The sometimes illegal and often dangerous sport of urban exploration
It’s a quiet spring morning and I’m in the South Valley, turning west from Second Street onto a dirt road I’ve never noticed before. The car I’m following traverses a curve of road between a cluster of industrial buildings. A quarter mile farther, we come to a dead end and park our cars beside an abandoned set of railroad tracks. On the other side of a bracken-filled ditch, the object of our expedition—a rusted, empty factory—rises out of the overgrown weeds and broken asphalt of a disused parking lot.
As I exit my car, my three guides Wookie, Lonelocust and Killbox greet me. (None of them wished to use their real names in print, preferring instead to go by the handles they use on urban exploration forums.) The three are in their late 20s to early 40s, and all wear black. They seem uncomfortable with my presence, unsure of exactly how to talk to me about the day’s planned activity. I understand. After all, what we are about to do is illegal.
These three are Albuquerque-based members of an informal worldwide community devoted to exploring and documenting out-of-bounds urban spaces such as the nearby abandoned factory. They call their hobby urban exploration, or urbex.
Killbox, who maintains a website documenting his expeditions, offers his own definition. “I describe urban exploring as this: When you’re driving from a familiar place to another familiar place, taking that left turn instead of the right turn you usually take,” he explains. “It’s picking an alleyway instead of a main street. ... A lot of times it really is just learning about the town that you’re in.”
I tell him that sounds like something everyone does, and I ask him what makes urbex different.
He thinks for a moment, then smiles. “Being conscious of it,” he says. “I realized long ago that I’d always done this type of exploring, it wasn’t anything new to me. It was only in the last seven years that I even found out there was a word for it. ... I would just take notice of what was around me.”
Of course, there’s more to it than that. As Killbox readily admits, most people don’t crawl through holes in fences or sneak into crumbling buildings in violation of trespassing regulations, no matter how conscious of their surroundings they might be.
Back at the dead-end road, our small group gathers around a strange, collapsed wooden structure beside the ditch, speculating on its possible purpose. Based on a chute protruding from one ramshackle side and a pile of rubble nearby, Killbox guesses it may have been some sort of sifter for gravel or other aggregate. More theories are offered, but no consensus is reached. The questions seem to exist for their own sake, asked without expectation of an answer, almost like patrons at a museum discussing artwork. This type of speculation will be the order of the day; every feature we encounter will be made the subject of an inquiry.
When we are done with our theorizing about the “sifter,” Killbox leads the way to today’s objective, the derelict factory. Careful to avoid tangled barbed wire, we pick our way over a shallow ditch. “This is part of the old Barelas acequia,” Killbox informs us. “It used to carry water right through Downtown until they sealed it up.” Throughout my previous conversations with him, Killbox has revealed an exhaustive knowledge of Albuquerque’s history.
On the other side of the ditch, the factory stands alone in a wide, empty field. None of the three knows anything about the building; Killbox recently found it by chance while tracking the remnants of the old acequia, and he has been unable to find any information about the site online. As we walk toward its rusting hulk, the four of us again discuss its possible former purposes. The group speculation revolves around a mineral or gravel processing facility. The mood is somber, the conversation muted.
A 34-year-old systems administrator for a local Internet service provider, Killbox has nurtured a lifelong interest in out-of-the-way or off-limits locations. As a young man, he first turned his exploratory passions toward the gray areas of the computing world, becoming, at the age of 21, a member of 2600, an infamous computer and telephone hacker’s club.
“Hacking is about thinking outside the box,” he says, considering the parallels between his online explorations and urbex. “It’s about expecting the unexpected. It’s trying and testing things and being careful. ... If you can’t get permission to enter a property, it is trespassing. Same thing with looking behind the sidelines of an end-user licensing agreement on software. ... You’re bound by the rules and regulations of software companies not to look at the man behind the curtain and see what makes it tick, and sometimes you’re bound by rules and regulations not to look behind a crumbling wall.”
It was this interest in hacking that first led him to the concept of urban exploration. “I really became aware of urban exploration around 2002 to 2003,” he explains. “There was a speech at one of the hacker conferences I went to by a group of people who had visited an old mental hospital in Upstate New York.” His fellow hackers’ enthusiastic descriptions of the mossy, crumbling structure they had explored struck a nerve. He realized there were other people with a similar interest in crossing fence lines and taking that “left turn."
When Killbox returned to Albuquerque, he immediately started seeking out locations to explore. “One of the early big ones here [was when] I got into the bank at Third and Central with a renter's permission and explored it as they were doing the beginning parts of its full renovation,” he remembers. “I got to explore the vaults, the sub-basement, the rooftop, the elevator shafts.” Other locations followed: the Barelas Railyards, the old Sandia asylum and the countless remains of industrial buildings along Albuquerque’s railroad.
