A simple rappel, under controlled circumstances. Except that these are anything but. Oh, yes, and we have to do it at 1 a.m., in complete silence and total darkness, because if we’re caught doing this, we’ll probably all end up in jail.
I don’t know the names of most of the people holding the other ends of the rope. They call themselves Red Revolt, and when they’re out on an urban exploration mission, the only names they go by are codenames.
The crew started out some years back with founders Case and Ghost, an Army veteran, exploring the city to stave off boredom. Now there’s eight of them under Case’s leadership, exploring the hidden face of Indianapolis — tunnels, abandoned buildings, construction sites — for no better reason than because they’re there. They never quite know where roads will lead them. Once they found an open roof hatch while exploring the roof of an old store, so they lowered themselves in and played laser tag all night, living out the fantasies of every kid who ever buried their G.I. Joe figures in makeshift caves in the backyard.
Red Revolt is the only crew in Indianapolis that they know of, but they’re not the only submetropolitan spelunkers out there. Urban exploration groups around the nation tend to gather online at sites like www.infiltration.org and keep databases of their adventures.
Their exploits hearken back to youthful misadventures, sneaking in and out of trouble spots and forbidden areas made all the more alluring by the danger.
“For the past few years I’ve been so involved in other things, job, relationships,” Vain, a small, energetic woman capable of slipping in and out of the tiniest spaces, told me as we conferred in a loud club, three nights before setting out. “It’s like you forget that part of you. That explorative open mind and connection with the supernatural you used to have when you were a kid. I’m feeling energized again.”
“People are curious and want to explore by nature,” Case, the crew’s leader, explained that same night. “You have your everyday crap you have to deal with, and then there’s this. We’re seeing sides of the city that most people have never seen in their lives. It’s a privilege to see these things. People drive past an abandoned building and think it’s an eyesore, and to me it’s a goal.”
“To us it’s like a work of art,” Vain said. “There’s the little kid aspect that likes military things. It’s fun to get all geared up and go into a building room by room like a military mission.”
And in the process, they find out about themselves.
“You find out what you’re good at by doing this,” Case said. “You learn teamwork, to trust the others in your group and your skills. I was deathly afraid of heights the first time I jumped, but now I’ll hang upside-down off an I-beam to help someone. A lot of stuff we learn is damn near survival skills.”
The members of Red Revolt hail from a variety of lifestyles, with curiosity their one constant factor.
“It’s a refusal to accept adult life, in some aspects,” Case reflected. “I don’t want to be stuck down with a job and stuff that ages you. I don’t want to get bogged down in life like that. I’ll keep doing this until I’m too old, crippled or killed.”
“This is how slick superspies dress!” Vain says as the team gears up on Saturday night. They look like postmodern superheroes in their black outfits, combat boots, rappelling harnesses and equipment like flashlights, radios and night vision goggles hanging from belt loops. “We’re just nerds living out our high school fantasies.”
The team’s got four people tonight: Case, Vain, Rook and Neocitizen. Plus their newest member, Spider, a handle drawn from fictional outlaw journalist Spider Jerusalem of Transmetropolitan fame. The codenames aren’t just for my benefit; they go by these names over the radios in case other ears are listening.
The plan calls to head out to a half-built structure on the Northside and make a few training jumps, then drive out to the Westside to a 100-year-old bridge they’ve come to consider their own.
Operational security is the order of the day. Don’t draw attention. Don’t make noise. Leave no trace. Watch your surroundings. Sometimes it’s all about hiding in plain sight. They used to walk through Broad Ripple in full gear and nobody would ever ask what they were up to. They would jump off bridges on the Monon Trail, and only gave it up because they got tired of wet ropes.
And if Case doesn’t think a site is completely secure, he’ll walk away at a moment’s notice. Which is what we do at the training jump site when someone drives by in a truck and gets a good look at us in the headlights.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this whole night,” Case says as we drive out west, determined to go into the bridge jump cold. It’s the first nice night in a while, and even at midnight people are everywhere. “If there’s people around, we try to be discreet. This one time we took our chances, and you saw what happened.”
Out on the city’s Westside we evacuate the car and vanish into the bushes behind a fence at the edge by the bridge. Getting up to the railway is a challenge in itself; we scale steep rock-strewn paths using trees and rusty support structures as handholds. Then it’s up the sides of the stone foundations, huge blocks, each one of which is 2 feet tall and overgrown with moss. They feel like the stairs to the entrance of a grand temple from an ancient time. We are walking in the footsteps of giants.
The climb is at once exhausting and adrenaline-pumping with the thrill of doing something forbidden. From here we can see cars for a mile in each direction. We crouch and remain still when each passes; it’s a strange feeling, seeing them down there and knowing they’re oblivious to us. “We’re lucky in that people are ignorant,” Rook says. “Nobody ever looks up.”
A change comes over Case’s devil-may-care demeanor when they’re out on the scene; he becomes hard and somber, his eyes always darting and searching for hints of trouble. “Sometimes I’m an asshole, and people just have to live with that. I run a tight ship.”
