They weren't actually sewers, but we liked to refer to them as such. They were really storm drain tunnels, miles of which run underneath the suburbs of Plano, Texas. Even though there's no direct human or household waste flowing through them, it's odd looking back and realizing that at the time we assumed there was, and that it didn't bother us. It never smelled more than just musty, and there was never more than a small trickle of water running through them. The tunnels were mostly bone dry, so it was easy to navigate on their poured concrete surfaces with sneakers and not feel like you'd stepped in something gross. These cylindrical, concrete caves provided a chilly, dim, wholly other universe for me and my friends while growing up...always waiting there for us mere inches beneath our front lawns. The real purpose of storm drain tunnels is to prevent flooding in low-lying areas: drains built within the grid of paved streets (usually along the curbs) sieve off rainwater directly into large tunnels under the ground, or sometimes smaller connecting ones, which lead to others, and others, and eventually dump out into creeks. Rainwater run-off, lawn water run-off, street water, creek water, storm drains, storm tunnels: to us...they'll always be sewers.
1. The Regal Road tunnel
Here's one of the most-trafficked curb drain exits of the first storm drain tunnel we ever discovered as kids. The Regal Road tunnel was the best one, and the first we happened upon (at about the age of seven). It's length was about one mile, and it had many connecting tunnels of various sizes and indeterminate lengths. Of course a curb drain manhole exit of a storm drain tunnel is only the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath is far more vast...
The "official" twin entrance of the Regal Road tunnel can be seen a few blocks east, here (look closely). Although it's moved since I played in it as a kid. Greenway Drive used to be the cut-off point, but thirty years later it's moved east, ending just underneath Custer Road (the new extension traveling underneath two blocks of what used to be nothing). But it's the same tunnel. Typical of Texan suburban sprawl, the tightly-packed sea of precursory McMansions that made up our neighborhood abruptly ended at the edge of a large field of old prairie space (scraggly brush, ancient tree property lines, meandering creaks and rabbit holes). This field is where the two original outlets of the Regal Road tunnel let out into a creak. The water that ran out of them forged a small creek that eventually made it's way to a larger one, which lead to an even larger one, and on and on. The outlets and entrances to storm drain tunnels were often doubles, right next to each other, with a poured concrete "floor" extending out from beneath them like a curved lip.
Of this particular one, the left tunnel was perpetually clogged with debris (sticks, boards, dead grass and clusters of small trash). But the right one was always accessible, all the way through. If I entered it now, I'd obviously have to crouch down. But as small children we could walk right in and easily reach up to touch the inside of the top. I remember the first thing we did when we discovered it was to just walk right in, because it seemed like an entrance. And when we did, we just kept going and going. We noticed the temperature was far cooler than above ground, even chilly.
As soon as we discovered the way sound carried inside the tunnel, we couldn't shut up. We whooped, hollered and clapped our hands, listening to the sound reverberate and echo into infinity in front and back of us (which must have sounded interesting coming out of all the curb drains above ground). We eventually discovered we hadn't been the first: there was spray-painted graffiti on the walls inside. It said something like "fuk pigz" over a crudely drawn picture of Gene Simmons' face with his tongue stretching really far out and licking a marijuana leaf. Next to that was a spray painted drawing of a smiling nude man and woman, standing and facing each other in profile, with the man's too-long penis sticking straight out and going directly into the front of the woman (I think for years I thought women's vaginas opened out directly in the front of their crotches, vertically). But besides early sex education, the big realization was that the farther we ventured, the darker it got. And darker, and darker...and darker. We eventually made 180 degree turn and went out again, rather quickly, vowing to return with flashlights. We did, and began venturing deeper and deeper into them.
