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A Notice from the Office of Reclamation

J. Duncan Wiley

The Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety would like to remind everyone that abandoned mines are dangerous. Last year, twenty-two people across the country died while exploring such sites. Victims suffocated in oxygen depleted atmospheres, fell from broken ladders, and drowned in near freezing pools of water. They were crushed by cave-ins, poisoned by carbon dioxide, and fell through holes that opened beneath their weight. They encountered rattlesnakes and mountain lions; they triggered stores of unstable explosives; and they fell—oh, how they fell—three hundred twenty, one hundred sixty, nine hundred feet to their deaths.

We understand the urge. We are human. We too have come across those dark, sighing cavities in the earth’s crust, a few gray timbers or rusting rails lying scattered around their mouths. You see such a place, and you know that people have gone that way before. You know the passage was safe once. Then you start wondering: What’s it like inside, just beyond the reach of sunlight? Did those others leave anything behind? What if there’s a seam of gold or silver, just waiting for you to discover it? We know this urge, know how strong and primal and erotically charged it is. But before you rush off to penetrate the mysteries crowding your imagination, we say this to you: Resist.

The earth does not give her secrets up lightly. Rocks grind their granite teeth over geologic eons, holding their grudges close. You cannot win against them. Your little flame of curiosity, infinitesimal by comparison, will gutter before it illuminates even the shallowest depths of that darkness. You will fall.

Or you will not fall. Any number of calamities could claim you.

But most likely, you will be swallowed by a vertical shaft. We know this because the vast majority of the bodies we recover are bashed and broken, having plunged hundreds of feet through jagged tunnels. There is no telling how many we haven’t found. Perhaps some have never stopped falling. Perhaps there are one or more bottomless shafts full of people tumbling forever down, down, down. We don’t know. We heed our own advice and do not go exploring. Anything might be possible in the farthest, forgotten reaches of these mines.

We are inclined to believe that every shaft ends, and every fall down a shaft ends badly.

Imagine, for a moment, open space. Imagine yourself unanchored and weightless, pitching head over heels through nothingness. Imagine also air that is like chilled copper, thin and brittle and sharp around the edges. Feel how it pinches your lungs. You could be breathing copper foil for all the pain in your chest. Everywhere there is a formless sound. You cannot tell if it is the air itself, chiming like millions of low-voiced copper bells, or if you are hearing the slow groans of tectonic plates, amplified here beneath the surface. You wish you had brought a warmer jacket. Both your flashlight and your sense of up and down are gone. Darkness is absolute. All you know for certain is that somewhere a bed of solid rock awaits. You rush toward it, or it rushes toward you, or you rush toward each other like blind lovers.

This is what we think it must be like to fall three hundred twenty, five hundred eighty, nine hundred feet down a mine shaft. The only mystery is when and from what direction the end will arrive. We warn you: There is nothing for you here. All you will find is an oubliette for your bones.

Still, you do not listen. We know that even now you are entering open adits; you are cutting the locks on our safety gates and steel doors. Before you take one foolish step more, we say this to you: Stay away. Some things should remain buried. Leave the ghosts and the echoes and the earth’s seeping wounds to us. They are dangerous. They are ours.