My Thursday Morning Urban Expedition

High School Wash

High School Wash

“Who’s there?”

I walked toward the voice, but couldn’t see a thing. I was in a drainage tunnel somewhere under Tucson, and my little flashlight was not as strong as I had thought. “I’m just passing through” I said.

“You can’t get through this way,” the darkness answered.

“It used to go through,” I said, as though I knew.

“Well it doesn’t now.”

“Okay,” I replied, and I turned around. I carefully passed back through the strategically-piled shopping carts and box springs – the ones that should have been a clue I was entering a private space in the first place. But my footsteps echoed and he thought I was still coming.

“Go back the way you came!” he called out.

“I am,” I assured the voice.

I figured my adventure was over and it was time to head home. In fact it was just beginning…

It started yesterday when I wrote a blog post for a client. It was about inexpensive adventures, and while researching the part on “urban exploration” I found an article on “High School Wash,” which is basically a drainage ditch that runs through the heart of Tucson.

The author called it, “11 blocks of shaded wildness” that “tiptoes along the nature/culture edge.” He wrote about wildlife, “guerrilla gardens,” and how “Each avenue’s culvert hosts a different subculture, identifiable by its graffiti.”

For a wilder adventure, beyond the 11 blocks, he said readers could “Take a flashlight and continue west through the tunnel that goes under Tucson High and surfaces on Third Avenue; just beware of storms and flash floods.”

Of course I had to check it out.

I started early today to avoid the heat; the predicted high was 110, a break from yesterday’s 115, but still pretty hot. The recommended entry point for the wash was on the other side of downtown, several miles from home. I got off the bus two blocks away, at about nine this morning. It was already 95 degrees.

Where the wash went under Campbell Street I walked down the bank, stopping to say hello to a guy resting on a blanket in the bushes. I immediately felt cut off from the city around me. Walls and parking lots lined many edges of the wash, but I was below everything and mostly out of sight. There were birds, lizards, large overhanging trees, and… garbage.

Garbage Under Bridge

One of Messier Campsites in High School Wash

Personal items and trash were common, to say the least, especially in the culverts and tunnels where people camped. The variety was surprising. An unopened bag of adult diapers, a collection of books on teaching, crayons, condoms, chairs, and beer bottles. Clothing was everywhere, often in piles or boxes.

Clues to a hundred stories were scattered along my route, but offered more questions than answers. Was the empty change purse the remains of a theft? Why was there a pile of cut-up credit cards in the middle of a collection of markers and children’s coloring books? Where did all the shoes come from, and why did someone stash packages of microwave popcorn under 7th Street?

Chair Under Street

Under E 8th Street

I stopped for a break. I had packed several bottles of water, one of them frozen to keep it all cold. I drank because because it’s a good policy in the desert, but I wasn’t too hot. Surprisingly, 95-degree air isn’t that bad when it’s dry.

I came to a tunnel where a table was set up with a grill and a big water jug on it. This must be the tunnel under the school, I figured, so I turned on my flashlight and went inside. That’s when I heard the voice, and made my retreat.

Dark Tunnel

The First Dark Tunnel (Home of the Voice)

Once outside I scrambled up the bank to the street and walked toward downtown. By now it was 100 degrees, and I was headed home. Then, few blocks later, I saw the wash again. I yielded to temptation and climbed down. After passing under a few streets, I walked into another dark tunnel.

There were drains coming into it from the streets above, so I could often hear cars passing by overhead. I figured I would be out the other side in a few minutes at most. I didn’t know I would be hiking underground for a mile or two before emerging on the other side of downtown.

Cockroaches Under Tucson

Cockroaches in the Tunnel

I don’t scare easily, so the satanic drawings and swastikas on the walls didn’t bother me, and when the garbage moved around in the corners I figured it was just the giant cockroaches underneath. But I did get nervous for a second when I heard water suddenly pouring into the tunnel somewhere behind me. Sounds are scarier when you can’t see anything.

The last place you want to be when it rains in Tucson is half-way through a mile-long drainage tunnel. A six-foot high pile of flood debris I had previously passed included logs, a garbage bin, and hundreds of pounds of tree roots – a testament to the power of the water that flows under the city when it rains.

Flood Debris

Debris Piled High by Storms

Fortunately, about a second after I heard the water I realized there was no chance of rain today. It must have been run-off from a car being washed somewhere above.

Artwork could be found on the walls along the entire length of the tunnel. The quality varied, but it certainly went beyond graffiti. Someone should do a coffee table book on “The Art Beneath Our Streets.” I wonder if some of it will survive hundreds of years to be discovered by archaeologists in the future.

Painting in Tunnel

There’s a Lot of Artwork Under Tucson

Painting in Tunnel

Painting Underground


Painting in Tunnel

Snake Painting

After fifteen minutes I realized I wasn’t hiking the stretch described in that article — the part that was supposed to re-emerge after passing under the high school. Or perhaps the author hadn’t hiked it and just guessed where the tunnel ended.

In any case, it was probably only 90 degrees down there, so I didn’t mind the walk.

There was a swim tube wrapped around a log a half-mile into the tunnel. Now that was somebody with a sense of adventure! (May he or she rest in peace.)

Tube Under the City

Float Tube Half-Mile Into the Tunnel

I started to see other tunnels branching off. I went down one that was about four-feet high, but when it split into two more that were only three-feet high I turned around. Little openings along the main tunnel wall led to a parallel tunnel. That too had an eight to ten-foot ceiling, and it’s own side tunnels, but I decided to save those explorations for another day.

More Tunnels

Passageway to More Tunnels

I regularly saw spots of light from street drains above me, but finally I saw a more substantial light ahead. A minute later I was out in the sunshine.

I ran up the bank and saw a train coming down the tracks. I had no idea where I was, but the wash continued in the general direction of home, so I went back down and kept following it.

Tunnel Exit

Looking Back at Where I Came Out

At some point I was walking along a narrow cement ledge above the wash. There was a colony of killer bees in a hole in the cement wall — which I realized only after passing inches away and hearing the buzzing. I’m not sure how fast I could have run through the debris in the wash if I had been chased.

I came to three short tunnels, chose the middle one, and finally saw somebody for the first time in an hour. He was sitting against the wall halfway through. He waved.

“Hi… so where am I?” I asked.

“St. Mary’s Road is just up there,” he told me, pointing to the other end of the tunnel. I thanked him and headed out to find the area surrounded by unclimbable fences. I had to go through yet another short culvert/tunnel.

Inside a parallel culvert I saw a “room” someone had built. Sadly, it will be washed away when the monsoon season starts in a couple weeks.

Home Under a Bridge

Home for Someone Until it Rains

On the other side of the tunnel I climbed up to the street. When I saw the freeway I realized I was less than fifteen minutes from home.

But to heck with taking the sidewalk the whole way! Behind the Food City strip mall there’s a narrow passage that goes between apartment buildings and past the park to a short wash. From there I walked to a street that dead-ends at the back wall of our condo complex. I climbed over the wall to save a few blocks of walking.

Following their usual routine, the cats greeted me by sniffing me to see where I had been. I think they approved.

Because I got lost and ended up near home I saved one of the two bus fares I had planned on. As a result my urban expedition cost me just $1.50 – which makes it a good example for the article I wrote.