The midnight-black Nissan Xterra darts through Medina County farm country, a black speck in a sea of white snow. Behind the wheel is Matt Hendrickson, a skinny 34-year-old with a pointed nose and a well-manicured goatee. He's lost.
"It's one of those things you have to find before you know how to get there," he says.
He's talking about Chippewa Lake Park, a collection of thrill rides and side shows that shut down a quarter-century ago. Along for the ride is his partner in petty crime, George Gordon, a bulky 36-year-old in a Teamster's jacket, who's worried he'll miss league night at Yorktown Lanes.
Hendrickson stops at a gas station to ask directions. He can't tell the truth -- that he wants to break into the abandoned amusement park, take pictures of the crumbling wreckage, and post it on his website for the enjoyment of others who trespass for pleasure -- so he makes up a story: He's a nature photographer looking for birds that live near the park.
A customer with a shaggy beard and a few teeth helpfully points him down the right road.
Half a mile later, Hendrickson veers down a stretch of cracked pavement marked by a depressing concrete slab. At the end of the road is a six-foot-tall chain-link fence. A rough-looking man tinkers with an old Ford pickup in the driveway next door. "This is where it gets a little hairy," Hendrickson says.
Lies won't work, so Hendrickson tells the man that he's gonna hop the fence and check out the park. Got a problem with that?
The man shrugs. He points to a place where the fence has been cut by previous trespassers. He won't call the cops, but "Someone else sees ya from across the lake, they will," the man warns.
Hendrickson will take his chances. He and Gordon scramble over the fence, fight through ragged thistle stalks that deposit burrs on the cuffs of their pants, and follow a dirt path to what was once Chippewa Lake Park's main gate. Amid shattered glass and exposed insulation, the ticket booths still stand. It looks like the beginning of a Twilight Zone episode: an amusement park after Armageddon.
Suddenly, Hendrickson ducks behind a wall. "Down! Get down! Hide!" he hisses.
Gordon charges across shards of glass that pop under his heavy workboots like firecrackers. He tucks his broad frame into a hidden nook.
Hendrickson raises a finger to his mouth: Shhhh.
The air carries the low rumble of tires on wet pavement. Looking back to where they parked, they see a white truck approach Hendrickson's SUV. It's parked directly under a "No Trespassing" sign. Not a smart play.
The truck inches forward, sniffing for the intruders. Eventually, it pulls away. Hendrickson exhales.
It might be driving to the police station, Hendrickson says. No big deal. He's been caught before. On the few occasions he was popped for trespassing, he always managed to talk his way into a warning.
Hendrickson and Gordon spin around, startled. It sounds like someone tromping through the woods, coming closer.
They stand perfectly still.
Then they see it: A clump of wet snow slides from the tree branches overhead and splatters to the ground.
The adventure began an hour and a half earlier. On the doorstep of his modest two-story in Parma, Hendrickson kissed his pregnant wife goodbye. Gordon waved. They seemed disappointingly polite for men about to break the law.
Once inside the Xterra, they prepared for their mission:
Wire cutters, in case fences need breaching?
Black stocking caps, like the ones special-forces commandos wear? Check.
Mapquest directions? . . . Does anybody have the Mapquest directions?
Nope. Gordon left them at home.
On the way to the park, he offers -- as a strange aside -- that he's not a pervert. Apparently, there's a man with a similar name on the local sex-crimes website.
"I pulled his photo up on the internet," Gordon explains. "Good news is, he doesn't look anything like me."
Hendrickson lights a Marlboro. Gordon cups his hand and offers it as an ashtray. Wouldn't want Hendrickson's wife to know he was smoking in the car.
"What happens at Ohio Lost stays at Ohio Lost," Hendrickson says, referring to the website where he posts his trespassing exploits. "We've both worked at factories so long, this is just how we are. This is how we relax."
