By Ryan Marr
It was a cold weekend night near the end of the fall semester and I was huddled in the shadows beneath an evergreen tree on the sloping hill beside duPont Hall. My arms strained to lift the prickly branches into a canopy above Justin’s kneeling form as he pulled up on something immensely heavy.
“C’mon, you little bastard,” he whispered, wedging his index fingers into the gladiator shield of a storm drain. I bent down to help him tug on one side, while the other members of our party glanced nervously around, the prospect of campus patrol car headlights looming in our collective consciousness.
“Can they do anything to us if we get caught down there?” Daniel asked. “I’m mean I’m not even a student, so what would they do? Expel me?”
“Shh,” someone said. “Didja hear that?”
A flashlight flicked on and off.
“Nothing. Probably a squirrel.”
“That was not a squirrel.”
“Relax. It was probably just President Hample.”
“Does anyone know if there’s a strike-count for trespassing? Like do you get three?”
“No, seriously. Something moved there, on the other side of the street. Right where I’m pointing. Swear to God.” A flashlight flicked on again.
“Trespassing? On state property? I don’t think they can–”
“SHHHHHH!” Justin hissed. “Turn off the goddam flashlights.”
I couldn’t see his face real well in the dark as we laid the iron slab down beside the entrance, but I had a pretty good hunch that he was annoyed. This was supposed to have been a small, intimate outing–no more than three or four people, he’d said, unless you’re trying to get caught. In exchange for his wisdom and guidance, I’d promised I’d keep our entourage small.
In our journey across campus though, from one padlocked entrance point to another, our group had snowballed to 13 or 14 strong. I’d told pretty much everyone we’d seen that night about our subterranean ambitions, more excited to talk about the prospect of going beneath campus than actually getting down there. Too anxious or embarrassed to say anything now, I stared down at the entrance where the lid had been, where my retinas were already inventing darker shades of black to color the hole we’d opened up in the shadow of the evergreen.
It was late enough that Mary Washington’s sizable population of introverts was settled in textbooks or a movie, but not so late that the party-oriented crowd was stumbling and shouting their way back to the dorms, so an eerie December quiet hovered over the grounds. Justin, standing up, did a quick panoramic survey of our surroundings. Then, without a word, as if none of us were even there, he slid his feet neatly into the hole that was swallowing all the golden light from a nearby lamppost, and climbed down into the darkness.
We all stood there, silent, watching him descend.
“So what? Are we supposed to just follow him?” Daniel finally asked, looking at me. I didn’t know what to say or do, so I walked over to the edge of the hole and looked down. The top of Justin’s trademark OBX panama hat had already vanished into the abyss. For a moment, I thought about all the baseballs that used to roll into the storm drain in front of my house as a kid, how I’d kneel down, cupping my hands around my eyes in opposing C’s against the drain gap, and watch them roll out of sight into the darkness. Only then would I tell my older brother, who wasn’t afraid of dark tunnels and spiders, that I needed his assistance.
“I’ll see you pussies at the bottom,” I said and put a foot on the top rung.
It wasn’t until my junior year that I first heard rumors of the steam tunnels that stretched like so many miles of forgotten mineshaft beneath campus, shrouded in Parisian-catacomb-type levels of myth and legend. Supposedly, you could kick in a screen behind the laundry room in Bushnell Hall and crawl a whole mile underneath campus to where they emerged beneath the pool in Goolrick Gymnasium, without having to poke your head above ground even once. According to varying reports, the tunnels had over time harbored everything from bong-toting students seeking refuge from the school’s totalitarian one-strike drug policy to encampments of homeless people to dog-sized rats and the sexual exploits of thrill-seeking, hormone-fueled undergrads. There was one particularly hilarious rumor of some poor adventurous kid who crawled so far into a narrower section beneath the Monroe Fountain, that he’d gotten stuck, and had to call campus police from his cell phone to explain his predicament.
