The second episode of Crack the Surface, a documentary series about the global urban exploration community.
In association with
The second episode of Crack the Surface, a documentary series about the global urban exploration community.
In association with
…place is a crossroads, a particular point of intersection of forces coming from many directions and distances. -Rebecca Solnit
Most people, I would venture to guess, tend to think of home as a place of comfort and rest, peace and solace. The Inland Empire of Southern California in the 1990s, where I grew up, did not hold these qualities for me. Perhaps that’s because home exhibits a certain plastic tendency that enables its boundaries to expand and shrink, which allows it to signify other geographical scales and although my family and friends were steadfast, I never saw SoCal, on a larger scale, as place I could call home. It was too pretentious, too materialistic, too filled with mischanneled testosterone. Riverside was a place in the midst of thriving, unsustainable gentrification on the road to inevitable economic collapse, a contested border zone caught between violent gang-fueled street warfare driven by teenagers like myself eager to claim identity in primaeval non-places and an increasingly Disneyfied social landscape which wasn’t necessarily conducive to rootedness and largely rejected our aggressive attempts at placemaking.
When I turned sixteen and finally got a car (the hallmark of Southern California freedom), I absconded every chance I had. I usually ventured into the Mojave Desert, a landscape full of dry lake beds washed long ago to a surface as flat and inviting as a dance floor when dry. These are the places where the desert is most itself: stark, open, free, and invitation to wander, a laboratory of perception, scale, light, a place where loneliness has a luxurious flavor… The inhospitable Mojave Desert is, I think, primarily envisaged as a barrier to overcome between places, perhaps even the antithesis of home. For me, as for Rebecca Solnit and Harold Budd, two people I greatly admire, it was always more home than home was, a space I could always find room to carve a place for myself.
However, Marc Explo, Otter, Witek and I had now emerged from the desert, stopping for our successful infiltration of The Boneyard on our way to the City of Angels. There was only one road back to L.A. – U.S. Interstate 15. Just a flat-out high speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo. Then onto the Hollywood Freeway, and straight on into frantic oblivion. We rolled into the ghetto of Los Angeles late and failed to get into the Belmont Tunnel (it had been turned into a museum or apartments or an amusement park or something – it all looks the same) and then succeeded climbing on top of the Queen Mary before arriving at my parent’s house to take our first shower in a long while.
We were looping around to my brother Pip’s house in Canyon Lake. When we arrived, he pulled out tequila, maps and firearms and gave us three hot tips before taking us on a drunken ride in his pimped-out 4×4 golf cart and sending us on our merry way. Tip one was that in the mountains near Big Bear, he knew a series of radio towers we could climb to get proper David Lynch-esque skyline shots of the Inland Empire. Tip two was that there was a water park in nearby Redlands called Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom that was apparently abandoned. Both sounded like great opportunities for me to try and apply my placehacker skills acquired in Europe to home – making place ours by learning it from the inside out – just as Pip and I had done a year back at the March Air Reserve Base Hospital.
The radio tower did indeed turn out to be a wonder. As a bonus, when we pulled up to it, there was a herd of local kids gearing up to climb it as well. We shared our beer with them and climbed the tower together. Afterwards, they went back to their Ford F-350 and started blasting country music and I was unhappily reminded of our current geographic location on earth. I left satisfied regardless, having never seen the IE from that scale. After the successful climb we were pumped to sneak into the abandoned water park. Which didn’t exactly go as planned.
When we arrived Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom, it was clear that the abandoned areas of the park had been quickly knocked down and the ground salted, all memory of that failure erased from history (go California!). What remained standing was very much active. However, it was two in the morning, we’d had a few beers up the tower and we were gearing up to head back into the desert, so we decided to run through the sprinklers and hop the fence anyway. Inside, we climbed the first waterslide where we could see the security guard off in the distance talking to a girl in a car. Easy. We climbed down the slides, which were surprisingly unslippery without water, and then grabbed some inner tubes off a big pile and floated around in the pools. Then we turned a corner and hit the jackpot – a snack booth with an open window. I slid through and found a fridge full of energy drinks, a nacho cheese dispenser and a Slurpee machine. Breakfast served. With a car full of fresh beverages, two new guns from Pip, and a few hot photos to tell the tale, we bailed from the Inland Empire again – I had hit my three-day tolerance threshold. Plus, Pip had a final mission for us – he suggested we hit some mines in the Calico Mountains on the way back to Vegas. So we found ourselves back in the Mojave again driving by torchlight into the hills somewhere near Yermo, California, set up camp and built a fire.