We'd soon spend hours exploring down there, sometimes whole afternoons. There were all kinds of smaller tunnels that drained water into the main one, and although most of these looked very icky, some perpendicular side tunnels were large enough to walk into (we got lost more than once, but always eventually got our bearings). One time we came out of an exit tunnel in a vast, empty area that had a grid pattern of streets paved in an empty field, awaiting homes to be built (not an uncommon sight at the time). To this day I have no idea where that was because we went right back in the tunnel and walked back home through it. Often there were parallel tunnels that would connect occasionally with a smaller perpendicular tunnel between them (which would usually be clogged with decaying leaves). We learned that in parallel tunnel lines there was almost always one tunnel that was very clogged, and one that was clear (never really figured out why). Although, despite my childhood imagination, the drain tunnel system beneath Plano at the time was relatively simple, which probably explains how we were able to always find our way back if we got lost (I'd love to see a map of the system today, or dated from back then, and compare it with what I remember). Nevertheless, traveling through the tunnels was mostly cerebral anyway. It was fun because it was scary to see how far you could go without freaking out. After long periods, sometimes you'd get dizzy and literally begin to forget which way was up. Sometimes the flickering flashlights on the curved walls and reverberating sound as you walked caused vertigo, and you feel like the curling walls were closing in on you like a cobra. Originally we thought the only way in or out was the outlet you'd originally entered (which could be a half-hour's walk back the way you came), but sometimes you needed a quicker exit.
The curb drains were long rectangular slits in the poured concrete curb (too small to fit through, even at age seven), and occurred at last two or three times each block along the length of the tunnel. These drains provided intervals of natural light, which punctuated along it's length and allowed you to see deep into a tunnel and tell if it curved or even ended far up ahead. The curb drains also sometimes provided entry and exit points...but only sometimes. Behind each curb drain, directly under that rectangular-shaped paved area between the curb and the sidewalk, was a small rectangular room (that the man holes opened into). These weird rooms then had an opening off into the main tunnel (that was sometimes covered with metal grating). These little rooms were actually kind of large, or seemed so at the time. If there was no grating covering the room's opening into the main tunnel, you could access the tunnel this way (that is, if you could get the manhole cover off at age seven). But sometimes the openings connecting to the main tunnel were narrow slits themselves, and getting through them meant you had to squeeze through them, which could be a little scary. The rooms were also filled with old decaying leaves, trash and other flotsam and jetsam, and often too gross to enter. But sometimes you'd find one relatively free of debris, and you could just kind of hang out in it. It was a true room with a view.
The view looking out from a curb drain was unique. You'd see people's feet, or car wheels going by. Sometimes we'd yell at passing strangers and then scurry back into the main tunnel once they'd spotted us (it always took a while). We learned a funny prank to do was to hide very quietly right inside the curb drain and listen for someone walking along the sidewalk on the side of the street we were on. As soon as we heard them near us, we'd stick our arms out of the curb drain all at once and reach up and around as if we were sewer zombies trying to grab them (we heard lots of yelps and screams, but we never saw what our prank victims looked like). Sometimes we'd look out and spot friends of ours and call them over, then we'd hang out there like that, one group above ground and one under, handing each other Laffy Taffy or Fun Dip candy that we'd just bought from 7-11 (we learned the hard, sticky way it was impossible to pass Slurpees back and forth -- but we did learn that you could tear out the bright red cup's bottom and put your flashlight through it to make a nice kind of torch/lamp). Sometimes we'd crawl from the tunnel up into these curb drain rooms just to peer out the curb drains and figure out where we were, even spotting street signs occasionally (there certainly were no maps), and then go back into the main tunnel and solider on.
As mentioned, the iron manhole covers could sometimes be lifted off if we pushed really hard. Sometimes we couldn't get them to budge because they were either too heavy or somehow locked, we never figured it out (and I don't ever remember trying op open one from the outside). There was one moment I remember very clearly, which I think was the first time we exited one of these manholes. There were about five of us, guys and girls, and we climbed up into the crawl space and then loudly pushed the cover off it's seal. Unannounced, we then one by one climbed out of the manhole into the warm, sunny outside world. It was a typical spring Saturday; families were out on their lawns, doing yard work, sitting in lawn chairs and chatting or bar-b-cueing. Kids were playing. And here come five 7-year-olds crawling out of the sewers like C.H.U.D.s. No one said anything to us, but everyone stopped what they were doing. We just carefully placed the cover back in it's place, and then all walked home as a group. The neighbors stared and stared and stared.
