2400 hours. Location: Outside of the Titan Missile Site 3, Complex 2B.
A small truck speeds through the darkness down a wide dirt road, hanging an abrupt right onto an overgrown jeep trail. Two hundred yards into the field, the midnight-blue pickup stops, its headlights are cut, and Commander Chainsaw -- recently self-promoted to Supreme Commander -- exits the cab. "All right, ladies, gear up."
The four men crouching in the bed of the truck rise silently and account for their gear -- hard hats, headlamps, GPS, first-aid kit: check, check, check, double-check -- while the Commander relays some last-minute instructions. Leave no man behind, watch your step on the rusted catwalks, and for God's sake, leave your pagers in the car.
Subcommander Stretch reports that a civilian has made visual contact with their vehicle and could alert the authorities. Commander Chainsaw pauses -- Hmm. Tough call. The whole mission could be compromised. -- then signals to move out. Six infiltrators follow their flashlight beams into the dark expanse of farmland. They slide down a deep gulch to its grassy bottom, approaching a large steel tube: the entrance to the abandoned Titan 1 missile base.
Commander Chainsaw has explored half a dozen such subterranean missile silos throughout the eastern plains, Wyoming and Nebraska during the past year, but this particular site is special. This is where it all started, a motley crew of IT guys and dot-commoners venturing out from behind computer screens in the name of adventure and urban exploration. They found the silo locations on the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site and then ran daytime recon missions to pinpoint exact locations of the entrances, most of which had been filled in. Armed with satellite-image maps, they focused their efforts on a few discolored blobs hiding among the eastern Colorado cornfields, wandering the plains until Commander Big E got lucky and found a gaping maw leading into the Titan 1.
Wistfully, Commander Chainsaw peers into that tunnel, knowing that here begins the descent into a half-mile-long maze of corridors and launch silos covered with graffiti, corroded metal and latent chemicals. Scrawled across the mouth of the tunnel in white Krylon is the inspiration, left by some ancestral vandal of yore, for the group's name: Subciety.
May her glory shine!
Steady yourself, Commander. Don't get emotional in front of the men.
Strapping asbestos-rated respirators across their faces, Commander Chainsaw and the crew slip through the grate to spend another Saturday night underground.
2200 hours. Location: Village Inn, Iliff and Chambers.
Commander Chainsaw is early. He is slouched in a far corner booth by himself, wearing a Subciety.org baseball cap and a long-sleeved gray flannel shirt over a T-shirt that proclaims: "I read your e-mail." The 33-year-old's open, smirking face makes him look like he's always savoring some private joke.
The waitress plops down a plate of onion rings and a patty melt and asks if he would like more iced tea.
It should be a pretty solid team tonight, even without some of Subciety's most elite members. Commander Quad is AWOL in California; Dyno's busy; and Commander Big E, as the officer in charge of paranoia, is worried about getting busted and losing the security clearance required by his new job.
Halfway through his patty melt, Commander Chainsaw begins formulating the pre-mission briefing. Last week's infiltration of Gilman (an abandoned zinc-mining town perched on a cliff near Vail) was successfully executed, with zero incidents of casualty. This, he likes to think, is a result of his strict insistence on safety. As a former emergency medical technician, the Commander demands that all participants take the proper precautions: no one under eighteen; no drugs or alcohol; no unnecessary risks.
"You could be fined, arrested, hurt, killed or all of the above," he warns in the Subciety mission statement. "Don't blame me if you find yourself unprepared."
The Commander also advocates securing permission before exploring a site -- though not necessarily from the owners. From the wife. "She's the real Supreme Commander, you know."
The first to arrive at the staging area is Agent Geiger, who marches toward the booth in heavy hiking boots and black cargo pants. A former dot-com entrepreneur from the Midwest, Geiger now works in the aviation industry. "I'm pretty much one step above being a secretary," he admits with a grin. He is relatively new to the group but already has been to this particular Titan 1 base on three occasions. "They popped my cherry the first time. Now I just do it for the exercise."
The Commander nods in agreement while brushing onion-ring crumbs off his gut.