Inside the tunnels of an old mine where the extraction of silver from the earth had long ceased, we were soon 10 meters underneath the ground level, climbing deeper into the belly of the earth through long forgotten mine shafts. Outside is was blisteringly hot. Equipped with cameras, a multitude of light sources and an unquenchable thirst to find out what was left behind, we climbed as deep as we could go. The deepest levels of the mines eluded us on this trip but our time was running out and we were not yet done with Vegas. Like gill-breathers, we had to keep moving, stillness would surely mean death for us all in this heat. We popped off a few more rounds and smoked the tires onto I-15 again.
Although I was again a tourist here, passing through this surly desert, we were, as intended, beyond conventional tourism in our Powerslide delirium. But we were also beyond urban exploration. Was it even urban anymore? We were on an adventure pilgrimage, a quasi-spiritual journey, a failing search for a solitudiness, personal, semi-spiritual relation to place where we kept running into plastic and Wal-Mart super stores. Our romantic gaze reinforced the mythology of the desert in the most predictable ways, finding the only place where the Western Frontier still exists as some horrible shattered and lonely revenant, even as we worked to stake our promised claim to the freedom of the American West. It was toxically intoxicating and caused spontaneous moments of frustrated Tourette-like outbursts from the crew.
In my quest to remake home turf utilising a social template I was more comfortable with, all I really succeeded in doing was creating a Frankensteinien iteration that no one understood, just like every post on this site. Although home is posited as relational – the ever-changing outcome of the ongoing and mediated interaction between self, others and place, I am not sure we ever found home on this trip – we remained the urban nomads we have become. Though we did succeed, perhaps, in layering up my relationship with my past in new ways and I always enjoy the process of overcomplicating things that are supposed to be simple like nostalgia. To wit, if we consider home as a set of intersecting and variable ideas and feelings, which are related to context, and which construct places, extend across spaces and scales, and connects places, then maybe I can justify the ways I have always thought of that stretch of I-15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles as an escape hatch, my personal pilgrimage trail of meditative space between two extreme forces of Western capital, violence and rampant resource consumption, the eye of the storm.
For some, the I-15 trail is a right of passage, the road trip that marks the 21 year old transition into adulthood (with the associated benefits of inebriated gambling). To others, the trail itself is the journey to seek. In either case, it’s obvious that the myths of this place go deeper than the notion of ‘a place between here and there’. We can explore the Mojave as a simultaneous destination and journey that speaks to different scales of home and to the fragile geopolitical climate of the now.
In terms of Riverside, well, I readily admit cowardice to my childhood associates. I ran from the Inland Empire and every time I go back, just like this trip, I fail to connect with it in a meaningful way and return to my crew in London. However, I can’t help but think that if I return enough times, trying to carve out a place for myself in my home turf in whatever ways I am able, one day I might be able to return. In the meantime, we headed back to Vegas for one final blowout before Otter and Witek flew back to their respective countries. See you back on the strip.
Explore what’s left. Make what’s not.
“Understanding the past embraces all modes of exploration.”
- David Lowenthal
Graveyards come in many forms. When I was an archaeologist, I used to dig them up all the time. I remember once, when I lived in Hawai’i, I was digging up this skeleton that was embedded in beach sand. I had my trowel under his ribs chipping away at the sand particles embedded in the ribcage and then the whole body came tumbling down on me. This guy Kulani that I worked with said, “cool bro, now you’re cursed like the rest of us”. I put the skull in a brown paper bag and marked it XJ-107 or something. It was clearly a traumatic experience. In Paris, we party in mass human graves. And of course, the whole dereliction fetish component of urban exploration is really just an obsession with decay, death, waste and transition. We explore architectural and memorial graveyards all the time. I don’t think it’s strange though. As Geoff Manaugh muses,
…the quasi-archaeological eyes of those poets and artists [from the past] would still be enraptured today. Wordsworth could very well have gone out at 2am on a weeknight to see the cracked windshields of car wrecks on the sides of desert roads, new ruins from a different and arguable more interesting phase of Western civilisation.