We formed a club called the River Rats, and added our friends of friends to the ranks (to join, you had to prove your bravery by venturing very deep into the tunnel alone, without a flashlight, to retrieve an object we'd hidden). Our dream was to spend the night down there, tell each of our parents that we were spending the night at the others house, them meet up for the most hair-rising slumber party ever...underground. We never did, and I honestly don't think I'd have the guts to do that now.
Going inside storm drain tunnels is technically illegal, and indeed rather dangerous during or even many hours following a rainstorm. We'd heard all the warnings, and statistics. I think we'd just lucked out and happened to use the tunnels in a year that was particularly dry, as we never remembered any water level deeper than a trickle. Honestly, the worst thing you could imagine happening down there at that age was the tunnel filling with water and then Jaws swimming up and eating you alive (a perfectly realistic fear for a 7-year-old in the late 70's).
Another fantasy was to follow the Regal Road tunnel from the original outlet on Greenway Drive, all the way under Plano to our school at the time, Weatherford Elementary. We had the idea that, since we walked to school anyway, if we could map it out then maybe we could walk to and from school through the sewers alone. We could move undetected along the route, disappear and reappear at a moments notice through the curb drain man holes, amaze, dazzle and fool our friends.
So one day, me and one other friend spontaneously decided to try it. It was pretty late in the afternoon on a Sunday when we'd decided (who checks the time at that age?) Going all the way to our school through the Regal Road tunnel seemed like a hundred miles from the outlet on Greenway Drive, which was near our homes. But looking now, it's actually only about one mile.
We descended into the Greenway Drive entrance, each carrying our own flashlight. We were determined to not go above ground at all until we'd reached the exit tunnel we'd heard let out right by the school (which for some reason we imagined would let out right in the middle of the playground). We got a good pace going and trudged on and on. On and on. We eventually reached a part of the tunnel we'd never been in before. In some places the tunnel would get narrower, and then expand again. This was scary, especially when it was getting dark.
After what seemed like an hour (probably five minutes), we decided to access some of the curb drain rooms to see if we could open the man hole covers, just in case. Each one we checked along the line had metal grating on it, so we just kept going forwards. Our original hunch to do that probably should have been paid more attention to, because suddenly we both noticed that it seemed to be getting particularly dark for the time of day. That much time couldn't have passed, could it have? We turned off our flashlights and looked ahead and behind us. We could see the sporadic spots of light that would normally be shining into the tunnel from the curb drains looked like they were running low on batteries. All the spots of light seemed to be dimming out. And why did it seem cold all of the sudden? Had we somehow gone deeper underground?
Our throats fell into our legs when we first heard it. A booming, rattling, deafening sound blasted all around us, and seemed to rapidly increase in volume. It shot through the tunnel with a low roar, accentuated with a high, piercing whistle that hurt your ears. And it kept getting louder. "What is it!?" we tried to shout as we clasped our hands over our ears, trembling. An...earthquake? It got even darker. We looked ahead and behind us quickly. Oh my God, it must be....a train! Coming towards us in the tunnel! That's the only thing that could make such a sound! We had to get out...now! With our hands still clasped over our stinging ears we ran ahead to the next curb drain to see if we could (oh God please) get out there. Just before we reached it, the realization of what was making the deafening roar hit our faces with a chilly mist. We reached the small passage into the curb drain access room to look up and see through the faraway rectangular slit: RAIN! Not just rain...but buckets of cats and dogs of rain pounding the parched pavement like jack hammers. It was a total downpour. Dirty water was already pouring in through the curb drain and rustling the piles of debris that had collected in the drain's room in all the weeks it probably hadn't rained. Of course we were watching all of this through a metal grating, which we had our fingers desperately clasped around, and which meant we couldn't get out there. Should we try and make it to the school to get out? How far were we?
