Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Risk Aversity

Remember when I was going over investment plans for my [nonexistant] retirement funds five years ago and there was that question about risk aversity and I was like, "I AM VERY RISK-AVERSE. YOU CAN'T BE MORE RISK-AVERSE THAN ME WITHOUT HAVING A MENTAL CONDITION. IN FACT, I MIGHT HAVE A MENTAL CONDITION REGARDING RISK." Remember when I took that tour of the subway and it was darker than dark, darker-than-the-bowels-of-the-earth dark and Christi and I had to hold hands? Remember when I told you about that balloonist who shot up in the air very very fast and was all, "I can hear myself living," and then he never did it again? Well, these fond memories will all be relevant to this post, because in this post I shall describe what it is like when you go into this as a person who is very risk-averse:

Tunnel of doom for the risk-averse among us.

This is a drainage tunnel. To make you all feel better, it's very large. I know you're thinking of that part in that book (I don't remember what book, maybe The Princess and the Goblin), where it takes about five pages for a character to squeeze through this teeny teeny tiny passageway deep underground, and just reading it is enough to make you hyperventilate. It was not like that at all. It was several feet tall and several feet wide -- probably about the size of a subway car, or a bit bigger.

This was taken on the way out, but I can't remember if that light is the
tunnel entrance in front of me or someone's headlamp behind me.

The plan was to walk to the end and then take pictures on the way back, so my first photos are of the very end. But before we get there, let me address my risk-aversity and what it was like to watch the point of light to recede behind me and know that eventually we were going to turn, and that even the pinprick was going to disappear.

It was like this:
I'm going to have a panic attack.
I'm going to have a panic attack.
I'm going to have a panic attack.
I wonder why I'm not having a panic attack.
This place is sort of awesome.
But I'm definitely going to have a panic attack any minute now.
Hopefully not before I take this photo.

And so on, until being there actually became kind of prosaic and my main concern changed from possible death to really wanting to dump the water out of my boots. Even in my highly risk-averse state I have to admit there are not many ways to die or even be injured there unless someone specifically takes you there to murder you. But let's not dwell on that! What was scary about it was simply that it was very dark, and just plain creepy. For example:


There's something about this that kind of turns the blood cold, right? The spikes are presumably there to hold rocks up that have since fallen, which we were walking over. Comforting! Fortunately, this process seems to happen in slow motion, over fairly long periods of time. The spikes appear to be working themselves out of the rock, probably because they're rusting and getting smaller. Another slow process.

This was also creepy:

As was once spoken to me with great certitude: "Orange is the color of evil!"

It's an orange stalactite forming on some kind iron fixture that kind of looks like it once held flourescent lights. The creepy part about this is the clear passage of time, as if you were in a cave. It just feels strange.

The most spectacularly creepy part of the trek was the end of the tunnel, where all the water streams into a tall, circular, concrete room with a huge pillar in the middle of it:

There was quite a lot of water coming down; it was hard to hear.

Let's pause here, at the end of a pitch-dark, mile-long tunnel, looking at this gloomy drainage chamber a hundred feet underground, and consider some things like, for example, what is the point of this? Well, as Ben Franklin says, what is the point of babies? Urban exploration tends to be about decay, but this tunnel is defined less by its decay, which is not extreme, than by a quality of unseen-ness. Standing at the end of it is the polar opposite of waiting in a line to pass by the Mona Lisa. There is zero pretense: it isn't looked-at, cared-for, cleaned, or even visited except by teenagers and purse thieves. Its aesthetics are accidental rather than strategic; nobody is trying to make you think anything about it or see it in a particular light or context. It's a mineral-stained pillar in a pool of water far below a spectactularly unremarkable road, and that's it. It's beautiful because it's surreal; it's surreal because we're walking around on what we think is solid earth, but underneath there are strange scenes like this that you only ever get to -- normally -- through books or movies. When you're looking at it with your own eyes, you get that feeling that everyone has sometimes and later forgets about: that there's a lot going on in the world that would surprise you, even if you feel like you are pretty in touch with things. You're never as in touch as you think you are. And thank goodness for that.

Fortunately, we didn't stand there considering very long. There wasn't enough light to take good pictures, and if you can't take good pictures, there's no reason to hang out there. It may be surreal and beautiful and all that, but it isn't really pleasant. It was here that we noticed the yellow algae on the rocks, which didn't seem good. (Upon some serious Googling I've concluded that it was nothing worse than golden alga, which is totally harmless unless you breathe through gills. You could swim in it if you wanted to.)

On the way back, we stopped for pictures at a couple of interesting places. The first was this dreadful-colored waterfall that looks rather toxic but is probably orange because of iron in the limestone. Having said that with considerable certainty, I will add that I refrained from licking it just in case.

Believe it or not, the patterns made by sediment simultaneously depositing itself and being worn away (this was the concensus as to what was happening; earth science teachers, please leave corrections in the comments) were actually rather lovely, especially with a steady stream of water rippling over them.

Except for this part where the rock seems to have grown a set of intestines. (Shudder.)

There was a similar place closer to the opening, where everything was coated in pock-marked mineral drippings.

In vertical places, it had the same ripply pattern. Yes, that's a beer can at the top of the frame. For extra yuck, it has a centipede on it.

Lest you forget how dark it was when camera flashes were not going off:

It. was. so. dark.

Not long after that interlude, we reached the end, and some of us (me) were incredibly relieved that we had neither died nor embarrassed ourselves with a panic attack. When we got home and researched the brightly-colored substances we had seen, and assured ourselves we had come into contact with precisely nothing toxic, we (I) felt pretty okay.

Two explorers reach the waterfall at the end of the tunnel.

The third explorer joins them.

The fourth explorer joins them.

The fourth explorer's boots did her ZERO good and now need to be bleached.

The Tunnel of Risk turns out to be the Tunnel of Interesting Mineral Formations.

I may have exaggerated my risk-aversity for the purposes of this post. I was in no danger of having a panic attack, although I did feel significantly more comfortable when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, the discovery of the yellow algae was apparently a moment of some anxiety for me. After I washed off my feet but before I researched what the algae was, one night intervened. During that night, I dreamed that I woke up and found cakes of uranium piled on my nightstand. I like the way my subconscious goes from "a worrisome shade of algae" to "certain death by uranium exposure." Once risk-averse, always risk-averse. Unless there is really really cool stuff around the bend of the tunnel.


Anonymous said...

OK, that's creepier than my cellar and the leering milkmaid picture and the pump house all put together. And you are about as risk-averse as the average hedge fund manager.

Simon said...

I don't know, that leering milkmaid is pretty scary...