KC opens a closet door to stairs that ascend into darkness, seemingly to nowhere. Seven steps up, he places his hands on the ceiling and the ceiling becomes a door, swinging up and open into the windowlight of a secret upper room.
Belle and Pedro climb the steps to join him. Once they have cleared the stairs, KC lets gravity slam the door to the room beneath them and its sound booms through the empty rooms of the abandoned edifice. The noise flecks paint from the walls, swirls dust among the sunbeams and roof beams. KC startles, cringes. "Why is everything old so heavy?"
KC is in his early 20s. Lean and athletic, his eyes betray a mental agility that matches his physical quickness. Belle is also in her early 20s. Possessing an engaging personality and an unsurprising array of piercings and tattoos, she claims any room she enters. Pedro is in his late 30s. His pony-tail and goatee somewhat misrepresent his less-than-rebellious, understated character. As a group, the three look the parts of characters one might expect to find in the abandoned rooms of a derelict college campus in the late hours of a cold, winter afternoon.
It takes a few seconds before the echoes stop repeating themselves. The quiet afterward inspires whispers, though there is probably no one else in the sprawling building to hear anything anyone might say. Still, to talk softly here somehow seems appropriate; a full voice flits about these empty rooms like a house sparrow without a place to light.
"Wow. What a room," Pedro breathes. This is his first time.
"Yeah," KC says, "I love the bell," and indicates where, up in a high corner of the room, near the wainscot ceiling and the tops of the windows' stone arches, a large iron bell broods black and still as silence. This is not KC's first time to this hidden room. He and Belle discovered this place several visits ago. "This room is one of my favorites," he says almost reverently, and stares half-expectantly at the bell-corner, as if waiting for the toll. For a long while there is only the sound of breathing: his own, Belle's and Pedro's, and the room's through its broken panes.
Belle, the veteran of the group and a talented photographer, weighs the light and its shadows, readies her Canon for another shot. The shutter clicks and clicks and the sound is like the ticks of a clock, seconds captured one by one by one.
Belle and KC are no strangers to Knoxville's forgotten, abandoned places. Belle has explored more than 30 buildings in the Knoxville area, KC approximately 10. They are part of a large, loosely affiliated community of explorers in Knoxville and the rest of the world. Wherever there are inquisitive and audacious folks who don't mind braving—among other perils—the possibility of jail time, fines, asbestos exposure, weak flooring, drug dealers, guard dogs, and irate property owners for the sake of curiosity, adventure, and/or art, there are "urban explorers."
Also referring to themselves as "drainers" and "urban spelunkers," among other names, they make their way—and not always with expressed permission—into whatever storm drains, catacombs, sewers, transit tunnels, utility tunnels, and abandoned buildings they find appealing. Sometimes they even explore "actives," buildings that are still in use and inhabited.
"It's the nature of humans to be curious," explains Belle. "I see an empty building and I ask myself: Why? How long? What happened in there before it closed? What, if anything, is going on in there now? I find beauty in decay. The things most people find creepy or weird interest me. And yeah, I sometimes like the feeling of being where I'm not supposed to be."
Belle's reasons are common to many urban explorers, but the personal reasons why folks enter and reconnoiter these empty, abandoned places may be as widely varied as are the individuals themselves.
The average person might not necessarily be aware such explorations were going on in their neighborhoods, however. There is, understandably, a fair amount of secrecy associated with the hobby.
"Explorers really don't like talking to the media," Belle explains. "They get made out to look like total vandals and everything. And they're not! They don't break anything or take anything. All they take are pictures."
Belle says there are other misperceptions, as well, among them that urban explorers break into places: "Contrary to popular belief, what we do is not breaking and entering. We never, like, break anything to get in. Normally, you'll find an open door, an open window. I mean, some of these places are just wide open."
Sometimes, though, climbing a fence might not be out of the question. "Well, we went to this abandoned prison camp near Atlanta," Belle says, laughing, "—this is, like, our biggest failure—and we try to get in the hardest way. I'm like, ‘No, guys, we should go around the prison!' and go in another way, but no, we have to go in this way. We get all these scratches, bug bites, my lip got caught on one of those prickly things, and we get to this place where KC just jumps over this big fence and tries to hand me this old, wooden, rickety ladder. So I climb all the way to the top of it, and he's, like, ‘OK, jump over!' but I'm like, ‘There's an industrial fan there! And it's moving!' I wimped out. I couldn't do it. We had to just leave and go home. And our friend was so mad, because he had bug bites, I mean, literally, all over. He had welts! All over him! There were so many bugs... It was just terrible."