I heard most of this from Justin, an editor several years my senior at the student newspaper, who was, at least in the minds of all of us about to follow him blindly down a storm drain, a tunnel-hacking, wall-scaling, you-broke-onto-the-roof-of-what-building-in-broad-daylight visionary of the highest order. His crowning achievement was this standard-issue, incoming-freshman brochure map he’d blown up to ten times its original size at Office Max and upon which he’d meticulously scribbled the cumulative knowledge he’d acquired in four years of campus exploration: detailed instructions on how to break into the dining hall, which particular tree provided the best cover for jumping through a window into George Washington Hall, and most importantly, the locations of every access point to the steam tunnels traced out in pencil all over the map. To any college student who grew up on J.K. Rowling, it was, essentially, a Marauder’s Map of campus.
At the time, there were maybe a handful of students and professors in my English classes that I’d jealously identified as preternaturally gifted readers, the ones who treated a simple sentence or paragraph as if it were a glass-bottomed boat through which to point excitedly at the whale-sized silhouettes lurking somewhere beneath where I saw only reflections and ripples, words on a page. By just about any professor’s academic yardstick, Justin was not a great student. Chronically tardy with papers, hallow-eyed and distant in class, Justin likely drove most of them to frustration with his unreliably sporadic bursts of fiercely opinionated intelligence that tended to coincide with weeks when there wasn’t a newspaper issue to put out. But looking back, I realize that Justin was like those gifted readers too, in a way–a savant of the unseen. Except where their world dropped off abruptly at the edge of the page like some 14th century notion of planetary geography, Justin’s began, extending into the one in which we actually lived and breathed. Where I saw a chip in a tile floor, a low-hanging tree branch, an exhaust vent, he saw a passageway to a hidden basement, access to the window of a locked building, the gateway to an underground world.
Once Justin had disappeared into the ground, we filed down after him, slowly, apprehensively, rung by rung, until about half of us stood hunched over in the mildewed tunnel, mute with wonder, flashlights projecting little florescent moons all over the rusted pipes and verdigris-colored walls. There was a constant low-level hum of steam moving through the pipes and the occasional leaky faucet sound of condensed steam dripping into puddles on the concrete floor. I didn’t see any rats.
“Are you guys coming or what?” someone yelled up the empty ladder.
“I dunno, man,” Daniel whispered back, leaning his head as far as he could down into the tunnel. “I’m starting to get real bad vibes about this whole thing. Think some guys over on College Avenue saw you go down. Might just meet you outside Goolrick.”
Then, before anyone could get any more details, or even take a quick potshot at Daniel’s masculinity, the small splotch of moonlight on the concrete floor disappeared, and the storm drain clanged back into place.
“Fuck,” someone said.
“Should we go back?” I said. “Couldn’t we just say we found this hole open and decided to have a look around. I mean they can’t punish us for being curious.”
A whistle like the kind you’d use to attract the attention of a domesticated animal echoed from the far end of the tunnel, where Justin was standing, almost out of flashlight range. “Are you guys coming or what?”
No one needed to prod us twice. We took off down the increasingly narrow passage, running more than walking, stooped over like some simian-stage evolutionary form of a human being. After about a hundred yards, the floor sloped dramatically downwards, and the temperature seemed to rise a centimeter of mercury every couple of seconds, little beads of sweat running down our foreheads. By the time we were beneath the water line and wading through ankle-deep, rust-colored groundwater, most of us were carrying our heavy winter coats under whichever arm wasn’t holding a flashlight. Other than the occasional surprised exclamation when a jet of high pressured steam caught someone on the arm, no one said much, sealed off in our own impossibly private feelings¹ of tomb-raiding awe. When anyone did talk, it was usually just to giggle like a lovesick schoolgirl, or yell for someone up ahead to wait up, because they had just lost a shoe in the water.
For me, the whole experience kept dredging up these long dormant flashlight-under-the-covers-type memories of reading Journey to the Center of the Earth when I was a kid and couldn’t sleep. Every time we turned a corner, I kept half expecting the tunnel to open up into some giant cavern, replete with an underground ocean, prehistoric reptilian creatures, giant mushrooms, and some crazy electrically-phosphorus sky. It wasn’t until one of the little jets of steam caught me on the arm that I suddenly remembered how Justin had described the high-pressure steam shooting through the poorly-insulated pipes “as hot enough to burn your skin off” and the reality of our situation set in. Romanticized words in a book about subterranean exploration, it turns out, don’t go very far in conveying the very real nerve-singeing panic of a claustrophobic attack.