They met in 1995 while working at the Pechiney Plastic Packaging plant in Parma. The friendship survived layoffs that cost both men their jobs. Hendrickson went to work for Foseco Metallurgical in Brook Park, making filters and sleeves used to purify molten steel; Gordon got a job as a delivery driver for DHL Worldwide Express.
When their shifts didn't conflict, Hendrickson initiated his friend into a series of increasingly quirky hobbies: They collected snakes, dabbled in portrait photography, and teamed up for LAN video-game tournaments.
Hendrickson had always loved exploring abandoned factories. There was just something about seeing a workplace frozen in time, like an insect trapped in amber. He fancied himself an amateur anthropologist, only instead of excavating ancient ruins, he explored what life was like before NAFTA.
Yet it wasn't until he was surfing the internet one day that he discovered his hobby had a name: urban exploration.
The desire to explore the bowels of cities is as old as cities themselves. Poet Walt Whitman plumbed the recently abandoned Atlantic Avenue Tunnel in an article for the Brooklyn Standard in 1861. One week after the opening of the New York subway in 1904, a man was killed by an Interborough Rapid Transit train while exploring a segment of the new tunnel system. Fifty years later, MIT students sneaked into steam tunnels on campus, an activity they called "hacking" -- a term they'd later apply to exploring the inner workings of computers.
But urban exploration really took off in 1990, when mountain climber Alan North published The Urban Adventure Handbook.
"The structured, asphalt-and-concrete, developed world will become your wilderness playground," North wrote.
The book proved prophetic and quickly became the bible for a new generation of thrill-seekers who set out to explore sewers, missile silos, condemned factories -- anyplace that had a "No Trespassing" sign, whether real or implied.
"I think it's a reaction to urban blight, to overdevelopment," says Stephanie Lane, a 34-year-old bankruptcy/civil-rights attorney, who runs a local urban-exploration website called Dead Ohio.
While the hobby first gained popularity in larger cities like New York and San Francisco, it has spread to the midwest. There are about a dozen local websites devoted to urban exploration, with names like Illicit Ohio, Forgotten Ohio, and Ohio Trespassers. The Ohio Exploration Society, a group with 35 full-time members, organizes several expeditions every year.
They have discovered that Cleveland's crumbling infrastructure provides the perfect playground for urban adventuring.
"There's a sense of sadness," says Sherman Cahal, a 20-year-old website designer who runs Abandoned Online, which documents his forays into forgotten factories. "Everything was left where the workers left it 15 years ago. They thought they were coming back, but it turns out they were laid off for good."
Among the local sites, Hendrickson's Ohio Lost ranks among the best, a distinction that brings him no small amount of pride.
"Everybody says it's the site you can go onto at night, turn the lights out, and get really creeped out," Hendrickson says. "I take the initiative of going places I'm not allowed to go, for the viewing pleasure of others."
There's something frightening about returning to a place like Chippewa Lake Park and finding it in disarray. It's like a knot in your stomach, a feeling of stepping out of time's flow. The features that remain unchanged are disconcerting -- signposts pointing to rides, cars frozen on their tracks, stainless-steel turnstiles waiting for the next visitor to spin through. These are half-remembered visions of childhood, tangled in weeds.
Amusement parks are never supposed to look like this.
Jungle Larry's truck looks as if it ran over a roadside bomb. Locals remember Jungle Larry Tetzlaff and his wife, Safari Jane, from Cedar Point, where they took their act after defecting from Chippewa Lake Park. For 30 summers, they showcased lions, tigers, and other wild animals.
A man named Duane Folk memorializes them on a local-heroes website: "I went on [the Big Dipper] about 8 times in a row and then 15 minutes later threw up on one of his python snakes lying on the other side of a fence from me. Jungle Larry glared at me and said sternly, 'Will you please leave this compound until you're feeling better?'"
Now Jungle Larry's truck -- a radioactive safari yellow -- sits next to a barren fountain that once marked the center of the park. The truck's bed has rusted away. Someone has pilfered the decorated hood. Time ate this symbol of youth and spat out its bones.
