This contentious storm invades us to the skin [7]

For Josh,

who trusted that I wouldn’t refuse to leave the darkness

but who would have let me stay down there alone,

if I’d pitched a big enough fit about it.

I think.

It was the second time I had ever met Joshua Ellis [1]. We were standing outside a coworking space downtown and inbetween endless cigarettes, he was humbly telling me bits and pieces of his history– his life as a musician, his life as a writer, his life as a developer. By the time he’d recounted his success at raising crowdfunding for a trip to New Mexico in the name of investigative journalism [2], a year before Kickstarter ever came onto the scene, I was completely hooked and suddenly felt an absurd urge to throw myself at his feet. If he had been preaching gospel, I would have converted to the faith in half a heartbeat.

Without fully comprehending why, I wanted to say to him: “Take me with you. Whatever you end up working on, whatever I need to learn to be useful, I want to work on that with you.” I didn’t know how to temper the sentiment to make it less fanatical, less band-groupie (much less explain the reasoning behind it), however, so instead I said nothing. But that was the moment. That was when I knew I wanted to follow him, quite possibly anywhere.

Six weeks later, we were sitting outside a coffee shop and he showed me the working draft of a speech [3] he was giving later that day. In it, he referenced his time exploring the storm drains of Las Vegas and encountering the people who called those drains home:

Some of them are junkies or gambling addicts or winos. A lot of them are crazy, though it’s hard to tell if madness drove them into the drains or if it found them down there in the dark.

Josh had told me about the storm drains numerous times before, and the stories I’d heard had always fascinated me, but something in that line about madness encompassed me in whole a new way. I turned to him and asked, earnestly, solemnly, would you take me down there sometime? As casually as if I had requested a ride to the library, he answered, sure, just tell me when you want to go. I confessed to never having gotten around to reading his CityLife pieces on the subject [4]. Genuinely unoffended, he replied, almost mischievously, “Why read about it when you can experience it first-hand?”

Fast forward to one week ago. My ongoing existential doubts were having yet another flare-up, and in a vague effort to keep myself tethered to some semblance of sanity, I again broached Josh with the idea of exploring the storm drains, as though tunneling physically into the earth might keep me from mentally drifting away. He was as amenable as before, so we agreed on a date and time, and I had my anchor. Whatever temptations I had to flee on my own were now mitigated by the promise of being led by him beneath the desert pavement.

I default to sundresses and sandals year-round, which I suppose is why Josh deemed it necessary to emphasize, on several occasions, how to appropriately prepare for this expedition: “Wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty and wear boots.” It goes without saying that I seriously considered wearing a dress anyway (Vegas hadn’t seen rain in a while, so how bad could the storm drains be that a washing machine wouldn’t be able to undo the damage?), but ultimately opted for more androgynous attire: old jeans, an oversized T-shirt that had been destined for the bike-rag bin, and calf-high rain boots.

We met by the UNLV campus just after 9 p.m., and he drove us to a business park across from the Rio Hotel that ran adjacent to a wash. I wish I could say there was something grandiose or monumental about entering the storm drain from the wash, but it was entirely anticlimactic: We tramped across a short distance of rocks and gravel and passed into the concrete void. There was no dramatic build-up, no tension– but to be honest, there wasn’t any call for it. I wasn’t harboring expectations of discovering some subversive, counter-culture mine of diamonds in the rough; I just couldn’t get over the fact that these drains and whatever lives they contained, in human form or in abstract tribute, had existed all these years and I, like most of the Valley’s residents and likely all of the city’s visitors, had never known about them. For no better reason beyond insatiable curiosity, as the bear went over the mountain, so went I underground: to see what I could see.

If there were potential dangers associated with being a female of somewhat small stature disappearing late at night into a storm drain– a storm drain purportedly harboring “junkies or gambling addicts or winos” (and purportedly a lot of them “crazy”)– while armed with only a flimsy dollar-store flashlight, I had long ago acknowledged and wilfully dismissed them. It’s easy, of course, to be fearless when you are trailing someone who is twice your size, well-acquainted with this unmapped territory, and armed with a knife. It helped too that the drain proved to be unoccupied– or at least, unoccupied for the moment. There were, after all, small signs to the contrary: a pile of ripped-up sports gambling notes dated just over a month ago; a twin-sized mattress that had been heaved above the current water level and onto the residual stone piles left behind by previous floods; a rectangular red thermal bag partially unzipped and filled with small containers.