She pauses, reveling.
KC says it first: "I can't wait to go back."
"Yeah," she says smiling fondly, "I want to go back really bad."
Pedro follows KC and Belle down two flights of unlit stairwells. Broken glass crunches underfoot. Fixtures hang precariously overhead, blind and disemboweled. Flashlights reveal garish, cryptic graffiti, some of it vulgar ("Neggers!!") some misinformational ("This place is now under surveillance") some political ("Vote for Bush" with a swastika in place of the "s"); some of it baffling, mysterious: "not here now," "these hands," "away you go."
They emerge into a vacant hallway. All the doors are open. Sunlight filters into the corridor from adjacent rooms. KC chooses a doorway and they step into a cavernous auditorium, the stage empty, the curtain raised; pebbles of busted glass litter the floor like popcorn. High above the trio, ornate wooden crossbeams stretch gracefully, tiredly across the dim ceiling. Plaster peels from a side wall, pigeon droppings and variegated mold freckle the backs of the red, cloth seats.
"What a shame," Pedro says, and his voice is swallowed by the space. From the floor, the stage seems starved for light, sound, action.
Belle proceeds up the stage stairs and places her camera on a tripod. "Group picture," she says, prompting Pedro and KC to pick random seats among those clean enough to consider. Belle brings the scene into focus and presses the timer, dashes out into the audience toward the back of the room, half-hides behind a bowed column supporting the balcony seats, peeks around toward the camera, waits. Forever passes and in a flash is gone.
"You want to go to see the Science Hall?" Belle asks Pedro. "It's really neat."
Pedro peers through the empty gloominess of the room and at the tall windows working against the growing dark. "Yeah. Let's do."
Belle's portfolio of photographs is expanding. Her forays into Knoxville's lost, forgotten places have proven an excellent source of material.
"Urban decay and places that have been forgotten are a lot more interesting to me than, say, a sunflower or a model or something," she explains, and she doesn't think she is alone in that respect, either. "A lot of people wonder what's in these places. Some people will see a building and wonder what's in there, but not have the guts to go look. Well, I do it for them. I take photos so I can share it."
Photography is popular among many urban explorers. Websites dedicated to the hobby are replete with photographs ranging from snapshots to carefully constructed, professional-grade pieces.
"Some people I know have made theirs into books," Belle says, "but I don't necessarily want recognition. I'm just trying to put people where I'm at."
Urban exploration isn't all about art.
"I do it for the rush," admits KC, laughing "I just don't do it with other friends, because they're, like, pansies."
"Yeah. It's definitely not just nosiness gone crazy; there's definitely a rush," agrees Belle. "The first time I walk into a new building, my initial reaction is this almost overwhelming paranoia. Who knows what—or who—is in here? I get over the paranoia, though. Sometimes I am in awe of places."
Belle cites those who explore active buildings as, in her opinion, one of the biggest groups of thrill-seekers. "Active" buildings (ones such as hospitals, factories, and/or large hotels) are sometimes preferred by some urban explorers, with their intent being to catch a glimpse of employee-only or other "off-limits" areas. "I don't do that because of the risk (of getting caught), and because it's not what I'm looking for," she says. "I won't do actives. I guess it has its rewards, though, especially if you are photographer, because you have the lights on. I just want to do something out of the ordinary."
Seeking that "out of the ordinary" experience is central to urban explorers; "Where do we go next?" is the driving question.
"A new risk, a new adventure, new photography. Something groundbreaking," is what Belle says propels her to always be seeking new sites, though revisiting the same site many times is not out of the question. "You can go several times and find something new each time," she says. "But going back too many times can lead to you getting caught. Some explorers will only go somewhere once. Not me, though. Urban exploring is kind of addictive. I feel like if I don't go exploring at least once a week I get really annoyed. So, I scout out new places with the help of Google maps, historical records, and so on."
There are networks and websites dedicated to informing other explorers about interesting sites.
"Some people hate the websites. They hate them with a passion," Belle explains. "They think that because they post a location on a website, it's immediately going to get destroyed. But that really never happens."
The Science Hall is a newish building; more cinder block than brick, the windows wall-length, curtainless; sunlight is more generously available. The paint has not yet peeled. A ubiquitous, green vinyl tile is still mostly adhered to the floor. Still, broken glass lies everywhere. The drop-ceiling is missing many of its tiles; only a metal grid remains suspended in some rooms.
Radiators and air-conditioning units have been unceremoniously ripped from the walls. The going is slow and careful. Boards with exposed nails litter the hallways.