This caution has served them well; in a few years of exploration they’ve had no injuries and no run-ins with the law. They never take anything, never leave graffiti, never break into a closed site and always carry their ID. If they’re ever caught, such care means the difference between a trespassing ticket and jail time.
Up on top of the bridge it’s only iron girders, gravel and the railway, with trees and darkness beneath us. We make our way across the bridge and set up base. Red Revolt is one of the only urban exploration teams that uses rappelling as one of their core skills, thanks to Ghost’s military experience. It gets them places no other team could reach and has garnered them a certain respect in the whisper-stream of exploration crew gossip; other groups around the nation have asked them for training.
“Rope’s goin’ down,” Neocitizen says quietly as he tosses a satchel into the abyss, thick black rope trailing out behind. Then Case goes over the edge, spinning and sailing down into the darkness until he gains purchase against the stone and disappears beneath us. He’s got the hardest job, making it into the tunnel and tying an anchor for the rest of us.
Up here in the midst of this, the adrenaline rush is incredible, particularly when there’s nothing to do but wait. Senses expand out in every direction, and every footfall, heartbeat and crack of light is magnified and heightened. Finally, the radio chirps with Case’s all-clear. “I’m in.”
Then it’s time for the rest of us, one by one. It’s really just a basic drop with a slight swing to get into the depths of the tunnel. I keep telling myself that as we check and double check the connections for my descent. I’m using an ATC (air traffic control) harness, a beginner’s tool that will drop me down steadily and slowly even if I freak out or let go completely.
I climb over the railing and lean back, still holding the rail with one hand. “To make this work you’ve gotta let go,” Neosoft whispers. “It’s the hardest part of this whole thing. But the rope will hold.”
Well, I wanted in on this, and this is the only way in. If it was easy everyone would do it. I lean back, brace with my feet and let go — and then I’m dropping, faster than I expected, heart pounding madly. The most frightening part is that there’s no wall to kick off, just empty air to swing to and then down into the tunnel. I feel my self-control slip, panic nearly takes over and then the rope tightens as Case and Rook guide me into the cave and solid ground. If I wasn’t really Spider before, I am now.
We’re about halfway down the height of the bridge, crouched in a deep archway — one of eight spanning the depth of the bridge. It seemed so small as we were driving up. We sit wearily for a while, leaning against stone walls, as a train passes overhead. It barely even shakes the hundreds of tons of concrete. The only light comes from the soft red glow of a cigarette Case carefully cups to hide from outside eyes.
Crouched in these recesses, we can see only trees in either direction. I wonder if this is the same thing the workers saw when they rested in here while building this bridge, 100 years ago. From here it’s as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist.
If the secret police or the zombie apocalypse ever show up, Red Revolt will be ready. Antisocial misfits with paramilitary training, disdain for authority, a low threshold for boredom and nothing better to do than make their home in the city’s hidden faces — they’re The Man’s worst nightmare.
“The one thing that keeps us from getting out there and starting real trouble is that we’re too lazy,” Case says. “We just wanna sit around and wait for something to happen, then we’ll be ready. Y2K was SUCH a letdown, man.”
Once the train passes, Case takes the lead with his tiny red light, guiding us through a series of progressively tinier passages that connect the archways, up to the highest point of the bridge, and then down again. At its tightest point, the tunnel is only 4 feet wide on all sides.
The goal of our descent is the massive support rooms at either end, built for storage and now left empty. Until a few years ago, they were accessible from the ground, then the access doors were sealed up. But evidence of past explorers remains, like graffiti and junk, even a couple of bras and condoms. This was apparently quite the lover’s lane back in the day.
We explore for a while, examining graffiti, taking photos, soaking up the experience. This deep in the tunnels we can sweep the flashlight beams freely, though it attracts insects, which in turn attract bats. The squeamish need not apply for this gig.
Then it’s time to get the hell out. Once again the narrow tunnels must be navigated; once again it’s a rappel into the dark abyss, this time all the way to the ground. It’s only 12 feet down but looks a lot longer in the dark. We scale an even deeper incline, scrabbling in the soft dirt, and then it’s back across the bridge, down the ledges and the footsteps of giants.
Rook handles pickup and wheelman duty while the rest of the team retrieves the gear from topside. He drives the car slowly by the bridge; the team members dart from the darkness, stash everything in the trunk, then dive into the car as Rook drives away. Total stop time: less than 15 seconds.
They lean together wearily on the way home. Nobody talks much as we hurtle through the night, wind in our hair, danger at our backs, the world around us oblivious to our adventure. “It really takes me about two days after one of these to process it all,” Vain sighs.
“We’re all alive and none of us are in cuffs,” Case says. “That’s a good thing.”
Some say the bridge is haunted. People speak of mysterious sounds, inexplicable lights, things that go bump in the night. Maybe they just hear us.