So it was with audible gasps of relief and fresh air that I greeted a tiny, coin-sized dot of light at the far end of the tunnel, the entrance to the steam room underneath the pool in Goolrick.
The relief, however, was short-lived. Just as we were clambering over the last of the industrial-sized pipes that criss cross the steam room, I got a text from Daniel.
“There might be a cop car outside Goolrick.”
“There might?” I texted. What the hell was that supposed to mean?
“Ok now there’s two,” he sent back.
Shit, I thought. We all stared at each other.
“I guess we could go back,” I said. I looked back towards the dark, mildewed crevice we had just crawled out of and then down at my sopping wet Reebox Classics.
“Lets just sprint for the woods,” Justin suggested. “I think we could make it to the woods without them seeing us.”
I stared at him. Knee-deep in not just murky groundwater, but career-track job applications and rent/utility/groceries expenses, he had to have been all too well-attuned to the professional implications of a trespassing charge. Justin, unlike the rest of us, was no longer living under the amniotic umbrella of collegiate naivete. Honestly, I was a little surprised he’d agreed to come play Sacajawea on our little escapade to begin with. But there he was, sweat dripping from the thin, black wisp of a goatee that jutted out under the floppy brim of his panama hat, a plaid, longed-sleeve button-down tied Hey Arnold-style around his waist, like some kind of lost evolutionary link between Hunter S. Thompson and Indiana Jones.
Adrenaline pumping at abnormal levels, we huddled around the side basement door, just across from the parking deck. The coast clear, we pushed open the door and ran like madmen to the woods between Goolrick and Route 1.
About halfway to the woods, I got another text from Daniel.
“The cops are driving around back.”
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” I yelled. “They’re coming around that way.” All ten of us sprinted back the way we had come, towards the parking deck, towards the woods, towards freedom. Turning the corner of the building though, my stomach did a cannonball into my intestines. A uniformed cop with a too-big-to-believe silver moustache was waving at us from the security booth at the entrance to the parking garage.
We all stopped mid-dash, and immediately attempted to mimic some ridiculous performance of casualness, our socks still squishing in our wet sneakers. I think I put my hands in my pockets, but my memory, like everything else in my brain at that moment, just sort of flat-lined. I do remember that the walk to the security booth took an interminably long amount of time and that the wind kept picking up, dragging the December leaves along the asphalt and making a scraping noise, as if the dead foliage was digging its nails into the ground for dear life.
“Justin, is that you?” the cop said, squinting, when we were finally within conversational distance. “Could’ve sworn you graduated. Howve you been?” He grabbed Justin’s hand in the kind of tendon-flexing vice-grip that would’ve probably popped off a wristwatch if the officer had been wearing one. Justin winced and didn’t say anything. Letting go, the cop seemed to notice the rest of us for the first time. “What in God’s name are you guys doin running around out here like a bunch of maniacs? And how’d you get in Goolrick? That building is supposed to be locked down.”
We all looked around at each other kind of dumbly for a couple seconds hoping one of us would come up with a perfectly rational explanation for the understandably confused campus police officer. Justin finally broke the uncomfortable silence.
“Well, we uh, a friend of mine who works in the gym let us—”
“We crawled in through the steam tunnels,” I blurted out.
“You what? Where did you get in?”
I muttered out some combination of the words storm drain, duPont, and unlocked, while Justin stood there with his arms folded looking at me like he wanted to push me off the roof of a very tall academic building. The cop went on from there—detailing how unsafe the tunnels were, how even the facility workers donned asbestos-filtering Hazmat masks to do maintenance on them, how huge a liability trespassing in them posed for the school—but the truth is, I was hardly listening. I was too fixated on how I was going to explain this whole incident to my mom when I got expelled.
Hey Mom, remember that Great Illustrated Classics version of a Jules Verne book you bought me when I was a kid, the one you had to confiscate cause I wasn’t sleeping at night? Well, I just got expelled, and I’m pretty sure that book is mostly to blame.
I was still contemplating the depths of this imagined despair when Justin punched me on the arm.
“Hey, wake up. He needs to see our IDs.”
