns, houses, elevators, consolidated schools and the like. My personal favorites are schools and houses. Sometimes there are things left behind that don’t even compare to gifts on Christmas. You can’t buy old mementos. OK, you can from places like thrift stores and antique shops, but you have to buy them versus rescuing them from their return to the dirt.
My hometown doesn’t even come close to how much urban dilapidation there is in bigger cities or slowly dissolving townships, but I’ve still always managed to satisfy my drive to explore there nonetheless. There are some tunnels under campus, which are gross most of the time, but the graffiti art makes it worth it. Then there’s the de-commissioned grain elevator on the west side of town. There’s also this bridge tucked away in the campus woods that Joey took me to not long after we started dating. There are abandoned lab buildings on the outskirts of college property. Joey also knew about a playground that was abandoned in the middle of some woods that once held housing developments for the college (but have since been removed and converted into administration buildings). Unfortunately, the city deconstruction got to it before I could. There are also random tucked away places inside city limits that not many people besides the locals know about (like any place).
For the record, no place I am talking about is anything of significant importance. Every town, city, etc. has their own hidden local gems; it’s just the matter of finding them. These are only my experiences and findings.
I have frequented the abandoned elevator a lot over the years. I think I’m drawn to how large and empty it is. The eeriest thing about that place is that, because it’s an elevator, there’s a deep basement that’s retained water over the years. The smell isn’t pungent or anything, it’s actually a quite natural smell. Mixed with all of the dust and eroding cement and it doesn’t smell far off from the wet dust of farming season. But walking through, I’ve been close to mistaking the water level for the floor. All I can enjoy of the building anymore is the gusts of wind that whip through all the floors and down to the boarded up window we used to use to gain access. I still go and stand with my body up against the side of the building and look up at the great height of the white walls. One drunken encounter resulted in a summit to the top. I wish I had taken my camera with me—I could see the whole town and the surrounding smaller towns from that high up. Aside from a blurred recollection for that adventure, I remember the chill of the wind coming from the lights of the town as I looked out. I will never forget that.
That last time I walked through the tunnels under campus was right after our final VIESHEA. I found a wad of cash that had fallen through some of the storm drains lining the stretch of bars. I reveled at the progress on a wall mural in the tunnel that is simply one of the most beautiful pieces of half-assed art I’ve ever seen. The lyrical words of Pink Floyd painted near it. The light at the end of the tunnels opens up to a perspective of Friley Hall that hardly anyone sees. There are rumors that the tunnels once transported parts of the A-bomb through town without drawing a lot of attention of the townspeople. Not sure that I believe that one unless they happened to take the time and effort in re-routing the tunnels to function as a sewer system. Of course, they may also be referring to the steam tunnels.
Joey and I have made the trek to the hidden train bridge in the woods a number of times. Joey finds the place quite nostalgic, as he used to make the stop with his friends on his way to or from school. It’s nothing more than a tunnel bridge under some train tracks. But it’s quite secluded and obvious that people (college students, surely) take advantage of the proximity and we always find chairs, cans, and a charred heap of wood. This place isn’t far from where the old (now gone) playground used to be. Once on the outskirts of Pammel Court, the woods have all but swallowed up the empty lot yet to be taken up by new buildings.
The riskiest and most memorable of my explorations, however, was the return to my old school. Glad I did it too, after being torn down, where the school sat is now being built up into student housing. It was quite eerie returning to a place that I fought so hard to get out of. (Like most pre-teen/teenagers, Middle School was a majority of unpleasant experiences and awkward discoveries as to who I am and where I fit in in the world.) The building was built partly underground which is why, now, I have little difficulty understanding why the building was voted inadequate and retired. Returning after almost a decade of it sitting without the amenities of habitation left the building tattered and gutted. Mold, peeling paint, water leaks, and vandalism cast out any chance of making mindful connections from present to past (as well as any hope of saving the building). Or maybe I was simply successful at suppressing most of my memories from 2003-2005.
Having a family and “adulting” supersede these risky excursions. I think I might evolve to be more of a photographer and documenter of the abandoned rather than a explorer of it. Nonetheless, I look forward to Sylvia walking and taking interest in the outdoors, I cannot wait to show her the world; past and present. I look forward to living vicariously through her innocent discoveries and experiences.