Yale is an old place, founded in 1701 and added to, with whimsy and flourish and intention, ever after. Buildings contain courtyards and balconies and passageways and fireplaces and gardens. The buildings and their uses have changed again and again: interior courtyards and gardens have been abandoned or filled, classrooms have become dorms, new buildings spring up and old ones crumble for a while, then are put to new uses. The old buildings and the new ones are connected by a series of subterranean steam tunnels: hot, dark, dusty places, some wide and high and clear enough to ride a motorcycle through, and others just crawlspaces on earthen floors with crumbling brick walls.
When I was a sophomore I stumbled on a mysterious adventure that took me into the steam tunnels. Someone, an unknown group, had left a cryptic poster clue promising a hidden treasure.
The flyer I saw
disappeared but it had made enough of an impression that I pulled up a manhole
cover and climbed down into the tunnels one night at the spot I thought the clues were talking about. I saw another clue right away -- a symbol drawn in magic marker on the covering of a steam pipe. The puzzle took me around an underworld that
was amazing and forbidden (students caught in the steam tunnels were immediately expelled,
according to rumor). I stumbled into forgotten bomb shelters full of dehydrated food. We found a bicycle graveyard – an underground room full
of sprockets and kickstands and wheels and chains, with hundreds of bike
skeletons leaning and entangled in one another. In a heating and ventilation substation there was an elaborate mural of
a sun on the floor; the puzzle clues required us to position a pack of Camel
cigarettes under the painting of the sun so that the shadows on the package
looked correct, and follow the camel’s nose when the pack was properly
positioned to choose the right passageway. We twisted and turned for hours, climbing ladders into narrow passages,
ducking and crawling, hiding when we heard noises. Our flashlight batteries died and we made a
makeshift torch from a kickstand we got from one of the bikes. In the end we found the hidden treasure,
which contained another mystery, and is a whole different tale.
It’s not just the steam tunnels at Yale. There are secret rooms here – some forbidden,
and some simply overlooked. Every so
often, a door leads to a passageway that hasn’t been used, and you can find a
sculpture garden you’ve never noticed before. The stacks at
My adventure sophomore year turned me into an explorer. One spring night I remember catching a door
closing behind someone and feeling my way around Kline Biology
Being back on campus this weekend I noticed that habit. I’d stroll down a hallway and reach out to test every doorknob. If it gave, I opened the door. Mostly I found supply closets (themselves more interesting than you might think). Some of the old passageways are blocked off now: the manhole cover is chained down; there’s a new locked door at the top of the narrow stairway leading to those secret rooftop chambers. That sunken garden is untended now, the bleeding hearts hidden behind a shrub that hasn’t been cut back. But the place is still full of mystery and possibility, and there are still doorknobs that turn, and secrets that yield to curiosity.