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What I Learned in the Las Vegas Storm Drains

High Country News, a respected environmental paper based in Paonia, Co., published an essay of mine about my experiences in the Las Vegas storm drains. Here’s the original version of the essay, for the initiated, which is a combination of stuff from Beneath the Neon, the media materials and original writing:

The catacombs of ancient Rome served as houses of worship for Jews and Christians. When surveyed by Pierre-Emmanuel Bruneseau in the early 1800s, the sewers of Paris yielded gold, jewels and relics of the revolution. And thousands of people lived in the subway and train tunnels of New York City in the 1980s and ’90s.

What secrets do the Las Vegas storm drains keep? What discoveries wait in the dark? What’s beneath the neon?

Armed with a flashlight, tape recorder and expandable baton for protection, I sought to answer these questions.

It all started in the summer of 2002, when I explored five storm drains with freelance writer Joshua Ellis. It culminated in the summer of 2004, when I explored the flood-control system in full. It continued through 2006, as I returned to the drains for follow-up notes and to explore virgin tunnels.

When I came up with the idea of exploring the storm drains, after reading about a fugitive who used a drain to elude the police, I didn’t consider that they might be inhabited. I couldn’t make that connection; it was too remote for a boy from the middle-class South. I expected to find concrete, darkness and water – miscellaneous items (a wallet or a wig – ha, ha, ha), graffiti and maybe a stray animal. But I did not expect to find people. People sleep in houses, condos and apartments. They sleep in hotels, motels and – a local favorite – trailers. They sleep in shelters, parks and under bridges.

But they do not sleep in dark concrete boxes that run for miles and miles. They do not sleep in concrete boxes that fill with floodwater.

Exploring the storm drains with Josh, I found out that they do. And as we interviewed the inhabitants, it almost began to make sense. The drains are ready-made reliable shanties – a floor, two walls and a ceiling. They provide shelter from the intense Mojave heat and wind. (Remember, most desert animals live underground.) Some of the drains are dry for weeks, even months. And cops, security guards and business owners don’t dare roust anyone beyond the shade line.

But ultimately, the drains are deathtraps. They’re disorienting and sometimes dangerously long. Many of them run under streets and contain pockets of carbon monoxide. They can be difficult to exit, particularly in a hurry. They’re not patrolled. (Who would work that beat for $50,000 a year?) They’re not monitored. There are no rules. There are no heroes. And, oh yeah, they can fill a foot per minute with floodwater.

Walking into a storm drain is like walking into a casino: You never know what’s going to happen, but chances are it isn’t going to be good.

But the flood-control system wasn’t all bad. I learned a lot about Las Vegas, Las Vegans and myself down there in the dark. While walking straightaways that felt like concrete treadmills, I thought about the ephemeral nature of Vegas: old bungalows being bulldozed; friends who appear, then disappear; the Dunes, Sands and Desert Inn collapsing in clouds of dust. This city eats its children, I thought. Everything here is as disposable as a razor blade – except for the storm drains. They’re our preservation areas. Our art galleries. Our time capsules.

For me, they were also a classroom.

I followed the footsteps of a psycho killer. I two-stepped under the MGM Grand at 3 in the morning. I chased the ghosts of Benny Binion, Bugsy Siegel, Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes.

I discovered that a manhole can feel a lot like heaven. That in some ways, I prefer underground Las Vegas to aboveground Vegas: It’s cooler, quieter and there’s a hell of a lot less traffic. That maybe the afterlife is just a matter of trading in your body for a new-and-improved model.

I learned how to make meth. That art is most beautiful where it’s least expected. And that there are no pots of gold under the neon rainbow.