My neighborhood, on the north side of Indianapolis, collectively owns seven acres of floodplain property along Williams Creek, and there is frequent disagreement over whether these seven acres should be mown (a needless expense!), planted with wildflowers (what are we, a bunch of hippies?!), or returned to nature (but then where will my dog defecate?). Those discussions quickly descend into a series of accusations about certain dogs and certain lawns, which makes me very uncomfortable, partly because I’ve never liked confrontation and partly because I know damn well they’re talking about my dog. But nothing brings together a disjointed community quite like something to argue about, and unfortunately for me, we have the floodplain.
At the edge of the shared property, just a few steps from the road, a cylindrical concrete tube, about seven feet in diameter, emerges from the earth. Stormwater runoff exits this tube and trickles a couple hundred yards before merging with the creek. Sewage professionals—who, I have come to learn, have an ear for poetry—call these discharge points “outfalls.” And one day last year, I was walking on the street past the outfall with my 2-year-old son when he said, “Daddy, I wanna see the shopping cart closer.” I looked over, and indeed, there was a shopping cart perched between the outfall and the rocky creek bed.
The shopping cart was from Marsh, which is almost two miles away. And as I scrambled down off the road to get a better look at the underground passageway, I also noticed some graffiti reading “LEEK” (or possibly “LEEt”—it wasn’t very good graffiti). When I told the neighbors, we all began to imagine that perhaps the outfall connected to a huge network of tunnels that allowed you to walk from Marsh to Williams Creek without ever going above ground. We imagined a world beneath the world, where ne’er-do-wells ride around in shopping carts and suck at graffiti.
And it turns out that there actually is such a place.
I decided to explore the outfall myself one Saturday evening last fall, with a massive LED flashlight and some shoes I didn’t mind ruining. I’m a very anxious person, and I have a passionate dislike for rodents, but for some reason, I initially felt almost comfortable in the tunnel. I’d expected it to smell like a mix of rotting flesh and fecal matter. But that evening, the only hint of decay was an amped-up version of the almost-sweet scent of fallen leaves. The air was cold and damp. Things scurried just ahead of the flashlight’s beam. I saw more graffiti—the person fond of leeks and/or leets seemed to be the primary wall decorator, but there were other contributors, too.
The tunnel was just tall enough for me to stand, and it wound around until I couldn’t see the creek anymore. I turned off the flashlight for a moment. The darkness was total. I took a few shuffling steps forward, waiting for my eyes to adjust. But there was nothing for my eyes to adjust to. I turned the flashlight back on and kept walking. Soon, I realized I had no idea where I was. Was I beneath the blue house across the street? Was I even still in my neighborhood? Could I really walk all the way to the supermarket underground? The deeper into the city’s bowels I went, the more mysterious the hidden network of conduits seemed.
A few months later, at my request, I took a semi-official tour of the Pogue’s Run Box—a tunnel that carries Pogue’s Run Creek under the streets of downtown—courtesy of Citizens Water. My knowledgeable guide, Paul Struck, took me a few hundred feet into the tube to give me a sense of how it all works—how stormwater joins with sewage and heads toward the treatment facility. Suddenly, a squealing noise reverberated through the tunnel, followed by a thump-thump that shook the ground. I jolted. My guide smiled. “A car driving over a manhole,” he explained, unfazed by the eerie sights and sounds of the underground. When he walks the two miles of Pogue’s Run with a partner to ensure everything is working properly, he sometimes even turns off his flashlight to preserve the batteries. The darkness doesn’t bother him. Not much seemed to bother him, honestly. Imagine a very calm, engineering Chuck Norris.
My phone’s GPS didn’t work down there, so I asked him how he keeps track of his location after a few turns. He explained that you just sort of know these things after a while. He can drive around downtown, see a manhole, and know exactly what lies beneath it. From below, he can picture the world above, and from above, he can picture the world below.
This seemed very ordinary to Paul, but of course only a few people in the city can drive past Lucas Oil Stadium and visualize the path of Pogue’s Run underfoot. The truth is, our sewer systems are built with invisibility in mind. We flush the toilet, or run the dishwasher, and never think of it again. To me, one of the defining joys of contemporary American life is not having to contemplate sewage very often.
Each of us has knowledge of one secret world or another, of course. In the end, the reason my neighborhood association argues over those seven acres is because they are ours, and almost no one outside of the neighborhood even knows they exist. But the secret world that belongs to the men and women of Citizens—unsavory as it may be to think about—is among the largest and least explored in Indy, a mirror image of the streets dug under the ground.
Because it’s relatively dry and private, a few homeless people live in the Pogue’s Run tunnel. The one near my house is smaller, darker, and altogether less hospitable, but people still choose to spend time down there, too. As I walked farther into my outfall that evening last fall, it occurred to me that I had become one of those people, despite my longstanding opposition to adventure. (Whenever my son asks me to push him “really high” on the playground swings, I explain to him in my sternest Dad voice that in the long run, the cautious pursuit of fulfillment leads to far more pleasure than the fleeting thrill of an adrenaline rush.)
As I crept farther, panic finally set in. I was lost! The scurrying animals, which I could never quite see amid the ankle-deep muck of the tunnel, seemed to get more numerous. And then I imagined my obituary in The Indianapolis Star: “John Green, 35, walked into a sewage drain like a dumbass and died.”
So I never made it nearly far enough to find out whether you can walk from the outfall to the grocery store. Someday, perhaps, I’ll summon the courage, or run into LEEK and get a proper tour of the place. But that evening, once I turned around, I walked out in a hurry, my heart racing, too busy being afraid to take the time to wonder what exactly I was afraid of. Nothing seemed familiar in reverse. Had I taken a wrong turn somehow? Fear welled up into my throat. And then finally the tunnel turned, and light flooded in.
Although it was technically “dark” outside by then, to my eyes, there was nothing dark about it. That was the central pleasure of my brief visit to the city below ground: Once you’ve experienced total darkness, the early evening seems saturated with light. I emerged from the outfall just after 8 p.m., and there was the familiar shopping cart, the green moss of the boulders, the rivulets of water working their way around the rocks down toward the creek. I saw the trees bent over the creek bed like the roof of a church, and it took me a second to remember that this is what we call night, this improbably beautiful silverlit landscape in the middle of America’s 11th-largest city.
John Green is the New York Times bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars, which has sold almost 300,000 copies, and other young-adult novels, including the Printz Award–winning Looking for Alaska. When he’s not snooping around in the sewers, he is busy entertaining his 1.3 million Twitter followers. He usually writes fiction, so this essay on the Indianapolis sewers provided a new challenge: reporting. Along the way, he developed a newfound appreciation for water treatment. “After spending a day exploring outfalls and learning about treatment plants,” he says, “I’ve gone from thinking my water bill is expensive to finding it astonishingly cheap.”
Illustrated by Andy J. Miller
This article appeared in the February 2013 issue.