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Documenting his exploits around St. Louis on his blog, Irrational Ecstasy, Casey says he and a few kindred spirits go searching nearly every weekend. "It's something that's got to be in your personality," he explains. "I've been doing stuff like this since I was a kid. It kind of grew from there, until a kid told me about urban exploration that it was actually a hobby. I got online and typed it in and found Underground Ozarks."
Sam is less attuned to the online community; he's in it purely for the adventure. "I've always been the kid who does the fucked-up shit, who got arrested, skipped school and went places I shouldn't go."
The Irrational Ecstasy contingent is meeting Sam, Rob and Brian for the first time tonight. They've all been traversing the region for the past few years in separate groups, and now they're getting to know each other over beers. Despite the area's vital terrain, St. Louis' underground-exploration scene is much less organized than other cities'.
"Any sense of community here is in its infancy," says Casey. "In talking to these people in other communities, they say: 'We can't believe that there's nothing in St. Louis.' But really, what it takes is a few people that are willing to get it going."
Says Sam: "I kind of assumed that since there were these cave structures underneath the whole fucking city, somebody's got to be checking this shit out. I started running through my mind: 'OK, who do I go talk to if I ever really get into this thing? Water department? City workers? Who do I bribe?'"
When his search for fellow travelers came up empty, Sam started sniffing around the Lemp complex by himself. "I must have been in that place ten or fifteen times before I found out how to get down there. I just kept breaking in. I kept going in different areas until I found out."
Most of the crew follows a stringent code of ethics regarding break-ins. "We've never broken a lock to get into anywhere," stresses Casey. "The difference is, when you bust a lock or break a window, you move from trespassing to breaking-and-entering.
Casey recites the words of Jeff Chapman (a.k.a. Ninjalicious), the late Toronto-based urban explorer who is considered the godfather of the scene: "Take nothing but photos; leave nothing but footprints."
"We love these sites, and we care about them," adds Casey. "If we were to go to the Lemp and start ransacking everything immediately all entrances that we use are going to be shut off. We enjoy the return trips."
But Sam, a former brewery worker and self-described "brewer's bitch and cellar rat," says he's not concerned with the leave-undisturbed protocols of the "thrilling, mind-expanding hobby" of urban exploration, as Ninjalicious called it.
"I use this shit to pick up girls," Sam jokes of his numerous forays escorting women into the caves. "I want people to experience the raw fucking beauty of underground St. Louis."
Rob and Brian, meanwhile, are taking the group to a man-made tunnel on the western edge of downtown. At the end of the tunnel is a door that leads into the basement of the main post office on Market Street. "You can see these orange-colored lights," Rob says. "Once, the door was open. You could see in there and you could see them pushing mail stuff around."
After finishing their beers and exchanging phone numbers, the caravan heads out. They time their approach perfectly, waiting for potential witnesses to pass. And then, like a veritable SWAT team, they descend into a gulley and race a few hundred yards through a wide, man-made overpass. They leap across a gutter, scale a chain-link fence and find themselves standing in a pillared cavern where the tunnel opens.
The enormous space seems to be a refuge for a few homeless people. A couple of trashed rooms worthy of Blade Runnerare off to the side. The guys search the first one, a dank, unlit area with debris scattered on the floor. As water drips from the ceiling, Casey snaps some photos to upload to his blog.
The next doorway leads to a tiny hallway that flows into another room, where the explorers come across a pool of blue water of indeterminate depth. As they head toward the tunnel, a train approaches, forcing them to retreat into the hallway they just left. They press themselves against the wall and someone warns Sam of the water. But it's too dark, and he walks straight into it, splashing and flailing before he goes completely under. He regains his bearings and crawls out. In the distance, a security guard appears and looks toward the noise. The explorers shush one another. The guard keeps staring, and the group decides to scram. They'll try again later.
"Sometimes," Casey later explains, "you go to places and you have to decide, 'OK, not today.'"
Carved by water a million years ago, the Lemp Cave is one of the sole subterranean remnants of a network used in the mid-1800s to refrigerate beer. Most of the caves were destroyed in the 1960s and '70s, when old, abandoned beerhouses were demolished and their collapsed foundations clogged the entryways.
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