A few years of exploring later, he decided to turn what had been his personal livejournal page into a public urbex website as a way to connect with other local explorers and interested readers. “[I wanted] to make it open and public,” he says. “I wanted it to really be a community, for sharing of locations, asking questions and finding exploring buddies.” Today, Echoes of the Past serves as a hub for Albuquerque’s fledgling urbex scene. Killbox and others use the site to find explorers who may be interested in a particular location, to post narratives of their outings and to share photographs of the areas they explore. The site also serves as a springboard to other urbex communities across the U.S. as well as around the globe. “I'm in touch with about two dozen other urbex fanatics around the world. ... We talk about locations and share tips,” he says.
One particularly vibrant international livejournal site, Abandoned Places, features photos by urbexers from a multitude of locations—its front page recently revealed a ruined hotel on the Eastern Seaboard, a series of decaying mobile homes in the Salton Sea area of California, an abandoned Soviet-era school in Russia and a walled-off pedestrian underpass in Albuquerque.
I find myself lingering over the Albuquerque photos. I’ve passed by the location countless times, but the photographs focus on particular details I’ve never noticed before—a plaque indicating Clyde Tingley’s involvement in the project; the wall that blocked the former walkway from the outside; the strange, vaguely art-deco fixtures under the bridge that once held lightbulbs. The images remove each feature from the context of the everyday, encouraging the viewer to examine it in its own right.
They seem uncomfortable with my presence, unsure of exactly how to talk to me about the day’s planned activity. I understand. After all, what we are about to do is illegal.
Soon we reach the factory, a rusted metal hulk with pipelines and platforms protruding from its outer walls. With a minimum of fanfare, Killbox pulls open a two-story steel door that screeches alarmingly and wobbles on its tracks. He disappears into the darkness inside. A moment later, we follow.
The factory floor is cavernous and mostly empty, its recesses lit by sunlight that filters through holes in the roof. The interior is dominated by steel stairs that climb to a group of catwalks by the ceiling. Wires and cables hang from the walls; a huge pile of trash fills a trough-like pit. The group immediately spreads out, each person quietly picking his or her way to one of the building’s intriguing features. There is a solemnity to their movements, and the murmured questions have been replaced by a palpable, contemplative silence.
In essence, there is nothing new about urban exploration. From ancient, crumbling ruins to abandoned quarries, there’s always been somewhere people aren’t supposed to go—and someone willing to thumb his or her nose at authority and go there anyway.
For their part, according to Killbox, modern urban explorers typically trace their origin back to an unlikely, and possibly mythical, figure. One night in 1793, during the turbulent years of the French Revolution, Philibert Aspairt, a doorman at Val de Grâce hospital, descended a forgotten staircase and entered the catacombs that sprawl beneath Paris. Using only candlelight, he wandered the labyrinthine passages until the flame went out. No one knows how long he fumbled in the darkness, searching in vain for an exit, until starvation snuffed his life as surely as his candle had gone out. Eleven years later, the story goes, a team of engineers tasked with mapping the catacombs stumbled upon his remains and interred him on the spot, erecting a memorial stone to mark the site. It was less than 30 yards from an exit he never found.
Philibert Aspairt may not have existed, and if he did, his death may not have unfolded as just described. The only known record of his life and death is the memorial stone the Parisian engineers erected to honor him. Regardless, Aspairt has become something of a patron saint for urban explorers. His memorial stone serves as a pilgrimage point for the Paris urbex community and numerous timelines and essays on urbex websites across the world name him as the “first” urban explorer. Why? According to Killbox, Aspairt embodies several key aspects of the hobby. “I [look] back to Philibert Aspairt partially because myth, legend and danger are all a part of the sport,” he explains. For Killbox, Aspairt serves as a “tangible bit of a story” that has been repeated again and again. Indeed, Aspairt’s historical anonymity makes him something of an urban-explorer Everyman, a role that is only bolstered by his unknown motives for entering the catacombs in the first place.
And, of course, the circumstances of his death serve as a provocative cautionary tale.
There's no getting around the fact that urbex is dangerous. “You’re not going into OSHA-approved environments,” Killbox says. “You’re going into dusty, falling apart, unmaintained buildings, and sometimes there’s a good reason they’ve been abandoned. You could fall into a pit, have something fall down and whack you on the head, step on something sharp or misjudge what is a safe, sound structure.” For that reason, Killbox employs the buddy system when he sets out for an intriguing new site. Fortunately, the popularity of his website makes finding exploration companions a fairly simple task. “I’ve had [groups of] two, and the largest I’ve had was seven,” he says, although he is quick to point out that larger groups become increasingly difficult to manage.
Perhaps the most pertinent risk lies in the potential consequences of trespassing. “Getting caught by local PD or building owners or security, that’s the biggest risk,” Killbox says. Whenever possible, he prefers to mitigate that risk by seeking out permission from the owners of the site. “Yes, there is a thrill to sneaking into places, but it’s even better [to have permission], especially if you really want to document a site,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about being near the windows or walking around outside and being seen. ... If you don’t have that one primary fear of getting caught, you can focus on some of the goals of exploring and seeing a site possibly for the last time.”