So when I was in Las Vegas this summer and heard there was a massive desert graveyard filled with hundreds of “retired” planes, beautifully preserved in the dry Mojave air, I knew we needed to get in there and play around. The problem was that it was on an active military base. So I called up the crew and they flew into McCarran from Ottawa, Paris and London. We rolled out the satellite images over a few cans of Tecate on the kitchen countertop. With Witek, Marc and Otter on this mission, success was the only option.
After driving for ages from Vegas to the high desert outside Victorville, stopping to build massive bonfires in the Mojave and climb around in some old mines at Calico, we rolled up the the perimeter fence around George Air Force Base (The Southern California Logistics Airport). I won’t lie, the security was intimidating. But, as always, there was a weak point and we found it. Luckily, the military security patrol didn’t see us before we cracked their security routines.
Fast forward to 2am. The problem with exploring in the desert is, firstly, that you have to drive there and, secondly, that you have to park your empty automobile in a blatantly obvious place, given there’s no cover. Given the only thing within 10 miles is the military base and we really didn’t like the idea of having our truck found while we were in there, we parked it in a ruined meth den roughly two miles from the access point; rammed it in-between the buildings and prayed for the best as we set off across the desert with our camera gear. As we neared the gate, security was doing their patrol. We saw the headlights and dove behind some knee-high sage bushes, turning around the bush as they went past like a Scooby-Doo cartoon. When they had passed, we ran like hell and threw my Mom’s clearly expensive bathroom towel borrowed from the Vegas pad over the barbed wire. Once over, we booked it for the first plane we could see, a massive United Airlines 747.
This first fat boy was a cargo freighter (maybe converted?) and the ladder was down. It was pretty stripped out inside and not very interesting. We exited and saw the next plane in the row – a British Airways 747! Someone asked for my truck keys and popped the hatch behind the landing gear – up we went. Inside, it was sticky and hot and awesomely intact.
There were endless planes of all sorts, learjets, FedEx planes, little short-flight hoppers and massive military cargo aircraft. It was a wicked playground.
It was a long night. We must’ve gone in six or seven planes. We photographed dozens. We saw hundreds. At some point we realised there was a security guard inside the fence as well and had to hide in landing gear a few times. It was the most fun I have ever had in the United States.
The Boneyard was like nothing I have ever experienced – it was massive, pristine and surreal. We had a great time there and I would love a revisit, especially given we only went in something like 2% of the planes there. Then again, I hear there’s a much bigger one in Arizona that has a space shuttle in it…
London Consolidation Crew. 2011. All up in your military base.
“It’s about the risk sometimes.”
Part I: The Sounding
Let’s get those photoreceptor cells warmed up and neurons bouncing people, it’s time for Place Hacking Chicago, where secret spatial knowledge leaks out like early-morning pillow drool through cracks in the urban security infrastructure.
Chicago was a slimy glimmer as Marc and I sped in, sleep deprived, stinky and tweaked out on our successes in Detroit. We had been hearing rumours of an extensive tunnel system modelled on London’s Mail Rail where some fiendish little schizophrenic called Dr. Chaos had hidden cyanide stolen from the University of Chicago back in the early aughts. Apparently it was accessible through manhole covers, gated up with steel doors that had pins we could pop out with a hammer and screwdriver. Next stop Home Depot we figured, we’re going underground.
But Chicago presented those tunnels as false idols to be chased and worshipped by neophyte place hackers looking for lone star epics to boost international credibility and couch surfing bonus cred. Marc and I read the runes and realised our destiny lay in the heavens of the Windy City. We first hit the Hilton Chicago where we were advised the doors to the elevator controls were poppable with a credit card. Within minutes of arriving downtown, we were up the fire escape and on the roof.