The red bag struck me the most. It was placed neatly against the wall in the middle of a long dry stretch of the tunnel that had been washed completely clean, graffiti aside– and next to it was a prominent collection of small rocks. And this should have been insignificant in an environment where there were rocks aplenty, but again– from this particular spot, there was nothing on the ground for maybe one hundred feet in either direction. Those rocks were there as deliberately as the bag; those rocks, like the bag, belonged to a person. Wholly unremarkable rocks, but for some reason, someone had selected them one by one, had gathered them and put them there. Perhaps they were markers to track the passing days; perhaps they were mistaken for diamonds and plucked in the midst of a hallucinogenic ecstasy. Perhaps when you leave behind a world of neon that has never been less than harsh and unforgiving to you, anything you can hold in your hands and call your own becomes a precious gem. The possible explanations behind the presence of those rocks were countless, and they haunted me all, mundane and romantic alike.

And the graffiti. The storm drain snaked nearly a mile between Dean Martin Drive and a parking structure on the property of Imperial Palace, and from opening to opening the walls were endlessly tagged. If the rocks and the red bag were signs of current life, what was left on the walls were artifacts of occupation throughout the decades.

Sometimes they were richly painted murals; sometimes they were nonsensical statements (“I ENJOY CAMALS [sic], HEDGEHOGS AND FRENCH PASTRIES”); sometimes they were one-line makeshift obituaries; sometimes they were verses of poetry, or passages from the Bible, or succint Latin phrases that offered no hint of translation aside from: “Look it up!”. As always, it was the most unassuming scribbles that made my heart twist: the simple declaratives. “[X] loves [Y]”. “Justin was here”. That peculiar human need for objective validation, for proof that, at some point in time, in some realm of space, we existed. We were here. We were loved, and we loved back. And, too, that peculiar human need for reassurance, that we who seek, we who embrace, we who find solace in the darkness are not alone.

Make no mistake, the storm drains beneath Las Vegas are hardly to be glorified. They won’t be added to any “Top 50 Must-See” lists for tourists (or locals, for that matter) anytime soon (read: ever), and off the top of my head I can’t think of any personal friends or acquaintances I would encourage to do as I did. If I say that walking through that drain was like a dream, understand that I don’t mean dreams of the soulful-wishing kind. Understand that in those drains, darkness permeates so thoroughly that when you stand in the midst of it, as Josh and I did when we experimentally turned off our lights, you immediately begin to feel disembodied. Understand that for someone who is frequently at odds with her identity due to a staggering dissonance between what she sees of herself and what the rest of the world sees, being in a place where you lose your sense of presence holds a lot of appeal. And remember that I wasn’t the first to feel this, not by a long shot. There were so many who had gone down there long before I even thought to ask about venturing into the tunnel’s depths, and as they must have known– why else would they leave behind proof of visitation if not for the assumption that others would later find it?– there would be always more simply yet to arrive.

It isn’t a great mystery that darkness would call alike to darkness, but even still I’m not sure how to explain why exactly amongst those dismal remnants of flash floods past, splashing down shallow streams containing unimaginable cocktails of the city’s myriad toxins, I felt entirely at peace. I was born lucky enough and privileged enough that nothing in my physical or circumstantial experience should justify surroundings such as those filling me with a calming sense of beauty more typically associated with gleaming palaces of the finest art– but then again, I have known madness. Not as deeply as many, to be sure, but I have known it, and known it enough. I live with some varying degree of it daily, and while for the most part we co-exist harmlessly, occasionally it permeates me as the darkness in the drain, so much so that I could see the attraction of retreating to an externality that aligned perfectly with the internal. Of enabling the body to inhabit a space that at last matched the residence of the mind.