To this end, he is surprisingly diligent at seeking out official endorsement for his activities. When he finds a potentially interesting location—a ruined factory seen from afar, say, or an odd wedge-shaped pattern imprinted on an abandoned lot in the South Valley only glimpsed via Google Maps—he takes pains to try to track down its owners. He scouts the exterior of the location for any signs indicating ownership or offering phone numbers to call for more information; he performs a variety of Internet searches for the address; and, often most fruitfully, he combs through county tax records. Much of the time, he winds up with a name and address and uses whatever means are at his disposal to try to make contact.
When he receives an official answer, it is often a “no,” and he crosses the site off his list of possible explorations. Rarely it’s a “yes,” sometimes even with an offer of a guided tour, an opportunity he takes full advantage of when it’s presented. By far, however, the most frequent result of his queries is no response at all. From there, he takes matters into his own hands. “Everyone breaks a law or two, occasionally speeding a little bit, or jaywalking,” Killbox explains. “I suppose most of us think that if we are careful and nobody gets hurt, there is no harm in doing it. I guess I see [trespassing] the same way. I take great pains to make sure we are careful; we don't vandalize or loot.” He is adamant that he treats the sites with respect and never forces doors, cuts through fences or smashes windows to gain access to an area.
Trough and Grinder
Inside the factory, I don’t think much about the risks until I climb up the metal stairway to a grated platform. To my right, another set of stairs descends partway to the floor before ending in a ragged metal edge some 10 feet above the ground. Lonelocust is above me on one of the catwalks, walking carefully, heel-to-toe. I wonder how sturdy the steel girders holding the narrow platform against the wall can possibly be and decide I won’t be joining her. I descend the stairs. Below, Killbox has discovered an evil-looking grinder set into a deep pit in the floor, all rusted teeth and gears. Again we speculate as to its purpose, and again we must be satisfied with the mystery, for now.
After we’ve exhausted the factory’s interior, we move to the outside. Behind the warehouse, a small outbuilding draws our attention, and we enter it. Inside are the remains of a manager’s office, a broken chair and miscellaneous refuse. One of the group points out a ledger book on the floor. I pick it up and examine it. There’s not much I can glean from the columns of numbers and company jargon, but the name of the company is listed—Baker Commodities—and a year, 1990. The outbuilding contains little else of interest, and after one last walk around the structure, we decide our day is done and return to the cars.
Behind the Curtain
Some time after our outing at Baker Commodities, I join Killbox for an interview at the Albuquerque Press Club. We discuss the possibility of this article, and I ask him what he hopes people take away from it.
He thinks for a moment and says, “A healthy dose of curiosity about their surroundings. Make it a part of their lives.”
That night, after compiling my notes on the day’s interview, I do my own research on the location. A quick Internet search of “Baker Commodities” leads me to the company’s website, where I learn that Baker specializes in rendering services that recycle “animal by-products and kitchen waste into valuable products.”
A rendering plant. It takes a moment to sink in. The “factory” had been a plant where animal tissues (bone and unusable flesh, for instance) were essentially boiled down into salvageable oils. A few more search terms and I’m all too aware of what, exactly, the grisly process entails. I think back to the remains of conveyor belts that were littered outside the facility, the trash-filled trough that was set into the plant’s floor and the mysterious grinder that took up one end of that trough. Suddenly, these objects fit together in my mental image of how a rendering plant would operate, and I feel momentarily queasy. The trough and grinder are especially evocative, placed as they were in a perfect position to catch waste materials from above and, well, liquidate them.
Further searching reveals that this particular Baker plant had been at the center of at least one controversy—a 1995 EPA report shows that the facility was dumping its waste (to the tune of 4,320 gallons per day) into a manmade lagoon just south of the plant. Unfortunately, Baker had neglected to line the lagoon, and the waste began to seep into the groundwater. To this day, Baker is required to monitor four onsite wells.
I suddenly realize this is what Killbox means when he says urban exploration is “taking notice of your surroundings” with “a healthy dose of curiosity.” There are hidden and forgotten stories like that of Baker Commodities and its leaking cesspool, and most of us are completely unaware of them.
Urban exploration is about seeking those stories out, about searching for the places of which we know nothing, about turning down the dirt roads we’ve never before noticed and, above all, trying to understand them. Sometimes the story is that of faded industrial grandeur, like the Barelas Railyards; sometimes it’s the last relics of the once-ubiquitous entertainment of a former era, like the still-standing screen of the Sunset Drive-In, hidden by overgrown trees and a locked gate in the South Valley; and sometimes the story is of a rendering plant that polluted the land it stood on, and whose only remains are a decaying building and the tainted groundwater it left behind.
These stories are not well known, and they are not always easy to discover. But each one helps us to understand our city, and our world, a little better. Is it necessary to break trespassing laws in order to gain this context? I don’t think so. Urbex certainly isn’t for everyone, but I’m glad someone like Killbox and his friends are doing it. And I’m glad they have the foresight to document their discoveries.