Thursday, March 27, 2008

Revisiting the (underground) Ozarks

A couple of years ago, I spent an adventurous night with a group of college students who were fond of exploring forbidden places. The experience has stayed with me. Here's a bit of the story that appeared in The Joplin Globe.

CARTHAGE, Mo. -- Midnight. Lost in a labyrinth of rock and water.

"This happens every time," says White Rabbit casually as he dips his paddle into the water and propels the canoe a little further into the unknown. In the bow is Anne, a blond 17-year-old holding aloft a blazing Coleman lantern.

The brilliant light forces aside the darkness as if parting a curtain.

Everything looks the same: clear water tinged with a hint of green, massive pillars of gray rock, brown bats dotting the ceiling. A few bats flit overhead, disturbed by the passage of the 10 adventurers crammed into the canoe and two inflatable rafts.

The air is cool and the water colder, and the subterranean silence clings to the group as tightly as damp clothing. Even though this is their third illegal foray into the abandoned caverns at the edge of town, the group has been paddling around in a circle for nearly an hour, looking for anything familiar that might lead to the way out.

Sertile won't admit to being lost. Later, he will say, it was just a case of "spatial disorientation." Besides, they were only lost for about an hour.

In the past year, the group has ventured into areas that, for a variety of good reasons, are off limits to the public: Abandoned mines and mills across Missouri and Arkansas, the century-old Eighth Street tunnel in Kansas City, and a deactivated Nike missile battery near Pleasant Hill where the group managed to open the missile bay doors.

This sounds improbable, but they've posted video to prove it. It was a little strange, White Rabbit noted, to ride on an elevator designed for nuclear weapons.

The group's Web site, Underground Ozarks, is a combination bulletin board, travel diary, and photo album for urban exploration. The subculture is heavy with codes and aliases, and all nine members of the group identify themselves only by their online handles.

On this Saturday in the middle of October, the group has come to Carthage to gather more material and to probe around the edges of the massive underground storage facility owned by AmeriCold Logistics.

White Rabbit, an affable Missouri State University student from Springfield, doesn't care for the term "urban exploration." It's a $10 word for what nearly everybody has done, he says, at least at some point in their lives. It's about the satisfaction of going places where you don't belong and being able to brag about it later.