Once more, let me be perfectly clear: this is not an exaltation, this is not a song of praise for an unappreciated treasure buried below the glittering Strip. There is no treasure in those storm drains. There may be life down there, but– with meager exception to a documented few [5]– those who choose to go underground aren’t living. They’re surviving. [6]

But I also say this: that there is a song of praise, of sorts, to be sung for the act of survival. For even the attempt at, the desire for survival. The will to survive requires a belief that there is something in the near future for which it is worth surviving at all; without that belief, what else could be stopping these occupants of the urban underbelly from succumbing to despair and seeking refuge in death? One could argue cowardice; I can’t help but to take a more noble stance on the human spirit.

In Spanish, the single word “esperar” has dual translations– it means “to wait” and also “to hope”, which has incredibly poignant implications, when you think about it. To hope for something is to wait, and just the same, to wait for something is to hold out hope. And to be determined to survive means to wait with the hope of better things to come.

As we made our way back to where we’d started, Josh commented that he was surprised there weren’t any dead bodies around. And it was surprising, because people do die down there, particularly when the seasonal yet unpredictable desert rains fall in relentless torrents and the drains flood without warning, spilling bodies into the wash where they may or may not be noted by news reporters depending on the demand for headlines.

Not all who wait see their hopes fulfilled.

Regardless of what it was that initially drove people into the drains, it was certainly madness that kept them there, that folded them tenderly into the shadows and offered them respite from the discord and chaos of everyday society. But just as certainly, you can only stay in those drains for so long before a new kind of madness indeed finds you down there in the dark. How long? I could only begin to guess, though I was tempted to learn the answer for myself. I was nowhere close to impervious to the siren song of the drains; repeatedly throughout the return journey, I looked over my shoulder to gaze at the gaping abyss– repeatedly, I bodily turned and felt a howling urge to fly full speed back into the cavity– repeatedly, I planted my feet and fought that urge, again and again and again.

For all those whose final act became a willing descent into the darkness, there are so many more for whom the descent is only an intermission, be it stretched over an hour, a week, a month– or even, ultimately, years. The disappointed sports gambler. The mattress fisher. The rock gatherer. The scores and scores who painted the walls with messages only those who dared to likewise submerge could discover. They were down there. There were all there, once upon a time. But however swallowed by the madness they’d become, they had managed to retain enough of their humanity, had clutched it to their breast like a piece of cork, had known to let it navigate them back to the surface before they drowned. They didn’t survive the darkness; they survived in the darkness, and they left once they were whole enough to bear the burden of the sky. The starkness of the drains was a kind of testament to their survival, a proof of the versatility and resilience of the human condition.

Not all who retreat into the depths of isolation remain forever lost to the world above.

I think, I honestly believe that had Josh not been there once the drains started to grasp at me with their incorporeal fingers, had he not patiently waited for me all those times I turned back, even from such a distance that his headlamp had faded to a dim glow, I would have stayed and waited to see just how long it would take the new breed of madness to grant me a visitation in that infinite realm of night and just what would happen once it did. But: He was there. He did wait. And dim though the glow had faded, it was still a light, stalwartly holding the darkness at bay. He kept the headlamp pointed in the direction of the tunnel’s entrance, but its residual reflection off the walls would not be ignored.

It was the smell of a cigarette that finally caught my attention and snapped me to. I looked over and saw the telltale orange dot moving from his mouth to rest just below hip level, and resignedly, I knew: He would wait all night if he had to, never saying a word, just smoking those damn cigarettes until the smoke forced me out of the tunnel, gasping for fresh air.

I sighed inwardly. I can always come back, I reasoned. If I really were curious. If I needed to know. I could come back on my own, later. I rubbed this thought between my thumb and forefinger like a talisman– pressed it securely into my pocket like a falling star for a rainy day– and started walking.

He heard my approaching footsteps and resumed his pace. And so in the silence he navigated us to the surface, and so out of the storm drains, I followed him. Into the madness and out of its keep. There and back again.

[1] Twitter || Website

[2] Dark Miracle

[3] “We Can Be Heroes”: video || text

[4] Part I || Part II

[5] “Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas” (Matthew O'Brien)

[6] Or also hiding. I’m not so naive as to be ignorant to the fact that some of the storm drain inhabitants are criminals and admittedly, what they hope for– a future where they will escape punishment– is far from praiseworthy. But for the beloved sake of narration they are eschewed in the main text.

[7] look it up!


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