But the Hilton’s rooftop, sexy as it was, left us unsatiated. We looked higher and noticed a thunderstorm of epic proportions coming to meet us downtown. It was prime time to climb the highest the midwest had to offer and grab hold of Chicago’s gods – big cumulonimbus death eaters ready to thunder down bolts of righteous over Lake Michigan.
The 40-story Ritz Carlton Residences had the Eye of Suaron on them, a bulbous 360-degree inverted black dome swivelling around and gaping at the piddly four-foot fence into the site. By the time we were standing in front of it, the rain was coming in from five sides, threatening to breach our bags and assault the fragile electronics in our cameras. I looked to Marc. He nodded. We ran across the street and gave the camera the finger as we ninja’d the scaffolding and ducked inside. The first set of stairs was easy to find but hominid specific ultrasonic vibrations on the third floor revealed a fat man in a bright vest reading Maxim at a desk facing the wrong way to actually perform the job he was being paid for. We left him to it and hit the crane to bypass third floor stair ‘security’. As soon as we swung onto the crane we got hammered by the gods of Lake Michigan again. Their wrath was significant at this point. The thunderstorm had intensified into a full-fledged sensory cacophony complete with blue forked lighting strikes jabbing in dangerous proximity as our shadowy figures scaled the steel cage toward the stars. A few floors up, past the stair barriers, we snuck back to the concrete steps and climbed. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever climbed 40 floors but the thing is that if you’re in reasonably good shape at 20 you’re fucked. After that, it’s just sheer adrenaline, fear and unquenchable anticipation that keeps the legs moving. Add to that the fact the we were eating primarily trail mix and woke up that morning (14 hours ago? 20?) on top of a port building in Detroit and you start to get an idea of what we are up against here. We chilled for a second.
Then we heard them. Sirens. Everywhere. They converged on our location and the blood drained from Marc’s face. Without a blink, he cinched his pack straps and said ‘if I’m getting busted, I’m getting busted on top’ and resumed climbing. Cheeky. We hit the stairs with renewed vigour, every turn in the case cranking up the heat, the angst, the fervour. By the time we get the top, I’m locked in a perpetual dubstep stair wobble and my thighs feel like they’ve been skewered and stuck over a campfire until they involuntarily pulsate.
Dripping, panting and wrecked, we walk outside on floor 40 to a nightmare of epic proportions. The architecture is in the midst of supra-environmental contractions rolling in every two minutes, ready to electroporate holes in our cell membranes. The place is heaving and screaming as the gods of Lake Michigan hurl down forks of fury at this giant concrete and metal phallus we just climbed. I am, quiet seriously, terrified that the air ducts, which appear to be zip-tied to the scaffolding, are going to come down on us. And then I see it. Marc Explo is standing on an incomplete ledge being whipped by the rain, defying the gods of Chicago. And the rain stops. And the sirens stop. We look over the edge and there’s nobody there but methamphetamine-addled cab drivers, confused, jetlagged tourists and drunk dudes in loosened ties cruising the Magnificent Mile for violence. Turns out, the sirens probably had nothing to do with us. More false idols.
To this day I still swear Marc assassinated the gods of Chicago. Or maybe he just appeased them with his audacity, for they appeared to linger in wait, providing us with ample opportunity to take our photos in their image, replicating their relentless bombardment for the sake of the Powerslide. In that brief respite between aerial assaults we became the new gods of Chicago and we didn’t intend to take our responsibilities as false prophets lightly. We immediately ran back down 40 floors, bought a beer and popped a hatch in the middle of the one of the Chicago River bridges, toasting those who failed to attend this feckless roadtrip, and those who were on different ones, while the monsoon continued.
The next day we found ourselves working harder than we should have to sneak into an abandoned Brach’s candy factory. The two events of note within that dirtheap of a building were (1) a guy living in a tent on the third floor of the Chewy Candies Caramels® assembly line (who had clearly located a superior ingress/egress route to us) and (2) the fact that the whole factory reeked of marshmallows, nuts and chocolate. If Place Hacking was scratch and sniff, I could have bottled and relayed the smell of derelict chocolate. Since we haven’t uncovered that particular technological wonder just yet, you will have to fly to Chicago and climb over that fence yourself. Sorry.