I learned a new word today. I read it slowly to myself trying to pronounce it correctly: URBEX. I saw the word in a title description for a video and had no idea what it meant. But it didn’t take me very long to figure out. The vlogger’s thumbnails showed dilapidated buildings, slipshod houses (some historic, some not); and he also included caves. Ahh. Crawlspaces. Places covered and hidden for ‘urban-exploration.’
I knew what he was into right away.
In many ways, I think we’re all the same. We’re all just kids, aren’t we? All of us rugrats, who crawl under things, look under lids and inside of cans, staring into tunnels like cookie jars. Kids who slowly open doors to closed rooms, and still get under the covers to pitch makeshift tents like we did with sofa cushion forts. Aren’t we still those same kids who crawled underneath the bed to watch people walk by while doing our best not to make a sound?
So hand a hiker a flashlight and drop him off in a new urban area at night and you get the same thing…A rugrat looking around like an alley cat, scouting crawlspaces, hoping to find dark culverts, drains, and the sewers of Gotham to explore. And, of course, abandoned houses. Is this what they call URBEX?
My wife and I had just finished a solid Tex-Mex meal at Rosa’s, and I didn’t want to go home. Tummy full of fireworks, I needed to walk it off. I was researching the Matthew Brown Homestead for a story I’m writing about Mary Moore Searight (the person). It’s an old home built in the 1860s right off of Old San Antonio Rd, the old stagecoach trail to San Antone. While reading about the homestead on a TXDot survey, I read about two other pre-Civil War era homes closeby. One was called the Sneed House, and the other, the Horton-Duval House, also known as the Rock House. It was time to open the lid and look deep inside the can…
We made our way past the Interstate to Bluff Springs. The street became darker and darker as we approached the lot. Beside a large tree, on a large plot of land stood the ruins of a plantation house standing in a dark field. We turned off the lights to the car and felt the eerie thrill of exploring ruins in the cover of night. Were we being watched? Was this a sketchy neighborhood? Or rather, were we the sketchy ones, parking in a dark spot, scuttling to the abandoned field under the cloak of shadows?
The fact that we couldn’t make out exactly what we were seeing excited us even more. I read a little bit about the house. Built in 1857, it belonged to a lawyer from Arkansas who was a staunch secessionist and slave owner. Slaves built the two story home brick by brick from a quarry in the vicinity. During the Civil War the house was used as a recruitment station and hospital for the wounded.
They say the Sneed graves are in some overgrown field near here, behind a movie theater.
We walked around the entire fence and tried to get a better view, but it was very difficult to see. Every now and then a bicyclist would ride by or a pedestrian would come out of the darkness walking on the sidewalk and startle me a bit. Cars drove by, their headlights shining on us like red light scanners, and we felt trapped in their gaze.
I followed the fence all around the perimeter and found a hidden crawlspace. The chain link fence had been cut open to make an entry hole. I stepped in to take a closer look. There were soiled clothes and bottles and the here-one-day-now-I’m-gone footprint I know so well. A path could scarcely be seen that made its way to the plantation ruins.
The Sneed House burned in June of 1989. Imagine the scene that night when the antebellum home went up in flames, pieces breaking off and falling, bit by bit. What is left are a few walls and a rubble of limestone. Graffiti is tagged on the remaining walls. I sighed. Leave an abandoned house without lighting, good fencing, or oversight, and someone will put it to use, with little regard for safety or preservation, I can tell you that.
It was time to go. We walked back to our car and I noticed a voltage box spray-painted with a jack o’lantern face smiling at the road with an evil expression. Felt about right. We crossed the street and jumped into our car. The trees in the field right by us, rows of dark silhouettes, rocked and rustled with every rush of wind. I told Vanessa, “There’s supposed to be another pre-Civil War house nearby.”
We drove south down the block, but we couldn’t see it. This house burned down, too, in February of 1996, so I had no idea what of the structure was left. We circled around the plot and finally, I could make out one wall. Behind the H-E-B on William Cannon and Bluff Springs, inside of a busted chain link fence stands the Horton-Duval House. Texas’ first Lt. Governor lived here for a short time from 1841-1852. We drove around trying to get a better look, but it was just too hard to see. My gut told me there was plenty of activity behind the trees in the cover of dark, and my wife nodded. She pointed to flying embers of a small fire going behind the trees. I rolled up my window and we were off.
Flashing lights and sirens wailed past us on the way to a crash site.
I shook my head. Both residences were on track for preservation, but the red tape got there too late. We drove off and pledged to come back for a better look at daylight. Like the profound message that appears on the screen after pressing ‘Quit’ after every old Nintendo video game says:
EVERYTHING NOT SAVED WILL BE LOST…
Sources: Austin Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, Mixerrreviewsblogspotatxn