Half-Blind Valley

Explorations in an urban wilderness.

  • DarkDay/CC Flickr

The suburb we grew up in had a series of greenbelts: preserved land flowing like inlets between the thousands of tract homes that stretched ever south from Denver. Highlands Ranch had been a cattle ranch in the not-so-distant past, and cattle still grazed on some of the land in 1991 — a comfortingly pastoral sight for the 17,000 inhabitants of the 10-year-old suburban outpost.

When I was 9, I spent hours exploring our greenbelt with a tall redheaded kid from the neighborhood. We spent most of our time down by the creek, protected from the hot summer sun by towering cottonwood trees. We would pack provisions and wander the great expanse just as Stephen Harriman Long had in July of 1820. His namesake peak (14,259 feet tall) looms over the Front Range, and under its watchful gaze we delighted in finding quicksand and frogs and the occasional owl. We dreamed of finding swimming holes and stringing up rope swings that would propel us through the air and into the cool water below. 

On summer afternoons in Colorado, storm clouds formed near Longs Peak and neighboring mountains, where we could see them building, their strength growing. Then, as if given permission, they advanced across the plains, a torrent of rain and thunder and lightning. In the cities and suburbs, water gathered in the streets, the contours of the -concrete forcing it through gutters to storm drains, where it disappeared into the underworld.

Once, just down from the greenbelt entrance, we found a storm drain outlet hidden behind the cottonwoods, around a bend in the creek. It was a large concrete block with a stream of water flowing from an opening at its base. We scaled the exterior wall above the opening and looked down into a room. After scoping out the obstacles inside, we decided to jump down. We waded five feet through ankle-deep water and climbed over a giant interior concrete wall to reach the farthest chamber, where a large drainpipe emerged. It was like nothing we had seen before. Deep inside, the drainpipe was utterly dark, an emptiness from which a cool breeze blew.

“Because it’s there,” George Mallory said, when he was asked why he climbed Everest. Our answer, at 9, to the question, “Why do you want to enter the drainpipe?” would have been the same. Mallory was last seen a couple hundred meters from the summit of Everest in 1924. He was 37. His well-preserved body was found in 1999 on the North Face, at 26,760 feet. His partner’s body was never found. We hadn’t heard of either of them. 

We went home to plan. We did not know what the pipe was exactly or why it was there. We did not know how long it was or if in fact it ever ended. We did know that we needed more provisions for this expedition, our most daring to date. We loaded up on flashlights, candles, matches and Hostess CupCakes. Our load seemed heavy; never before had we carried so much. So we tied a rope to a skateboard and pulled our gear behind us.

When we got to the drainpipe, past the entrance and the water and the concrete wall, the otherworldly breeze met us once more. We stared into the depth of the darkness. And then, taking a deep breath, we stepped inside.

We could walk inside the drainpipe as long as we kept our heads down and knees bent. After about 10 feet, the light of day faded behind us. We turned on our flashlights and crept forward, spelunkers encountering a corrugated-steel cave. We were followed by the sound of the skateboard’s wheels drumming out a steady rhythm against the corrugation.

After what felt like an hour, we stopped and talked briefly, reassuring each other. Outside, the thunderclouds were building in the distance, the winds were picking up. Inside, with the storm out of sight, we felt only the cool breeze flowing through the tunnel. -We continued.-

Then, on our left, in the glow of a flashlight, we saw another pipe, much smaller and jutting out like a tributary. It opened about halfway up the wall of the main pipe. We would be able to fit as long as we crawled on our hands and knees. There would not be enough room to turn around. We would need to make it to the end, or, if retreat became necessary, we would need to methodically inch backward all the way to the main pipe.

We had not checked the weather report. We had no idea if there might be a thunderstorm that afternoon. The weather was not on our minds. It was darkness, not rain, that scared us. 

We deliberated. We ate our cupcakes. Then we followed the tributary to see where it would lead.

Kyle Boelte is the author of The Beautiful Unseen (Soft Skull/Counterpoint, February 2015), from which this essay is adapted.


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