Blowin’ Off Steam

April 26, 2016, 11:54 a.m.

A blast of warm air gushed out of the sides as Armando tried lifting the manhole. 50 pounds of metal casing was all that prevented us from finally entering the steam tunnels. It was 12:13 a.m. We were at the cross way between Roble and the Durand building — wide awake and brimming with anticipation.

“Here, give me a hand,” Armando coughed. The dust got in his mouth. As I neared the source of heat and stuck my two fingers in the tiny holes on the cover, it hit me. This was actually happening. We were going steam tunneling.

“We lift on three.” I could see the excitement in Armando’s face. “Ok, 3… 2… 1!” We slid the cover to right, just enough so we could slip in. Step by step, we descended into the dark, wet hole. A look up and the stars glittered in the navy blue sky, the crescent moon providing our only light source. There was no turning back now.

“What do we do about the cover?” I asked. If someone passed by and saw the opened manhole, they would surely suspect something was up. Our only option was to close ourselves in.

“You think we can swing it?” Armando said in his typical swagger. At 6’ 3”, with curly brown hair and hazel colored eyes, walking around with a sombrero and skateboard in hand, he made all the girls swoon.

“I think we’re gonna have to if we want to explore. We can’t get caught,” I replied.

With one big heave, we pulled the cover back onto its rightful position over the manhole and now above our heads. We continued trekking down the tunnel which grew darker and darker and wetter and wetter with each successive step. We soon had to tie bandanas around our noses to stop us from inhaling the fumes.

Thud! We reached the bottom — pitch black, zero cell reception, and hot as hell. I pulled out my phone flashlight. Left, right. It didn’t matter. The tunnel wasn’t ending for a while. Armando got out a map of the interior architecture of the steam system and tracked our location. “ES 248 — that’s where we are. We gotta go straight,” Armando led, “And don’t touch the pipes. They be smokin’!”

Built in 1881, the subterranean pipe system transports saturated steam to over 200 buildings across the Stanford University campus. The network of pipes weaves under the main quad and goes through the medical, law and business school buildings, providing an effective means of water heating used to this day. It’s rumored that a certain path leads right into Hoover Tower. The mysteries that lay beneath our feet as students walking to class during the day were ours to discover this night, and that’s what we set out to do.

Wielding a dingy, white towel to protect ourselves from the scalding pipes, a couple of water bottles for hydration, and our phone lights, we stepped carefully towards the main quad. We had our sights set on breaking into Hoover Tower. Muddy floors and faded brick walls made for a grimy trip. The path soon began to narrow. Steam tunneling does not favor the claustrophobic. As we crouched through the corridors, beer cans, chip packets, and condom wrappers left behind from the travelers before us gave us the sense that we had to leave our mark. Then, we reached the wall.

We were at a crossroads, probably somewhere below the middle of the quad. Paths extended in what seemed to be every direction and there was no certainty to where any of them led. “This is it,” I chuckled grabbing a sharp rock from off the floor, “We are the cavemen of the steam tunnels now. This is the heart!” Samir 2016, I inscribed in a small region on the cement wall. Armando placed his signature in the upper right corner. “If we get lost, we can come back here,” he said.

We decided to take a left turn and see where that path took us. Moving swiftly but gently along the winding dirt floor, every popping sound of the steam pipes made us fear the possibility of a hot air outbreak. Every dripping noise fed into our imaginations of things that could go wrong. We were at once scared out of our minds and thrilled at the prospect of what we might find. The only thing we hadn’t unaccounted for were the footsteps which were now rapidly approaching.

“Dude, dude, dude,” I whispered, “What’s that noise? Be quiet!” Armando immediately turned off the phone light. My heart raced and I saw the sweat drip down Armando’s frozen face. Did the security guards catch us? Did someone hear us from above? Were we about to witness the wrath of the Loch Ness steam tunnel monster? With each passing second, the sound of water splashing got louder. The footsteps had almost arrived. This was it.

A beam of yellow light shot in our eyes. “Samir?” A female voice called out. Startled, I looked up. Lo and behold, it was Alexandra – a friend from my hometown! “What are you doing here?” my eyes popped, “You scared us!”

“I thought I found an entrance to the tunnels earlier today when I was walking to class and wanted to check it out. Did not expect to find you here!”

“You know a way into Hoover?” Armando asked. Alexandra nodded her head. She was wearing a pretty flower patterned dress and still smelled of rose perfume. “I think I’m lost,” she said, “I just want to get out of here.”

“It’s okay. You can come with us,” I said. “We’re going to try and find an entrance to the tower.”  We continued treading, now a group of three. Alexandra’s watch started beeping which meant that it just turned 3:00 a.m. She pulled her phone out and took a few snaps for the media. Who knew those photos would remain so dear in the years to come. “You know, I wouldn’t mind taking a nap here. It’s so warm and humid and just perfect,” she joked. Half-asleep but still determined, we finally hit the end of the path.

“It’s a dead end,” said Armando, “That’s lame.” We looked around for some hidden corridors but no luck. Around the corner, we found a ladder leading up to an exit through a manhole. “Maybe this is the entrance to the tower,” I said sarcastically. “Alright yeah, I think it’s time to call it a night,” Armando laughed. Armando climbed up the ladder. He knew it would take one more hard push to get us out. “Yo Samir, get up here!” he shouted, “I’m gonna lift the cover and you gotta get through and pull from the outside.” Armando pushed and I nudged through the small gap. Together we made enough room so each of us could fit through and climb out. I glanced around and saw we ended up at the Mathematics Department. Then I turned around.

“Shit! The security guards are here! Get out now!” I yelled. Armando and Alexandra darted up the ladder. “GO, GO, GO!” We ran through the courtyard, up the hill as fast as we could.

In that instance, I realized that this is what it meant to live in the moment. Even though we didn’t end up finding the magical entrance to the Hoover Tower or hidden treasures in the steam tunnels, in those moments on that day I forgot about all my troubles. We were care free and die hard. Because you only live once.

Contact Samir Sen at samirsen ‘at’

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