Hendrickson and Gordon stand by the machine in silence for a few minutes, like mourners at a funeral.
The rest of the park is a graveyard of childhood attractions. It's hard to imagine that the Ferris wheel -- rumored to be the first in Ohio -- could ever spin. On the amphitheater, someone spray-painted a clown's face and the message: "The old fortune teller lies dead on the floor. Nobody needs fortunes told anymore" -- a lyric from the Kinks' "Death of a Clown."
The path of the midway is overgrown, but still visible. Old elms stand on either side, marking the line of booths where kids once played games of chance. Hendrickson and Gordon cock their ears, as if they can still hear the voices of the carnies enticing the kids to try their luck.
Actually, there is a sound, a high-pitched cry drifting through the bare trees.
Gordon laughs. "It's a rooster," he says. One of the hillbillies living nearby must keep chickens.
Saddest of all is the Tumble Bug ride. It was a kiddie favorite. But now, the Tumble Bugs' once-happy eyes only look ashamed of their decrepit bodies.
"This is shit you don't see every day," says Hendrickson. "You can almost imagine the children screaming on the rides."
Not laughing -- screaming.
"Time to get moving," Hendrickson says.
Snow falls thicker and harder as Hendrickson drives toward Broadview Heights, trying to make up lost time. "That was well worth the 15-minute drive," Hendrickson says.
Gordon's worried about getting to the Parma bowling alley on time. "That took a lot longer than 15 minutes, fuckface," he says. "I can't believe all this fucking snow. This is bullshit."
They're en route to the Broadview Heights Sanitarium, perhaps the most difficult site to infiltrate in Ohio, because it's situated between a community center and the police station. Hendrickson managed to break in a couple years ago by pushing through a side door. But the danger is palpable.
"This is one of those places you can't just walk into," Hendrickson warns. "They don't give a shit why you're in there. You get caught, you're looking at a ticket at least."
Most of the time, Hendrickson can smooth-talk his way out of busts. A few years ago, he was nabbed on the condemned property of the Sagamore Hills Children's Hospital, but he convinced the cop that he hadn't gone inside and skated without being charged.
Hendrickson comes prepared with more than words. In his wallet, he keeps a deck of assorted Fraternal Order of Police courtesy cards. It's gotten him out of more than one jam. Sometimes he carries a dog leash. If a neighbor asks why he's poking around, he says, "I lost my dog." On the way back to the car, he'll yell, "Here, Fido! Here, Fido!"
Still, breaking into a hospital across from a police station borders on recklessness. There's good reason to keep people out. Moisture has eaten away at the structure's integrity. Asbestos is everywhere. Not to mention black mold.
"That black mold everyone keeps crying about?" says Gordon. "It's not that dangerous. Unless you eat it or rub it on your face."
That's not what scares Hendrickson the most.
"The creepy thing about Broadview is I keep finding turds in the stairwells," he says with disgust. "And no animal can leave a turd as big as they were. I think there's homeless people living there."
Around 4:30 p.m., Hendrickson pulls into the Broadview Heights Community Center.
"Wait here," he says.
Gordon watches as his friend bounds into the frosty silence. When a woman gets out of her parked car, Hendrickson pretends he's walking toward a side door of the community center. She steps around the corner, out of sight, and Hendrickson goes back to scouting the perimeter.
He returns, shaking his head. "Someone fixed the door I broke into last time," he says. They'll have to explore somewhere else.
By the time Hendrickson drives into Cuyahoga Valley National Park, he's running late. His wife calls his cell phone. She wants to order Chinese.
"Just get the lo mein stuff, like last time," he says.
Gordon makes smooching sounds.
Hendrickson hangs up the phone as he drives past the town of Peninsula. Hell town, they call it.
"Story was, there was witchcraft going on there," explains Gordon. "It's a small community. Maybe they do worship the devil. I don't care."