Thirty minutes later, in walks Subcommander Stretch, Agent Borland and The Newbie. Apologies, apologies, the three roommates say, sliding into the Naugahyde booth. This being his first mission, The Newbie is relegated to the role of The Bitch. In observance of Section 3, Article 5 of the Subciety Accord, he is informed that The Bitch -- TB for short -- is required to perform such menial tasks as clearing brush, carrying extra gear, opening and closing gates, fetching beverages and the like.
"Whatever," he shrugs.
The Commander stands and drops money on the table for the coffee and food. "All right, let's do it."
But an important tactical decision has been overlooked.
"Where are we going to pick up smokes?" Subcommander Stretch asks.
Ah, yes. Agent Borland and The Newbie will procure cigarette rations. Everyone else rides with the Commander.
0100 hours. Location: Forty feet below ground.
The six Titan 1 missile bases buried in Colorado's southeastern plains were completed in 1962, seven months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, when they were put on high alert and readied for launch. They remained operational until being decommissioned in 1965; the complexes were then gutted of all equipment and wiring -- including the 2,500 feet of steel-grate flooring in the personnel tunnels.
Agent Geiger balances his way across a five-inch-wide I-beam, trying not to slip into the chest-deep pool of stagnant gray liquid below. He leaps onto a heap of yellow insulation and then adjusts his respirator. "Gotta love asbestos."
Geiger waits as the rest of the crew painstakingly climbs through the muddy obstacle course of support beams, pipes and ten-inch-thick blast-lock doorways. He's been intrigued by Cold War-era fortifications since the moment he saw an old black-and-white photo of three Titan 1 missiles fully raised on their platforms, protruding 98 feet from their glory holes into the ever-threatening sky. Tipped with a four-megaton plutonium-based warhead, each missile weighed 220,000 pounds (with fuel) and had a range of 6,200 miles.
"People don't really know about [the silos], and if they do, they're surprised about how close they are to the city," he says, continually shocked that he shares a zip code with these Titan 1s, the dead grandfathers of the 49 nuclear-missile silos currently active in northeastern Colorado (mostly Weld and Logan counties).
Assembled on a platform, the crew peers into one of the three launch silos. Above them, capping the shaft's 160-foot depths, are two 125-ton horizontal doors that open to the surface. Flashlight beams bounce off the concrete cylinder's forty-foot diameter, and they spy graffiti written all around in impossible-to-reach locations. Steve is a pimp. Roger is a pussy 98. And, of course, Metallica Rules!
"They must have rappelled from the ceiling," someone offers. Flashlights immediately point downward into 25 feet or so of murky water collecting at the base. It's quiet for a moment. Then the same voice asks dryly, "How many dead bodies you think are down there? Ten?"
Although the only corpse Subciety has ever discovered was that of a withered possum, stumbling upon a human carcass is an ever-present fantasy/fear. Rural teenagers and squatters have long utilized the abandoned Titan 1s, leaving behind artifacts for future explorers to ponder: Coors cans, a beanbag chair, a ring of candles, petrified condoms, mattresses, used diapers, a box of baby wipes. Like any good urban archaeologist, the Commander takes note. The thought of a child being brought into the dank, putrid facility sickens him, the proud father of little Chainsaw Jr.
"I consider myself a good parent," the Commander later writes in his expedition log. "If this is the best environment you can find to care for a child in, it's probably time to lay off the hooch and get your kid into state care."
1000 hours. Date: Classified. Location: Undisclosed office building.
Every superhero has an origin story, and Commander Chainsaw is no different.
It's 2002. A mild-mannered Chainsaw sits in front of a computer terminal, fingers clacking across the keyboard. He speaks into his headset with a voice as soft and patient as a kindergarten teacher's. Okay now, right click on the icon -- no, right click. Yes, good job. Nearby, three future subcommanders, Big E, Quad and Stretch, sit hunched in their own five-by-eight cubicles, also doing time in this maddeningly typical office they call the "pink-collar ghetto."
Information technology isn't exactly glamorous. Occasionally there is a rush of inquiries, a panic about some new virus or a system crash, but mostly the calls are sporadic. The downtime is spent surfing the Internet or outside with a smoke, chatting about international politics, new software or inter-office relations (i.e., who is boinking whom) and bitching about the tech industry.