"Run!" my friend (literally) screamed. With no time to think, we faced the facts. There was only one way out: the way we'd come in. We shot off in the direction we'd come. We both turned on our flashlights just in time to see that each curb drain passage we advanced on now had a small arc of water pouring directly out of it into the main tunnel, which pushed out clumps of freshly wet leaves, creating soggy piles that exploded and clung all over us each time our sneakers hit one. They were like place markers. The realization that it was simply rain made everything worse. Every statistic I'd been lectured to about kids getting drowned in storm tunnels during flash floods raced through my mind. I pictured my blue, bloated body flailing helplessly in underwater darkness. I turned around as I ran, expecting to see a foaming rush of flood water coming towards us in the shape of a laughing skull (and which had Jaws in it). Then, the ultimate horror movie cliche happened: we both tripped and fell, simultaneously. Gross storm drain water soaked our fronts as our knees plunged into the now ankle-deep water and clapped hard onto the concrete (thank God we had on our Wrangler Toughskins). The broken pieces of both our flashlights ricocheted around us. A wet, airborne D-size battery stung me in the cheek. Now it was really, really dark. The roaring sound was beyond deafening. There was water...everywhere. We didn't stop to find any broken flashlight pieces, or teeth. We got right up and kept charging. Every split-second counted. We both seem to agree with our actions that neither of us had any interest in stopping to see if we could get out through any of the curb drains we knew were accessible, not with water now shooting out of each of them. No, a lightening-speed death race for the exit on drenched sneakers was our only hope for a life past the fourth grade. Luckily, without the flashlights on, the Greenway Drive entrance to the tunnel was now faintly in view. A tiny, perfectly round electric blue dot far off in the jiggling distance, like looking at a dime from the top of a staircase. All we knew is the harder our feet pounded the water, and the more our lungs burned, the more our chances of outwitting a watery grave would be. It seemed like an eternity. We were now very weighted down with water itself, as the run off from each curb drain was now powerful enough to blast our crotches like a firehose each time we'd run past. Still, I ran fast enough to blast through them and practically skim the water's rising surface. No matter how fast we ran, the blue light circle of the entrance ahead of us kept taking way too long to get bigger, and at times seemed to flutter out. The roar behind us was even louder now. I didn't look, but I imagined the wall of water directly behind us, it's foamy laughing skull face now transformed into a cackling Gene Simmons, his watery tongue licking and tripping my ankles. Just when I thought I might collapse, through watery eyes I glanced to my left and...I spied the graffiti of the man's penis going into the woman's sideways vagina! My God we must be near the end!
Despite being nearly dusk, and overcast, and a total downpour, when we flung our limp bodies out of the tunnel's exit the dim light was almost blinding. If our faces hadn't been instantly soaked from the rain we would have both seen that the other had been crying. We didn't even stop to catch our breath. "Don't tell your parents! Don't tell your parents!" we both shouted to one another as we kept charging on, each in the direction of our houses.
The next day at school we told all of our friends we'd been "under the school." Nobody believed us. At recess we ventured out into the school grounds to try and find the storm drain exit tunnel we'd heard let out at the school. Knowing where it had been before we'd started would have been better planning, but there you go.
Perhaps when we found it, we'd look into it from the other end and discover that we'd been right near the end all along, that that we'd panicked when the sudden rain hit for nothing, and if we'd just gone another hundred yards, etc., etc. We looked and looked, but never found it the Regal Road tunnel exit near the school. Eventually we deducted that it didn't exist, and we were lucky to be alive.
Years later, through the miracle of Google Maps, I've found it. Right under our noses the whole time.