By some amazing stroke of luck though, it wasn’t because we were being prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The cop merely needed our names to turn over to the school’s dean of judicial affairs, whose most severe punishment usually involved writing an essay about why doing whatever thing it was you were caught doing–drinking underage in your dorm room or trespassing in the steam tunnels–was dangerous and wrong. The tension shot out of my stomach like air squeezed from a balloon. We were gonna make it out of this whole mess with our academic careers untainted after all.
Strolling back down Campus Walk to meet up with Daniel and rest of the group waiting outside the Nest, the mood was already celebratory.
“I can’t believe we made it outta there.”
“Check out this steam burn on my arm.”
“Didja see the look on that officer’s face when we came running out of Goolrick?”
It was your usual post-traumatic-emotional-incident compression of genuine anxiety into light-hearted conversation, designed to convince everyone who hadn’t followed us down that hole, that they’d missed out on some irrevocably significant and meaningful experience².
I, on the other hand, was silent for probably the first time all evening. Behind the closed doors of my brain though, I was mulling over not just how great a story this whole night was going to make when we met up with Daniel, but how great an essay it would make as an imagined punishment. I started crafting the whole piece in my head that night, mentally cataloguing some piece of dialogue I’d heard or wished I’d heard, or burning feelings I’d had or wished I’d had or read about once. I was getting so worked up about the idea, I didn’t even notice when Justin quietly detached from the group, slipping into the shadows that bordered the lamplight illuminating Campus Walk, probably to head home, so he could wake up for work early the next morning.
¹There’s a certain type of feeling you get scurrying through a 50-year-old concrete shaft, some twenty feet beneath the neatly landscaped geography you traverse several times a day, that is incredibly difficult to talk about, especially among a group of adrenaline-dizzy young 20-somethings males. The feeling usually starts with minute little hairs straightening up and tingling on the back of your leg and ends with all hell breaking loose among the neurons in your frontal lobe. If you’ve ever sprinted across an empty, florescent-lit parking lot at night as a kid, or ridden a bicycle through the halls of your high school after hours, or laid on your back and stared up at the night sky, stoned, at the 50-yard line of a deserted football stadium, you probably have at least some idea of the emotional cocktail involved. Something to do with the unauthorized violation of an unoccupied communal space, I think, that triggers this profound solitude, even if you’re traveling in a crowd. When I can’t think of any better way to describe it, I like to picture Bernini’s Ecstacy of Saint Theresa as she comes floating back to me from the pages of some high school art appreciation textbook, except where her arms once slumped, submissive and post-coital, by her sides, they’re now pointed up at the heavens in a giant, fuck-you middle finger to the universe.
²When I think back on all the stories I was intimately familiar with as a kid, not just Jules Verne, but the real culturally primal stuff, like Daniel Boone conquering the wilderness and George Washington crossing the Delaware, I start to suspect that it’s an identifiably American trait, this generational conversion of fear and anxiety into some sort of Manifest-Destiny archetype of courageous individualism. I think of Neil Armstrong taking his first few hesitant steps outside the Apollo 11, into a blank, unmapped darkness, and I’m right back kneeling at the storm drain in front of my house, watching a baseball roll out of sight, wishing I was my brother. I’m not sure what force drives this neurotic compulsion to recast our experiences as anything other than the experience itself, but I’ve got a hunch that it’s somehow at the root of our culturally-enforced solitude. Or maybe it’s just a personal trait, I don’t know. What I do know is that the more time I devote to writing and rewriting an essay that no dean of judicial affairs ever forced me to write, the farther and farther I get from communicating anything resembling the truth of what actually happened that night. And I don’t mean to suggest that truth here is relative, or doesn’t exist in a Capital-T sort of of way. It’s just that the Capital T-truth sometimes can be so unflattering and embarrassing, or maybe even just uninteresting, that we almost have to dress it up and pitch it to each other, like salesmen hawking specialty knives on each other’s front porches, insisting that this story, our story, is the one most worthy of your attention. When this suspicion gets really bad, I start worry that there’s not a single combination of words in the entire language that could communicate an honest sentence to anyone else . That stories like this one reveal much more about who we want to be, and how we want our audience to feel about who we want to be, than who we actually are.
A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, RYAN MARR lives in Fredericksburg, Va., where he works at a nearby community college and rents an attic bedroom from an unbelievably fat and attention-deprived cat.