Thursday, August 13, 2020
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The Mystery of the Mesa Tunnels: UCI’s Chamber of Secrets

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Shining a flashlight around in UCI’s tunnels yields copious amounts of colorful and creative graffiti, revealing a surprising gallery where ‘underground’ artists can display their work. Courtesy of Michelle Turken.

By Michelle Turken

Steeped in campus folklore, the mysterious UCI tunnels captured my attention from the moment that I first stepped foot on this campus. Dark and danky yet cloaked with awesome graffiti, legend has it that the tunnels were designed as an evacuation route for staff in the event of a protest, doubling as an entrance for the National Guard if students became too rowdy. While this conspiracy theory is not entirely out of the realm of possibility, it is more likely that the UCI subterranean passageways, like those underneath most  college campuses, were built for less exciting reasons, like for housing plumbing and electrical wiring.

Our tunnels, however, are more like Harry Potter’s Chamber of Secrets than your average sewage pipes. Don’t worry, you don’t have to fight a basilisk and magic wands are entirely optional. And yes, the tunnels are totally real — and totally legal to explore. The only things that you absolutely need are your sense of adventure, some friends and a good flashlight.

After a lot of asking around and some intense googling, my three friends and I narrowed the tunnel’s location down to the corner of Campus and University. As we picked our way through the thick brush opposite the Newkirk Alumni Center, we came upon a gaping concrete hole roughly the size of a school bus. Leaving the comforting light of the full moon behind us, we entered the dark and ominous tunnel. We switched on our flashlights and found ourselves in a large square hall covered from floor to ceiling with colorful graffiti, which stood in sharp contrast to the pressing darkness.

Hugging the walls to avoid stepping in the mucky wastewater running three or four inches deep through the center of the chamber, we pivoted to examine the treasure trove of spray-paint and spider webs. Faces, symbols and cartoons stared unblinkingly down at us, some funny, some sinister and some totally ridiculous. Of course, there were your predictable penis drawings (being the mature college students that we are), but also some artistically rendered portraits, edgy sayings and even mathematical formulas.

As we made our way deeper into the tunnel, the square cavern compressed into a long tube of grey brick. The graffiti persisted as we leaped from side to side over the dark smelly stream, which took on an even greater depth as we wound our way beneath Mesa Court. Every hundred feet or so, shards of moonlight penetrated the darkness as we passed below barred storm drains. During the day, you could probably even shout up through the grates to say hello and spook passersby.

The tube then gradually returned to a square shape as we came to a split. Taking the path towards the left, we encountered still more graffiti as the tunnel began to narrow and slope upward. Thrilled with our adventure yet anxious to return to the land of the living, we eagerly made our way up the tunnel, expecting to find a well marked exit leading to somewhere in Middle Earth.

The ladder, although ominous in appearance, led to freedom from the labyrinth-like twists and turns of the tunnels. Courtesy of Michelle Turken.

Instead, the tube narrowed still more as it became coated with a two-inch sheet of wastewater. The storm drains disappeared from overhead and graffiti wore thin as we pushed on, stooping low to avoid brushing our heads on the low ceiling.

As both our patience and morale began to wane, we became convinced that we had taken a wrong turn and were lost. Our mission turned from a courageous exploration into an all-out odyssey for the exit. Hollywood had deceived us: “X” did not mark the spot and Fawkes the phoenix did show up to whisk us away to safety. Damn it, Dumbledore! We expected to find some grandiose exit, yet were met only with spiders and an increasingly narrow tunnel.

Luckily, as we were about to call it a night and turn around, we heard a trickle of water up ahead. As we cautiously approached, we found ladder rungs embedded into the wall leading up to a storm drain. Although the narrowing tunnel continued, we eagerly climbed the ladder and forced the grate open. Dirty, disoriented and smelling of dog poo, where should we end up but in University Hills!

Crouching as we shone our flashlights back into the tiny dark hole that had been our escape, I was filled with a mixture of jubilation and regret. During our two-hour crusade, I had almost forgotten what clean air smelled like. Yet, as the vivid graffiti gazed forlornly up at me, I was nearly drawn back into the tunnel, eager to continue my Nancy Drew inspired trek into the “unknown”.

As we turned our backs to the tunnels and began the voyage back to our dorm, my friends and I agreed that this was a Friday night that we would always remember. Every UCI student should experience the “UCI Chamber of Secrets” at least once in their college career. I mean, this is probably the closest you will ever come to fulfilling your deep-seated Harry Potter fantasies!

The tunnels are free and you really have nothing to lose, so have fun, stay safe and enjoy this underground gallery of graffiti!