A few months later, Action Squad made our second attempt at conquering the Stahlmann's Brewery Cellars. We took the same route through Mel's Hole, and then walked for over a mile through the sewers, using a new route. The main tunnel we faced this time was much more pleasant than the one last trip, if any sewage tunnel can really be called pleasant. Rather than deep, stagnant and semi-solid waste, this tunnel featured ankle deep, fast-moving, liquid sewage.
It still stunk, but the air was easily breathable. The sewage rapids joined with a couple of other sewer tunnels and the combined flow headed toward a main sewer line, which would sweep anyone stupid enough to enter it away. You'd be dead long before they found your battered, sewage-choked corpse smashed against a grate at the Pig's Eye sewage treatment plant.
So we instead went upstream, up one of the other, smaller sewers, in the direction of the brewery. This sandstone-walled passage was pretty uneventful up until we unexpectedly rounded a corner and found ourselves in a sewer sauna. The air was thick with hot, stinking steam. Not fog or mist, but actual steam.
It was impossible to breathe standing up, but the steamy air was slightly cooler and less humid down low. I had to lead the way on all fours, crawling on the filthy ledges on either side of the sewage trench. Boiling hot water from either the Landmark Brewery or the Gopher Ethanol Plant poured down into the sewer, mixing with the sewage and creating the thick, billowing clouds of sewer steam. Danarchy's glasses fogged up hopelessly, rendering him essentially blind. I kept thinking about the bacteria and viruses and other nasty microorganisms I was probably flooding my lungs with.
The air got somewhat better after fifty feet or so; while it was still hideously humid and hot, we could at least breathe while standing upright.
At this point, we were faced with what appeared to be two dead ends, and I felt myself getting disheartened. However, we knew we were right by the caves, so I went to check out one of these dead ends while Jim crawled up a side tunnel to examine the other. Just as I concluded there was no way of getting anywhere from the dead end facing me, Jim's voice came back to Danarchy and me. "The caves! This is them!"
The excitement in his voice pulled us in, and we followed him up the tunnel, which was covered in dripping brownish-green slime.
I was puzzled to find him lying at what looked like a dead end of a tunnel, rather than capering about in a cave. "The cave are through this hole," he said with certainty, and pointed upward at a space the size of an elongated grapefruit at the top of the wall that blocked the tunnel end.
We wormed past each other in the narrow space so I could take a look. Visible through the gap was a brick wall, and a space that certainly seemed larger than a sewer tunnel would be. I could hear water splashing loudly somewhere.
Closer examination revealed that the dead end consisted of a large slab of sandstone that had fallen down over the small tunnel mouth. However, no amount of shoving was effective in persuading the boulder to move. We discussed trying to find another way in as I worked at enlarging the opening.
First, I was able to dislodge several smaller chunks of limestone that were piled atop the large one. This gave me enough room to stick my head upward and look around a tiny bit, until a huge centipede fell in my eye and distracted me considerably. I opted to explore by feel, and discovered the top of the sandstone tunnel mouth was a rather thin ridge, not a solid mass.
Jim passed me the hatchet we'd brought along for this very purpose, and I rolled onto my back and got to work. Within moments, I was well-covered in broken-off rubbery slime tendrils and sand. The sand got into the neck of my shirt and down into my chest high waders. It did not improve my mood.
However, my stubborn refusal to back down had kicked in when I started hatcheting, and I kept chopping away. Larger chunks of sandstone dislodged were passed back to be viewed and approved of by my companions.
After a short time, I had opened the gap up to a point I thought I could squeeze through. I was halfway through the extremely tight hole when I felt the blockage shift slightly. With my new leverage, I was able to shift the rock away from the tunnel mouth a few crucial inches and pass into the space beyond.
I yanked the boulder back a few more inches to make passage more pleasant for Slim Jim and Danarchy, and then took stock of my surroundings, giving a verbal run down to the others as they made their way up and in.
"These are the caves, alright! Big space, really misty. Cockroaches all over the walls … and oh, fuck, the air is really bad in here. It's like that sewer from last time … heavy methane odor. Slime mold all over the ceiling … looks like several side passages."
By then, the other guys had come in and could see and experience the caves for themselves. "Shit, the air IS bad in here," someone said. We'd expected the caves to be a reprieve from the nasty, stinking, low-oxygen air of the sewers. Instead, they were worse. Well, worse than the ones we'd just been through, that is; they were not as bad as the sewer that we'd almost died in on our last attempt.
The Brewery Cellars were, in many aspects, amazing. The system was very extensive, with many side passages, caves, and tunnels; mapping them was almost impossible to do. The major caves were about 15 feet high. There were steaming hot waterfalls, rats, walls seething with cockroaches, piles of keg tap covers, brick arches supporting crumbling natural limestone and sandstone walls, old pipes and stonework … in short, a wide variety of nifty stuff to check out.
That said, we were not having the great time you'd expect, given how hard we'd worked to get into the place and how cool it was in many respects.
You see, the Cellars had the worst fucking atmosphere of any place we've ever explored. Everything was covered in slime, a heavy mist made sight and photography almost impossible, it stunk horribly, and the air was very thin and hard to breathe.
Unless you've been somewhere similar, you have no idea how hard it is to enjoy yourself in bad air. It is not something you can just ignore or get used to, like a bad smell.
We should have been running around exploring like maniacs. Instead, we trudged along, as if exploring the system was a duty, and not something we were doing for fun. We kept making trips back to the entrance hole: the very stinking, humid air we'd hated in the sewer tunnel suddenly became "fresh air" to be savored.
I felt slow, stupid, hot, sweaty, and weak. I was excruciatingly aware of the slime, sand, and sewage that I was coated in, on both sides of my clothing. I was all too conscious of the long, shitty walk back to the surface. No one smiled much as we made our rounds in a slow, desultory manner, and our usual banter was nowhere to be found. A lot of time was spent kind of sitting around while someone went to check something out. It's surprising how much effect crappy air can have on people.
After awhile, Danarchy revealed that he was having a hard time breathing. I was fast getting sick to fucking death of the place, myself. Slim Jim doggedly wanted to continue mapping the system, even though he admittedly was not having any fun.
We agreed that we would leave and come back again soon to finish our exploration; just maybe the new hole we'd created would help air things out a bit in the meantime (yeah, right). We took a different route back to the Cellar entrance in the name of further developing the map Jim was working on, and got the fuckin fuck out of Dodge.
At the time, it sucked ... but I must say that in retrospect, the place ruled. OK, so maybe we were not having a great time while actually exploring ... but I'm certainly getting plenty of pleasure looking back at it now, from the comfort of my home.
And damn it, that counts for something.