"It used to be that you'd work at a company for your entire life. Now everything's temp or contractual; no one even knows who they're working for anymore," Stretch later vents from the world of unemployment, exhuming a typical refrain from their many smoke breaks. No benefits, no job security, casual layoffs -- it's all bad, he says. But the worst? "There's no loyalty."
After one of these bitch sessions, the Commander heads back to his cubicle and assumes the position, headset arching over his bald spot, fingers back at the keyboard. He surfs around the Internet for a while and then stumbles onto a link for a group called the Action Squad.
It's like nothing he's ever seen. People climbing into manholes and sewer grates on purpose, for fun, then posting Web sites about their experiences.
The Commander spends the entire day reading about the sport of urban exploring and the Minneapolis-based UE group led by infamous punk spelunker Max Action. The Action Squad voyages through the labyrinth of sewers and tunnels that spiderweb beneath the streets of the twin cities. Old breweries, abandoned churches, naked chicks -- the site has it all.
It energizes the Commander. He shows the site to the rest of the guys. He talks about it non-stop at the next smoke break. It's like his mind has begun to morph; he thinks differently about the old factories around his house. He wishes he had X-ray vision; he wonders what's inside those things.
The guys think it's cool, too, but they're kind of skeptical. Isn't this stuff kind of dangerous and, furthermore, illegal?
Well, yes and yes.
Urban explorer Joseph Konopka, aka Derailer, aka Dr. Chaos, is currently serving a thirteen-year federal prison sentence for sending Chicago into a post-9/11 tizzy after being discovered living in a subway tunnel with canisters of cyanide. The 27-year-old, who was charged with illegal possession of a chemical weapon, said that he found the industrial-grade cyanide along with other chemicals during his explorations of abandoned factories.
And earlier this year, a 36-year-old Denver woman died while exploring an abandoned school in the Golden Triangle. It was 2 a.m., and Tracy Rollert was with her boyfriend, a computer support specialist, when she slipped and fell thirty feet off the second story of the Evans Elementary School. Her boyfriend tried unsuccessfully to revive her; she died at the scene.
The Commander says that he understands all the risks associated with urban exploring, and that's why he's such a safety nazi. Like almost all urban-explorer groups, Subciety adheres to a code of ethics that says no breaking and entering (there's some wiggle room), no vandalism, no theft. Use the buddy system at all times. Take only photos, leave only footprints.
Still, the forbidden nature of such infiltration is a large part of the allure for the collective, as it must be for others. The UE Web ring now links more than 152 groups, such as the Sydney Cave Clan, the Vancouver Wraiths and Forgotten New York. Some specialize in subway tunnels, others in abandoned mental hospitals or defunct shopping malls. There are two magazines devoted to the activity, and an International Urban Explorer Conference is in the planning stages.
This unique hobby comes off as a tad odd to the average surface dweller, and the commander's non-Subciety co-workers chuckle uncomfortably at the group's talk. Neighbors raise a suspicious eye. Parents? Grow up, why don't you?
"People either get it or they don't," the Commander says. "Ninety-nine percent of people I know freak out when they can't see a Starbucks. The rest of us seek out places where things aren't so safe and you aren't quite sure what's around the next corner. It's called adventure."
Subciety has fifteen well-screened active members who, in the Commander's well-oiled paramilitary prose, receive daily e-mail communiqués. New members have been inducted from as far away as Pueblo -- but only after an electronic interrogation session that includes questions like "How many flashlights do you own?" and "Are you hard-core?"
So what does Mrs. Chainsaw think about all this?
"It's cheaper than BattleBots, I guess. And it gets him out of the house. He has a whole different set of friends because of it, so I think it's a good thing." She has no urge to do it herself, and except for wanting to know where he'll be and when he'll be back, she takes an ignorance-is-bliss approach. "He does need his outlets," she adds distantly, like a loving spouse who has long humored her husband's eccentricities.
True. But most urban-explorer groups aren't descending forty feet into an EPA Superfund site where the government once stored more than 600,000 pounds of RP-1 rocket fuel and three radioactive warheads.
0200 hours. Location: No. 2 launcher, equipment-terminal silo.