A little later, Gordon reminds Hendrickson that he needs to be back in Parma by 6:30.
"I have to work until six in the morning, asshole," Hendrickson snaps. "I don't get to go bowling."
Gordon chuckles. "He can't even bowl a hundred," he says, as if that explains everything.
"You are a bowling fag," Hendrickson counters. "You have a locker at the bowling alley."
Hendrickson pulls off into a graveled parking lot. Three hundred yards ahead lies the Jaite Paper Mill.
The mill was constructed in 1906 on the shore of the Ohio & Erie Canal. It operated until 1984. During the decades it ran at full tilt, it employed 250 laborers and produced eight tons of paper every day.
Now it sits behind a high wire fence put up by park rangers. One side of the building has collapsed. It looks entirely unsafe.
"Hand me the wire clippers," Hendrickson says.
The fence rattles as Hendrickson snips through the metal ties that secure a door set in the fence. Gordon, the stronger one, pulls on the fence, prying it back so his friend can slip through. He follows, bending the wire back into place behind him.
Inside the main floor of the factory, a colossal steel press runs the length of the building, extending into open air where the roof caved in years ago. This is where the pulp was pressed under giant metal spindles. Snow falls through giant slashes in the ceiling, landing on the press, thick with rust.
Inside another room are three enormous boilers. The mill ran on steam. Now they are just empty cisterns and exhausted wells. Each is imprinted with the words: The American Tool Works Co. Cincinnati USA. Empty Bud Light cans litter the floor.
Further in, an office has been torn apart by vandals -- testimony to teenage summer nights. Memos hang out of open filing cabinets. PIGS BLOW ME is written across one wall. On another, someone has drawn a pretty decent caricature of a vagina. CONDOMS is scrawled on a wooden cabinet, with an arrow pointing to an empty shelf.
Gordon moves toward another doorway, but Hendrickson grabs his arm. The floor is gone inside. It's just a steep drop into a flooded basement. He might have stepped into nothingness and plummeted into ice-cold water.
Another door opens. This one leads to a room coated with yellow fibers. "Don't go in there," Gordon says. "That's probably asbestos."
A short time later, Gordon heads back to the truck. Only 20 minutes until he has to be at Yorktown Lanes. No way he's going to make it.
Hendrickson follows reluctantly. He walks past a set of lockers chained to a crane set into the ceiling and hovering precariously a foot off the ground.
"That's dangerous," he says. But he clearly wishes he had time to touch it. Maybe next trip.
A week later, Hendrickson and Gordon are casing the trolley tunnels under the Veterans Memorial Bridge. A city engineer leads them on a guided tour through dimly lit passages. But they're more interested in what they're forbidden to see.
The trolleys are gone -- exported to some Canadian province -- but the tracks are still there. So is the beautiful tilework around the main entrance off West 25th Street. The old sodium arc lamps have been replaced with fluorescent tubing.
Craig Strong, the engineer, keeps them moving through the catacombs. He's a well-dressed old man with a handsomely thin mustache and a dark fedora. His booming voice narrates the bridge's tragic history.
Four people died during the five years it took to construct the Detroit-Superior span. When workers fell into quick-drying cement, their corpses were left where they landed. These tunnels are their tombs.
"This is where we're going to put the gift shop," says Strong, pointing to a tiled stairwell.
Somewhere below Massimo da Milano, Hendrickson grows impatient. "Where are the storefronts?" he asks. "I heard that some of the old stores still had storefronts down here."
The engineer says that's just an urban legend.
Hendrickson asks what lies beyond the sawhorse barricades that block people from walking any further. He wants to see how far these tunnels go.
It's too dangerous, says the engineer.
The old man leads them back to the surface. Hendrickson looks over his shoulder, toward the shadows stretching west under Ohio City. His eyes dart to the fence the engineer has left unlocked. He looks at Gordon and smiles.