Saturday, May 4, 2013

Into the Belly of the Beast - The Paulinskill Viaduct, revisited

"It seems that whenever we do go adventuring, Jeff," he said as we descended the steep hillside trail, nearly blind in the dark, "That it is always a game of escalation."

And he was right.

For the last week or so, we had gone a tad stir-crazy what with finals and the never ending bipolar nature of the weather (snow chances one day, wearing shorts the next) and were eager to "go exploring" because we had not done so in a while. I believe Clinton Road was our last major outing. One friend had moved here in August and we had not yet shown him our beloved Viaduct and decided that it was a perfect destination for the quiet Friday trip. It was an injustice that it took us this long to bring him there.

We set out in the early evening and were traveling against the impending sundown. The rural portions of North Jersey were painted in oranges, purples, and blues and we had somehow managed to avoid the bulk of rush-hour traffic in pursuit of these lesser-touched highroads. We got to the Paulinskill Viaduct just as darkness was settling in and his first glimpse of the monolith was its silhouette against a dark blue sky: beautiful. We parked, walked down to the water, and then decided to take the treacherous route up the steep side of the hill (versus the gentle trail on the right). When we got to the top, we saw a few other visitors returning from their visit, their distant voices and strobing flashlights our only sensory indicators of their presence. We flashed our lights, hoping not to alarm them when we inevitably crossed paths, and began walking towards them.

Without any ceremony, we briefly greeted the five or so visitors (I guess late high school students by the brief flashes of clothing and faces that I managed to see as we greeted one another and parted ways) and walked towards the center of the structure. Even having been there a dozen times, it is still surreal to be exposed to the open air, on an abandoned structure, more than a hundred feet over the world. He commented at one point, looking around, that we were in a perfect dome of night sky. The distant fringes of the Pocono Mountains and rolling hills, capped with dense forest all around, held the dark blue night in comfortably, and we marveled at how well the stars shone.

We each took our turn dispensing horrendously inaccurate astronomical observations, each of us (probably) incorrectly guessing the Big Dipper a couple dozen of times before we decided that it was time to peek our heads into the belly of the beast. Now, my other companion and I had always wanted to go in, but were either too ill-prepared (either with lighting or the saturated nature of the Viaduct post rainfalls) or with a group too large and unwilling to go inside. I shone my cellphone's light down the open manhole and pointed out how it went down and that there should be a rusted utility ladder built into the wall. The recent mover hopped down and I advised him how he should lean down to get a glimpse, etc. and he did just that.

"Yup, there's a ladder."

And thus, a relatively poor decision was set in stone.

He prepped himself to lower onto the ladder and my other buddy entered the hole, shining his flashlight for further assistance. I stood alone on the Viaduct while waiting for them to get situated. Yes, mildly terrifying. Darkness as far as the eye can see, sans the occasional house on a distant hill or a passing car miles away. When the second explorer began lowering himself onto the ladder, I decided I would hop down. We would take it slowly and safely, because, honestly, it was a bit nerve-wracking. We were climbing into a service tunnel of an abandoned viaduct 110 feet in the air. Then I noticed something.

"Um, guys."

Far on the other side of the viaduct, down the trail that grew into a forest and eventually, connected to other systems of viaducts, was the approaching sphere of an inorganic light. Then came the sound of an ATV. I immediately hopped down into the hole and, in hushed excitement, told the guys what was approaching. Now, it was (probably) just a hobbyist enjoying the trails, but when you're in these abandoned structures, complete with trespassing warnings, anything exciting becomes potentially dangerous. And even if it were just fellow travelers like ourselves, it would be somewhat adrenaline-inducing to safely hide from view when we were, moments ago, so visually dead-to-rights. You know, pretending to play secret agents, that whole bit. Twenty-one years old is not a cutoff to that cherished blend of nonsense.

So I rapidly climb down ladder (which ends up arching to the right) and almost slipped and died (not really). It was probably about a twenty foot climb down and we all stood in silent awe of our surroundings. We each looked over the edges without speaking as searchlights from the ATVs above swept their trails. We also then saw an ATV searching the area below, near the water, with a large beam of light. So, who knows, pertaining to our artificially created tale of espionage... (we would later refer to is as "splinter-celling" down the ladder.)

We went through a few tunnels and stopped when the arch of the floor grew too steep to safely continue climbing down the metal rungs bolted to the floor. We took a few pictures, but nothing came out beautifully, since all we had were our cellphones. Regardless, the grainy pictures do, somewhat, capture the excitement and joy we felt in that darkness.

We shared many moments of both silent awe and conversational snowballing and storytelling, both in those trenches and on the walk back down to the car. I will never forget that night with my blood brothers.

The Paulinskill Viaduct on Wikipedia