2. The Rustic Drive tunnel sewer monster
This one's hard to see, obviously, because the Rustic Drive storm drain tunnel let out at a very proper creek which was lined with tree growth. I remember right by the entry tunnel was an itchy vine growing off of a tall tree that you could grab and swing to the other side of the creek on. We hung out near the Rustic Drive storm drain tunnel often, and entered it occasionally, but mostly hung out by the creek catching crawdads. It's hard to see from this satellite view, but it's on the near side of the creek, across from the house with the circle driveway. This same home was where two older twin brothers of another friend who hung around at the time lived, and who both were decidedly "bad" kids. I think they were in high school. They knew we played in this storm drain tunnel, and one day they walked down there when we were all hanging out and started telling us about the "sewer monster" who lived in the tunnel, that they had seen coming in and out of the tunnel late at night. They said it had grown from a baby piranha or snake or alligator or something that someone had flushed down the toilet, and had mutated because of all the chlorine in Plano's water supply (a real and very heated local topic at the time). It was the size of a large bull, except it had thick, stunted arms with giant claws, and sat on all fours close to the ground so it could live in the tunnel. To camouflage itself, it had developed a fur coat that looked like long pieces of dead grass clinging to a large mass of debris...so you wouldn't know if you were walking right by it, which of course would be too late, as it was carnivorous. And also...there had been a babysitter found near the entrance to a sewer tunnel in the suburban section of McKinney (a nearby town) after she hadn't come home after returning late at night from a job at a nearby house. "Her head had been ripped off, and was gone...hadn't we heard?" No, we hadn't. "They'd had to identify her by her favorite brand of designer jeans." Well no, we hadn't heard about that either. We all listened in kind of half-belief as they wandered back up to the front yard of their house, yelling, "...never go in the sewers after dusk!" as they went inside and slammed their front door.
About a week later, when we were all in the same spot. The twins wandered down again to where we were hanging out by the Rustic Drive tunnel entrance. They had a Polaroid photograph of the sewer monster they had taken themselves. It was taken from just outside the tunnel, and was very dark and blurry. All you could really see were two reflections that looked like eyes deep inside the tunnel. They told us that it had been near dark when they heard some growling down there and decided to investigate. And that right after they snapped the picture, the sewer monster growled and charged out of the tunnel after them, and they ran back into their house in terror. But the Polaroid soon faded into view, revealing that they now had photographic evidence to scare us with. I of course don't have a copy of the photo, but I've created what I remember it looking like in Photoshop:
Even though the photo looked incredibly fake, the twins gave a remarkable performance. They seemed genuinely rattled as they told us the story. It...kinda worked. Although the reflective eyes in the photo of the "monster" would eventually be revealed to be the tops of soda cans, and the monster's "body" a denim jacket draped over a bike.
3. The Collin Creek Mall tunnels
This was the storm drain tunnel to end all storm drain tunnels. A very large group of triple arcs, done in rippled metal on the inside (which created an amazing echo effect inside) and with smooth concrete covering their entire floor. They were big enough to drive a bus through if you wanted. Here was the "entrance." They didn't seem to connect to the rest of the storm drain tunnels in Plano, and seemed to have their own unique design. Plus, they didn't run under the mall as much as they ran under the large parking lot of the mall, and from Google Maps it appears they're about 500 yards long (or something like that). These tunnels were discovered many years after the initial discoveries, which had been during grade school. Even though we weren't teenagers yet, we were still more interested in our hair and music than making an adventure out of giant storm drain tunnels. I remember the day we found these tunnels on our bikes, I'd been carrying around my copy of The B-52's Wild Planet LP to show to the stylist at the mall haircutting place (I'd wanted my hair to look like Keith Strickland's). I must have been holding it under my arm wrong because at one point the LP slid right out of the cover and hit the ground spinning, rolling sideways straight into the tunnel as I ran chasing after it, screaming until it finally flopped onto it's side in the grimy water (to this day I can pull out my copy of this LP from my old collection and look at the clusters of grit from that day permanently caked into its crackling grooves). A friend and I did return to this tunnel once or twice and tried to venture all the way through it to the other side. Here's what the other side looks like. Unfortunately we discovered that the floor must be slightly concave at the tunnel's center, as water eventually covers the entire bottom and gets quite deep. We vowed to return one day with high galoshes and go all the way to the other side.