"Last time we were here, this whole area was submerged," Agent Borland says, shining his light through a concrete gap in the floor. "We could probably make it down two or three more levels."
The steel ladder shudders as, one by one, they lower themselves several levels. During the wetter months, this whole area fills up like a reservoir, and the possibility of groundwater contamination has recently become a concern of the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The powerful solvents used to clean electrical equipment, the petroleum chemicals from kerosene-based rocket fuel, and the zinc and cadmium from corroded metal have been found contaminating the water and soil surrounding some of the six Titan 1 sites.
Ed LaRock, an environmental protection specialist for the CDPHE, says that the US Army Corps of Engineers is conducting investigations for all but one of the Titan 1 sites. As investigations for each site are completed, a cleanup plan will be prepared and open for public review and comment. The only site not on the Corps list happens to be the one favored by Subciety.
"They haven't done any investigations at 2B yet," LaRock says, although the CDPHE became concerned with the facility in the summer of 2002. "We worked with the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA and said, 'Wait a minute; nothing's been done here.' There is a little housing development that has sprung up around the site. We got permission from the owners, and we sampled five domestic wells around the sites for solvent."
The health department didn't find anything. For residents around Titan site 2B, it seems that drinking water is safe.
Just don't drink the water inside the complex.
Once the Subciety members reach the bottom of the four levels, they wander about. It is mostly empty save for some scraps of metal. Pointing his flashlight down into a small, rectangular opening, Stretch sees bright-red water pooled below the floor. It is frozen in a sort of stasis, and hunks of rust float like tangerine slices suspended in cherry Jell-O. Everyone decides it is probably best to go up a level before taking a smoke break.
Taking turns holding the ladder, the crew makes it up to the second level. The commander takes off his helmet, which boasts a headlamp the size of a dinner plate -- "an unholy blending of a hardhat, a motorcycle battery and a million-candlepower spotlight" -- and props it on a large pipe. Their backs are tired; it feels good to rest and get those sweaty respirators off. Smokes are passed around. Their voices and laughter rebound in a blunt echo through the corridors.
"No talking about Star Trek," the Commander says. "Discussion of Star Trek is banned from all expeditions."
Agent Borland smiles -- but with a hint of sadness.
"Not that there's anything wrong with Star Trek," the Commander adds quickly, to fill the silence. "It's just, like, given the context and all, it seems just a bit too nerdish."
This seems acceptable to the rest of the crew, and for now, mutiny is averted.
Though the Commander mostly makes decisions unilaterally, he posts questions that concern the group on the Subciety Web site for a vote. For example, a motion that would grant the Supreme Commander the right to "have his way with all the wives or girlfriends of all Subciety members" was summarily voted down. In another motion, however, the Supreme Commander was granted the authority to create "official" Subciety logos and merchandise. And now the Commander is pleased to say that at www.cafepress.com, fashionable explorers can order a Subciety T-shirt ($16), golf shirt (sale, $17), Frisbee ($8.50), mug ($13) or license-plate frame ($12).
Aside from the Commander, no one has bought anything yet.
"He's put a lot of time and energy into it all, so if he wants to call himself Supreme Commander, I could care less," Stretch says. "It's like grown adults playing army, pretty much. It's just a fun thing to do. When you're bored at work, if you've got nothing better to do, you can plan your next expedition."
When pressed, however, the Commander shies away from his role as a central figure. "I've kind of become the leader only because I've been the biggest flag-waver, and I bug people to go. That, and I'm an egotistical fuck who hates standing around while people dicker about what to do," he says. "Subciety is really about the group."
The six explorers stand in a half circle, smoking silently. The air is thick and wet. The radiance from the Commander's superlight seems to have gotten brighter somehow. Cast on the wall, their shadows line up in formation -- no different, perhaps, from the ones men shed here forty years ago. The Commander smirks. There seems to be something funny about all of this.
"All right, let's go," he says.
Cigarettes are extinguished. Stretch asks if the Commander has an extra motorcycle battery that he can put on his Honda. "Indeed," says the Commander.
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"How about a trade?"
"Maybe," the Commander says. "What for?"
"A server case."
The Commander thinks for a moment and then puts on his helmet and walks toward the ladder. He turns with a grin: "Is it ATX?"