The group is barely through the first few empty classrooms when they are stopped still. From somewhere in the depths of the building wells the ominous ringing of a hammer on metal. The sound is unexpected, intrusive, and darkly telltale; for a second, no one knows what to do with it. Pedro looks at KC who finally motions for the three to retreat. They hurry out of the room toward the broken glass doors through which they had entered the building.
"Probably stealing copper," KC says, now in the relative safety of the courtyard. Because of recent price increases in the metal, many abandoned buildings and construction sites have been burglarized by thieves in search of copper wiring and pipes.
"You think they'd care if we didn't bother them, just looked around?" Pedro asks.
"Well, they're doing something illegal," says Belle. "And if we see them, they might not want that. And they might have guns. Or knives. Plus, I'm carrying a very expensive camera." The sound of hammering continues unabated from inside. More than one voice can be heard speaking just under noise.
"Maybe we just better go look at the gymnasium," cautions KC.
You never really know if (a building) is abandoned or not," Belle advises. "You have to really scout it out. If you're scared you're going to get caught, just don't do it. You never know, though. A friend of mine carries mace. Some of our friends are, like, ‘You're going to get shot one day!' Yeah, well we're all going to die sometime. If it does happen (that) I get shot, at least it'll happen while I'm doing something I like. I mean, you can get shot at work...anywhere."
Thieves and other less-than-wholesome characters are not the only concern. There is also the police. Fines for trespassing can be high, and jail time is not out of the question in some municipal areas. Belle and KC don't seem overly concerned about Knoxville's, or any other city's, finest.
"You can talk your way out of it," KC says.
Belle agrees: "Yeah, if you're not stupid. If you aren't doing anything bad. We went to this huge, abandoned mansion, and there was no good parking anywhere, so we kind of parked right along the road. There was someone with us who didn't want to go in, so he sat in the car. Well, the police came up to the car, and instead of him saying, ‘Oh, you know, we ran out of gas,' this person said, ‘They're inside taking pictures.' Gah!"
Belle told the police officer she was there to take photographs for an art project for the University of Tennessee. Her explanation was only half-true, but good enough. The group was allowed to leave without charges being levied.
"Cops will normally respect the fact that you're not completely lying to them about what it is you're doing there," she says. "It's not like you're in there doing anything bad, and they know, especially if you have a nice camera with you. Now, if you have a can of spray paint with you...they're probably not going to like that."
Injury is also a primary concern. Belle and KC claim they have never been injured on an expedition, but know of fellow explorers who have, one in particular who required hospitalization.
"I know this girl who was up on a catwalk in a factory. And, uh, she fell," Belle relates. "She was, like, jacking around up there, acting crazy. She fell through the catwalk, and had to be put in a body cast. Her boyfriend didn't want to call the cops, but her friends were, like, ‘What're you talking about? You're crazy!' So someone finally called the cops. You never go alone. Never go alone."
The gymnasium walls are white, painted brick. Tall, arched windows allow in the late afternoon sunlight. Dusty bleachers rise against one wall. The parquet basketball court is in surprisingly decent shape, but moisture has caused some of the squares to begin to curl. The backboards have been broken; glass is heaped beneath the goals. Portraits of former teams still adorn the walls, only one has been vandalized with graffiti. Mounted knights in full armor are painted on the floor; protected beneath layers of sealant and dust, they seem oddly out of place in their untouched condition. Someone has spray-painted a racial slur in huge black letters on a side wall.
"This is a great room." Belle sighs. "except for that." She points to the unavoidable slur.
The slanting light through the windows seems to indicate the day's explorations are almost done. Pedro pulls a digital camera from his pocket and snaps shots of the shattered goals, the glowing windows, the painted knights. Afterward, he follows KC and Belle back down to the car. As they are preparing to leave, they spot a couple of men carrying something undetermined into the tree line behind the Science Hall. Throwing whatever they had extracted from the building into the brush, the men begin to walk toward Belle, KC, and Pedro.
Nothing needs to be said. It's time to go.
As the car passes the two men (one of whom is carrying a limb-saw), Belle locks the doors and gives them a wary glance and a passing wave. The men wave back, and the two groups leave the campus in separate directions. Pedro thoughtfully watches the buildings diminish behind him. The darkness seems to spill from the broken windows of the buildings, forming puddles in the low places of the courtyard.
"So," Belle asks as the car merges into the remembered, inhabited world, "what do you think?"
"Hell," Pedro says, despite himself, "where do we go next?"
Ed. Note: THE NAMES OF THE PARTICIPANTS HAVE BEEN CHANGED