In high school — a much gentler time — in the sighing hour after school let out, when I was supposed to be walking home to my nervous mother, I would sometimes dawdle around campus, haunting the hallways without need of a hall pass, breathing in the open-air spaces between buildings, poking at the toys in the physics lab, before eventually shrugging my backpack homeward to my wrong side of the tracks.
Prized among my amateur urban explorations was a 7′ Ã— 7′ drainage tunnel that ran from the opposite side of the street to partially under the school. It was fed by a neighborhood creek, so it always had a trickle of water and storm debris. But as it made its way under the street, under the lawn, and under the school’s new addition, it terminated at a concrete shelf of 3′ high and 5′ deep, with two small pipes underneath that drained downhill toward the creek behind the school. In the wall over the shelf, two culvert pipes opened to a grassy spot sunk between buildings, and above was a steel grate where you could look up to see people walking overhead. The best way into the tunnel was to step down to the grassy washout and steal into the culverts when nobody was around to ask questions.
It was there that I felt something new. I felt like I was simultaneously committing a trespass and getting away with something wrong, and yet was expanding my knowledge of the world and claiming the space as mine. And during those moments of probing around in the dim light thinking bright thoughts, it was mine. It was my secret space, my place to hide, where I could just exist without pressure.
Those places are magical, especially when you’re a kid.
I don’t know where the guilt of being in those spaces comes from. Once, I spent so long on the dawdle that the sun was fading by the time I got home, and my mother grilled me about where I was. Of course I didn’t spill the beans, but that’s not where the guilt comes from. I think it’s the guilt of doing something unexpected, something sneaky, something outside the definition of normal; going off-map to see where this leads, or what’s under there, or what’s behind that door. It’s the guilt of standing up in defiant ingress and staking a claim, even if it wasn’t mine to stake.
Sure, it was potentially dangerous. Could’ve been all manner of beasts intent to do me harm. Could’ve been neighborhood kids tagging, or smoking, or likewise staking claims of their own with a mind to defend it. Or I could’ve been spotted by school administrators and given a stern reprimand with punishments on the school and the home fronts.
But that’s the thrill, isn’t it?
So, I think, in my heart of hearts, I’m an explorer, an investigator, a wanderer. I get bored easily, and get off on finding the secret passages behind the world; get off on slipping into the engineered and ignored spaces that make our world work so I can learn, so I can take notes, so I can slip those notes into my pocket as a safety. I like learning how things work, how systems interplay. I get bored with surfaces; I like structures.
It’s outside the norm, but that’s where people like me thrive. We take the random direction and see what’s there. By going into unknown places, we find the new food, the new materials, the new techniques. And by carefully sharing our findings, we elevate the norm. That’s how a species survives.
The last time I saw that building, the culverts had been covered with locked gates. Some other explorer was unwise in sharing their findingsâ€¦or got caught. Or some administrator playing a game of What-If asked the right question and got the gates installed. The norm can stake its claim too.
But, still, explorers press outward into the ghostly forest beyond the ever-brightening campfire light. That’s where the magic is.
Hopefully, that’s where you’ll find me.