Finding beauty and adventure in the most unlikely places
The thing about “Curly” that strikes me surprising is her impeccably groomed eyebrows. They sort of stray from the sewer rat persona just a little.
Neither Curly nor her mate Will, a slight gent from Boston, are dreadlocked, though as her name implies, Curly is bestowed with a mass of tangled, blue-tipped brown-rooted ringlets. At first glance, they both look perfectly blend-in-able.
Curly and Will are “urban explorers” or “tunnel folk,” to use the term Curly prefers. Curly grew up in Sydney and was still a teenager when she first connected with the Cave Clan, a crew of trespassing drain crawlers that clamber underground in sewers and hydro-ducts, abandoned mines and other man-made dark and dank places.
Now 28, she drifts from place to place, working at festivals and mapping and exploring underground rivers and sewer systems all over the world.
The two friends first met in “the gorgeous buried rivers of Boston,” as Curly tells it. They sleep in subways and rooftops and wherever they can find a bit of shelter. Curly has curled up everywhere from cranes to windmills.
But tonight, they are sleeping in my living room.
We’ve met courtesy of CouchSurfing—the global hospitality exchange I dismissed for years as “too contrived,” but finally succumbed to. I’d been inundated with requests, and mostly turned them down of late because I was too busy and exhausted. But Curly’s inclusion of a random factoid intrigued me.
“…Launceston has the oldest sewer in Australia actually! There is an old bluestone outfall from the original 1800s system on the waterfront.”
I guess if my town in Tasmania was going to be famous for something, the sewer system would be it…
The day we met they made their way through the Duck Reach tunnel.
Regretfully, I opted for a mountain bike race instead of joining them, but Curly and Will reckon that as tunnels go, Duck Reach is a bit of a miserable trawl anyway. Knee deep in sludge; better to make your first sewer a pretty one…
Of the two friends, Will is the more adrenaline-motivated.
“I remember the first time I jumped down onto the subway tracks, I was 14,” says Will, now 24. “They were renovating the station, and I just ran through the tunnel to the next station so I didn’t have to pay again… I remember that being really thrilling.”
A couple years later he was touring the northeastern United States with camera in tow, breaking into abandoned asylums and photographing the ruins.
These days Will’s adventures take many forms: he climbs buildings and bridges, explores train and subway systems, and adventures through drains and sewers.
Obviously this sort of adventure has some inherent risk, in many ways akin to the risks rock climbers and canyoners sometimes take. But Will says for the most part, his biggest concern is not so much his physical safety as it is getting caught.
There’ve been some close calls…
Some of his misadventures seem worthy of the Darwin awards, like the time he fell breaking into an abandoned hospital in a tiny town in Massachusetts when he was 17. He lost his grip on the brick exterior as he was maneuvering into the window and fell from the second story. With his hand too mangled for him to drive, Will had to call an ambulance to get himself to the hospital.
For the most part authorities do seem to have a sense of perspective [if not humour] and so far he's managed to escape without a record.
“People generally get that there’s an interest in the structure of abandoned buildings—most of the time it’s no issue and people realize we’re harmless when we are just setting up tripod and taking pictures,” Will says.
But not always.
If you’re going to trawl underground in an anxious city, it may be prudent to check for terrorist alerts first.
Will learned that lesson the scary way.
A week after Osama bin Laden was killed and days after the government warned that Al Qaeda might be targeting trains, a man who might be described as mentally instable walked two miles along active subway tracks from NYC to New Jersey. He told police left a bomb in the tunnel.
Perfect timing to go play in a subway...
Later the same day a resident in a nearby apartment building spotted a bearded Will and three of his mates, all young men, entering the subway tunnel via a hatch.
He alerted the NYPD, who responded the way you might expect them to when they think they are dealing with would-be bomb suspects. They sent an assault-rifle armed SWAT team down to search.
“They were really paranoid and on high alert that night," Will recalls. "So it may have been more intense than it normally would have been, but I did have a gun to the back of my head with somebody screaming that he was going to blow it off if I made any moves, and I don’t doubt that he would have…”
He spent two days in jail on that occasion.
Mostly though, the anticipation is greater than any actual conflict. He reflects on the bliss and sense of accomplishment of some his triumphs, such as a spontaneous decision to conquer the Brooklyn Bridge one evening.
"It was something I had always wanted to do and it was amazing,” he reminisces. “You’re looking around and it’s kind of small for a bridge—so you’re kind of paranoid about being seen—it’s really well lit up with all these spotlights shining on it so you’re totally visible and vulnerable, more so than other bridges.”
Will works mostly odd jobs to fund his travels.
When he says he is a photographer, I’m a little dismissive. Everyone’s a photographer these days…
Then he shows me his photos.
And I find myself flattered that he had commented approvingly on a few of the landscapes I had hanging in my flat…
The best adventures combine physical challenge with aesthetics, Will says, but it can often be difficult to find places that offer both.
In many ways it’s his photography that has earned him respect among both peers and skeptics.
But given the choice, he says he’d take the adventures over the art.
“Carrying a tripod through tunnels can get really, really exhausting,” he says. “You have to try to keep your balance and you’ve got this big heavy thing in your hands and you’ve got to get through tight spaces sometimes. I really enjoy it much more when I don’t have my photo gear, but I also really enjoy documenting it all, so it’s a trade-off.”
It’s one I’m glad he sometimes makes. His photos have opened me up to the beauty of places I’ll probably never venture into.
Looking at them, I get it. And isn’t that what the best photography does? Allow you to enter and appreciate an experience that might be very different from your own reality?
It’s what I love about CouchSurfing too…
I still chat to Curly now and again, courtesy of Mark Zuckerberg’s technology. She’s got that same ability…to make something so strange and smelly and…unsanitary… seem worthy of adding to the ‘bucket list.’
She's wandering the world connecting with tunnel folk and from Minnesota to Milan. Last we spoke she was in Paris, about to hitch to Switzerland to map buried rivers she’d missed on her previous visit.
“They are powerful, deep, huge," Curly explains when I expose my lack of knowledge on buried rivers. "They exist in almost every European city. But most have had their headwater diverted or tapped elsewhere...Places like bologna, Lausanne and Oslo have the headwaters intact and the rivers rush under the city…I like to feel the strength of a natural river.” Her passion effuses.
I’ll probably never crawl through and map a sewer. But I can understand why she does.
Check out Will West's portfolio here: http://willwestphoto.4ormat.com/