By Zac Farber
The mortal risks of Matt’s after-school hobby have never punished his nerves.
“I don’t want to die, it’s just for fun,” the Brooklyn Park teenager said. “The only safety precaution I take is to make sure I don’t fall.”
A young initiate in the sport of Urban Exploring, Matt has ascended radio and water towers and scrambled atop a 60-foot-high construction crane near his home. (He’s going sans surname in this story, hoping to preserve the virginity of his criminal record.) The preoccupations of his recent boyhood: climbing trees and queuing up for the “biggest, fastest, highest rides at ValleyFair.” He compares and contrasts thrills to tests, swing sets, school desks and other youthful pursuits.
Matt counts himself among a community of likeminded daredevils and adrenaline aficionados who hoist themselves up industrial ruins and descend into deserted tunnels, braving sewage, toxic gas and flooding.
Twin Cities explorers are extremely insular, prone to dramatic displays of exile, fearful of publicity and trespassing charges. And while Matt has never met another explorer in person, he often finds evidence of their recondite adventures in the fresh coats of spray-painted artwork applied, with a steady hand, to the tar-dark walls of Nicollet Island’s Prohibition-era caves, to the undercarriages of bridges, to the very tops of towers.
Matt has found more camaraderie online. He peruses Action Squad, a website chronicling “missions” through Minnesota’s old mines, munitions plants and monasteries. And he studies the high-altitude videos of his idol, an acrophiliac Brit who sends Matt emails detailing the finer points of dangling from rooftops.
Twelve stories high, its shear walls ravaged for decades by winter’s worst, foundation probably bogus — the derelict mill begs to be climbed.
An aspirational object for metro area teens, scaling the mill means a reputation boost, the minor celebrity of being a “crazy kid.”
But the pale and massive structure, three blocks east of the Gophers stadium, presents a host of difficulties. Holes wider than hips pock the lower floors, doors open onto freefalls, concrete crumbles underfoot.
In late September, Matt visited the mill, accompanied by one of his braver friends. The boy balked at the base, but Matt was undaunted.
“It requires the same amount of brain and motor skills to hang from a tree two feet off the ground as to hang 200 feet off the ground,” Matt said.
A GoPro strapped to his head, a camera phone in his hands, Matt moved swiftly up the ruins, concrete landings linked by steel staircases.
Three stories below the roof, the regular floorplan stalled, coaxing Matt outside onto a barren platform. The sunny view — industrial sprawl, a green-gray horizon, the tall and empty sky — clutched ineptly at his attention.
A metal ladder dripped down the full height of the mill, secured to the building’s corner by square-headed bolts placed, in pairs, at every sixth rung. Matt reached over a murderous abyss, grabbing the ladder with his right hand, his light body following with a deft swinging motion. Uncountable circular rungs — the diameters of his thumb — diminished to invisibility below him. The ladder was visibly loose and rattled as he climbed. Crude graffiti tags a few feet up the mill’s wall gave a small assurance of the ladder’s structural integrity.
“People had actually worked there, and that ladder is there for a reason,” Matt said.
Matt gained comfort as he climbed the ladder, pausing to take in the view, sending a piece of rubble recklessly groundward, suspending his weight by his arms and kicking his legs in the air.
Reaching the mill’s peak, Matt delighted in the panoramic spectacle, the Minneapolis skyline climbing improbably out of the flat, blank suburban cityscape.
“You’re not going to climb to the top of your swing set or your tree and get the same view as you get at the top of an abandoned mill,” he said.
But, as his GoPro camera work testifies to, he was equally absorbed by the spray-painted artwork found on the blacktop roof. Beyond the requisite phallus, former explorers left a toothy, chalk-pale alien (“How many people are going to see that?” Matt asks.) and the disconcerting directive, “YOU CAN FLY JUST JUMP.”
“I was really creeped out,” Matt said. “I don’t know if it means you can do anything you put your mind to, or it’s just some psycho dude who wrote that.”
Matt sat down on the blacktop, hanging his feet off the mill’s side. Despite his solitude and sangfroid, Matt found himself troubled by an odd sensation.
“When you get to the edge, you feel like someone’s going to push you from behind or something,” he said, pausing before contradicting himself, conquering fear with bravado: “It’s like sitting off the edge of a desk at school: It’s just nothing, it’s just for fun.”