by E.S. Wynn
I was in high school when I first heard about The City.
The earth under Tuoulmne County, California is hollow, they say. It’s full of caves and tunnels, mineshafts that cut through the darkness in long, straight lines, remnants of a time before “gold fever” and the image of the grizzled old prospector were more than just fodder for brochures designed to separate valley tourists from their vacation cash. You see parts of The City growing up, see the cave entrances and the bottomless pits choked with garbage. You see the hazy spots on satellite maps, and in fifth grade, you get the tour of the chamber that serves as an entrance to the tunnels that run under the Sonora Inn. “They only link the bank and the inn,” the teachers say, but the unlit junctions, the roped-off tunnels that seem to run for miles in other directions hint at something else, at something bigger.
Only when you’re older do you start to hear the stories. Only when you start to lose friends to the addictions of adulthood do the stories start bubbling up through cracks in the surface facade. For me, it started with my friend Ryan, with his sister, Karrie. It started with moonless midnights spent prowling rural parking lots, searching for signs or whispers of Karrie, knowing she was sinking deeper and deeper into the detritus of a heroin addiction.
And it started with a metal drainage pipe in the side of a hill, a pipe with no visible end.
For days on end, Karrie would disappear, then show up again all strung out, starving and full of stories about The City. The drainage pipe way out Grizzly Mine Road was the entrance she’d been shown by another junkie, the entrance that still leads to the caverns once sacred to the Miwuk indians, to the concrete walls that separate the caves from the bunker the Scientologists built into the side of the Tuolumne River Canyon to house their relics and doomsday supplies.
But beyond all that, beyond wet and meandering crawlways choked with trash, is a gateway to The City.
Wide, sweeping caverns with craggy, shadowy ceilings. Chambers of stone polished and blackened by years of hands, years of soot and smoke. Shacks and stalls made of discarded detritus, made of plywood and corrugated iron brought in through larger entrances, tunnels and caverns closer to the surface, closer to Sonora, to the hills outside Columbia Airport. The stench of unwashed bodies, of sewage, fresh and ancient – that is The City. A metropolis of trash sprawling through the darkness under Tuolumne County, under the little rural towns scattered amidst the rolling hills. Like a junkyard full of junkies, a graveyard of old appliances and the rusty discards of surface society, The City is a place to die, to disappear, to rot away. The City is a place where the only rules are those you set for yourself, where the crazy, the homeless, and the desperate bottom out, become one with the trash, with people prowling through the trash. Everyone I know who has walked those tunnels, braved that darkness, has seen the bones of countless bodies, the way they’re incorporated into the structures of the city, into the decorations, the dishware. Everyone I know who has walked through The City has seen the rusty blades catching flickering oil-fire light in the dark, the hungry shadows, the eyes that twitch and shift, studying, weighing the chances that hands can pin you, skin you before you can escape.
And they stretch for miles, those tunnels. They stretch, sprawl, boil over into other caverns, into other places where other things, other groups and organizations keep locked metal doors, each of them ominous, silent, never opened, always closed. There are all kinds of stories about The City, about the people, the secrets that crouch in the darkness behind deeper tunnels, darker spaces long ago locked away, but most of them are dismissed by the people who populate the surface world of Tuolumne County. To them, The City is a myth, something that doesn’t exist, something to be forgotten with the rest of the foolishness, the urban legends told during childhood.
But those who have been there, those who have walked the stony lanes of The City know that most, if not all, of the stories are real. They know that The City exists, that the tunnels we were taught go nowhere really do go somewhere.
I know. I’ve walked those tunnels. I’ve seen what hides in the darkness beneath Tuolumne County. I’ve talked to the people who live there. My hands were one of the pairs that pulled Karrie out of the trash, dragged her past the bunker full of Scientologists and back out into the light. I’ve been there, and to this day, I can’t pass a cavern, a mineshaft, or a sealed sewer entrance from the gold rush days without wondering how deep it goes.
Without wondering if it leads as deep as The City.
E.S. Wynn is the author of over fifty books and the chief editor of seven online fiction journals.
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