In issue 117, Matt Price and John Motta spent some time underneath the streets of Arizona exploring underground tunnels for one-of-a-kind spots. The concept, along with Price’s photos, made the article a unique feature among the trip articles and interviews that we’re all so used to. And because we weren’t able to fit every photo from the feature into the pages of 117, we’re stoked to present this extended article with a few unseen photos from Motta’s underground explorations for your viewing pleasures.
I’m sure you can imagine walking through a drainage tunnel with a flashlight—it all looks the same until you come across that 4:20 tag with a magic mushroom nearby, and then your light shines off the changing tunnel-scape in a weird way and you get a little scared. Those seem to be the points that stick in your head the most … at least for me, adventuring through them as a kid.
Not since recently have I begun to fulfill my childlike curiosity to start reexploring the tunnels I vaguely remember seeing spots in as a kid. Little did I know that there’s a whole world of spots underground, and I’ve slowly started to take advantage of them because no one else is. I’ve found enough spots down there so far that I’m going to try to squeeze out a whole underground part, and I figure if every road needs a place for rain to drain to, then there’s plenty more spots to be found down there. It’s not as easy as Google mapping a spot from the palm of your hand or texting someone for directions to that spot everyone’s one-upping each other on. This requires filling up a camelback, putting on a respirator and a headlamp, aimlessly exploring miles of underground tunnels hoping to find spots, and coming across the most bizarre things. It’s worth it, though—spots end up being way too awesome to let them go to waste. —John Motta
How did this tunnel adventure begin?
There are a few tunnels around my house I remember going through as a kid and there would be spots in them, say, when a tunnel would change directions. There’s this really long one right by my house, and I remember going in it really far. We’d try to ride our bikes through but we never, ever made it. Even in the middle of the summer there would be water in it. You’d be pedaling and your feet would be dipping in the water. I remember when you first go in it’s square and then a twenty-minute bike ride in, like a few miles in, it turns into a round tunnel. At the bottom of the square tunnel there are support banks on the side so it’s a perfect round tunnel to a straight bank-to-wall tunnel. I remembered that from fifth grade, and so recently I went in there by myself and I walked it, it took way longer than 40 minutes, but I got there and it was perfect to skate. I ended up getting a wagon and putting lights and generator in there and going into the tunnels and that was the start of all this tunnel stuff. From there I got a headlamp and put a Camelback on and I started going and exploring. Now whenever I see a tunnel, I grab my shit from the trunk and go in and look around.
Were you ever worried you’d encounter a serial killer down there?
Yeah… I don’t know about a serial killer but I get weirded out about seeing people down there, like if I saw a dead body or something. I’ve definitely come across people down there. Bums. I’ve walked passed a bum as he was walking the other way and he didn’t even have a light or anything; he was just walking in the pitch dark. You see kids not too deep in hanging out, smoking weed. When you see people and it’s not super-far in, there’s still sunlight that makes it in there and you can kind of see, but most of the time you need a headlamp.
Have you ever heard any urban legends about the tunnels?
There was one about the tunnel by the elementary school I went to. There was a story about a huge Gila monster that was running through the wash. It was over-exaggerated. They said it was like a four-foot Gila monster that would eat kids, but those things only get, maybe, a foot long.
Was it tough to convince Pricey to go into the tunnels?
No, I told him what was going to happen beforehand. It’s always different, though. Sometimes there’s water and you don’t expect it and you have to take shovels and buckets and clean all the dirt and mud out.
Do you tweak out from the generator fumes?
Yeah, when you get to the spot there’s no ventilation. Sometimes there will be little tunnels that come from the road and you can get lucky and the generator will fit in there and the exhaust will be blowing out. Some spots you have to put the generator behind where you’re starting and run the extension cord above your head taped to the tunnel so it’s not as bad, but basically there’s just exhaust the whole time you’re skating. When filming, my friends put on respirators, but I’m not gonna skate with a respirator on. I probably should, but I just can’t do it. It gets shitty because while you’re trying to figure out the spot before you even start filming you’re already breathing in the exhaust. I get dizzy and have to walk farther down the tunnel and mellow out for a second. I’ll go inside my shirt and try and breathe my body odor. It sucks but it’s worth it. I haven’t passed out, but you feel crazy when you get out of there. I’ve gotten sick, like a sore throat for a few days later, but I don’t know if it’s from that.
Is it true you are thinking of moving into the tunnels permanently?
No. But I could, though. There’s a book and a documentary called Beneath The Neon about people in Las Vegas who live in the sewers under the Vegas strip. There’s like whole families that live down there. They hang all their stuff from the ceiling and raise it off the ground and in the photos you can see the water running through. It’s kind of crazy. I think I could do that if I really needed to. I know plenty of spots now where it would be good to do that.
Do you think you’ll start a whole new trend of underground skating?
Possibly. You gotta actually go and find the spots yourself. It’s not like how I’d find normal spots with satellite where you can see it on your computer or your phone and judge whether it’s good or not. When you’re doing this you have to go and find it and see if it’s any good. Usually when you’re underground you don’t know where you’re at in the city; you just know it’s however far into the tunnel so it’s hard to tell people where spots are. It’s more of a solo experience. I could see people doing it but not to the extent I am; I’m trying to film a whole video part in the tunnels by next year. I don’t know if people will take it that far but maybe they will. That would be cool if they did and we start seeing different-looking spots.