The hundreds of people living in the flood channels of Las Vegas have provided one of the more fascinating and enduring international stories of the past two decades. This underground community has received plenty of news coverage and dramatic portrayals by the entertainment industry, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Criminal Minds and the Jason Bourne franchise.
What has gained less attention is how dozens of tunnel-dwellers have clawed their way out of the drains to create full lives.
Dark Days, Bright Nights, the follow-up to the best-selling Beneath the Neon, shares the harrowing stories of Sin City’s most marginalized people, from bottoming out in homelessness to mending relationships with family and adjusting to jobs, housing and sobriety. These redemption stories cast light on a rarely seen side of Las Vegas and offer a portrait of homelessness and recovery in America. They are the happy, non-Hollywood endings to the infamous tunnel tale, documented through stark photographs and unflinchingly honest personal accounts.
Below is an excerpted chapter from Dark Days, Bright Nights, titled “Discovering the Drains Part 1.”
To understand the landscape of the Las Vegas Valley, as I explained in my book Beneath the Neon, simply look at the palm of your hand. The mounds on the perimeter of the palm are the mountain ranges surrounding the valley. The concave interior is the basin floor. The lines are flood channels, the more prominent ones primary washes that widen and deepen over time.
Like a palm, the valley is enclosed except for a shallow groove in a bottom corner. The Las Vegas Wash, which marks the basin’s lowest elevation, drains through this groove into Lake Mead.
Located in the heart of the Mojave—the driest desert in North America—Las Vegas is lethally hot and arid. Its average high temperature in June, July and August is 102 degrees Fahrenheit. The average yearly rainfall is only 4 inches, most of which falls during the so-called monsoon season, when Vegas is susceptible to flash floods. The asphalt, concrete and hardpan desert soil absorb little water. The slopes of the basin carry it onto streets and into natural flood channels, toward the Las Vegas Wash, at speeds exceeding 25 mph.
In 1985, after a series of floods crippled Las Vegas, the state Legislature created the Clark County Regional Flood Control District. The goal was to reduce flooding by building a network of channels. It was Southern Nevada’s first coordinated attempt to control flooding, which had only been done piecemeal by various entities, including Clark County, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas.
Along with the Las Vegas Valley, which grew from a population of 750,000 in 1990 to more than 2 million people, the flood system is constantly expanding. The intricate web spans from mountain range to mountain range, like the lines on a palm, and currently consists of eighty detention basins and 600 miles of channel, roughly half of which are underground.
Despite these figures—and the crucial role the drains play in the city’s functionality—the flood channels are not a prominent feature of Vegas’ landscape or lore. They lie low, in off-the-beaten-path places, blocked off by walls and chainlink fences or camouflaged by the beige desert floor.
Which begs the question, “How did you discover the storm drains?”
Szmauz, 24, a rock musician from the mountains of New Hampshire, had a violent and unforgettable introduction to the drains: I was giving this other homeless guy hot dogs I’d found in a dumpster near Tropicana and McLeod, and out of the corner of my eye I see this big guy come over, and he decks me. The hot dogs go flying. I was stunned. It took me a second to realize I just got hit in the face.
He starts wailing on me and I fight back. I’m not a small guy, so he took off.
I had this meat cleaver on me, and I’m chasing him down the street with it. The drug dealers that lived in the shitty apartments nearby knew me. I was a loyal customer of theirs. They were like, “Dude, what’s up?”
I said, “Get that guy!”
We’re all chasing him, and he dipped through a hole in a fence and went down into a wash and into a tunnel. We all stopped. We’re like, We’re not going in there!
And that’s how I discovered the tunnels.
Barry, 48, a sex offender from Howell, Mich., came to Las Vegas after an 18-year incarceration: In prison I’d seen that show Modern Marvels on the History Channel, and they talked about the flood channels, so when I got to Vegas, I just walked around town looking for ’em. Down past the “Welcome” sign, I found one and figured I’d check it out.
It was dark, scary. I was wondering who I’d meet. Any decent people or just rats, spiders and trash. I had a flashlight on me. I always carry one.
That’s when I ran into Kregg. He’d lived down there a while and they called him “The Mayor.” He had a wall of plastic up, and I knocked on it and talked to him for a couple minutes. Told him my name, where I was from, what I was in prison for, and his response was, “There’s room farther down to make a camp, but don’t tell no one what you were in prison for.”
Manny, 47, a member of the Tlingit Indian Tribe in Alaska, lived in the tunnels for 10 years: I knew about the ones by the Rio. Me and a girlfriend had stayed in them when we were young. I didn’t mind it, because I was with her, and we had one foot in and one out. We were just kids having fun.
But in 2001, I got into a fight. This dude was looking at me, and I was looking at him, then he started talking shit. I was a young man, and he was an older guy, and I beat him down. I thought that was it. I went to get a drink in Mermaids casino, and I come out, and I feel someone crack me from the side with a beer bottle.
I stumbled down to Bonneville Avenue. My tank top was soaked with blood. That’s as far as I got before I passed out.
When I woke up in the hospital the doctor said, “There’s a chance you’re going to lose sight in that eye.”
“What are the chances?”
I ended up getting several stitches, and I lost sight in my left eye.
When I was released, I went to a buddy’s house, but I didn’t want to be a burden, and I didn’t feel like hustling wearing an eye patch. That’s when I went back into the drains.
Ricky Lee, 53, lived in the tunnels off and on from 1995 to 2016, and is part ruffian, part poet: I was living in an abandoned hotel, but I was working. I was handing out smut on the Strip. The hotel owner would come by every once in a while and kick me out. I told him, “I got a job. How ’bout I pay you for the room?”
He said that’d be fine, so I gave him 80 dollars a week.
I saw the tunnels being built not far from the hotel, and I had always admired the TV show Beauty and the Beast. That guy Vincent lived in tunnels, and I wanted to do that too.
Half Pint, 58, from western Nebraska, got her street name because of her diminutive stature: My first night on the streets, I slept behind a dumpster at 7-Eleven, then I walked and ended up at Desert Breeze Park. I was so fucked up on pills. I woke up at the park tied to a bench, half naked. I had no idea what happened.
I kept walking, and somebody told me I could go down into this culvert, an open flood plain by the Orleans casino. There were three big tunnels, and I went in the middle one and was immediately met by all sorts of spiders and weird smells. It was really dark, and my eyes had to adjust. I passed out.
When I woke, there were other people there. “Hey, you all right? What are you doing here?”
One of the guys said, “You can’t stay here and puke all over our stuff. Get outta here!”
I started crying and he had a moment of sympathy. He said, “You don’t look like you belong here.”
“I don’t.” I gave him a sob story, and he offered me a crack pipe.
Tex, 46, is a funny, friendly Army vet who described his 12 years in the drains with a thick Southern drawl: When you’re in Vegas and homeless, the best thing for you is not to be seen. Vegas doesn’t like homeless people, and the police harass you, so I found me a tunnel and made it my home. There’s a homeless person on just about every corner, and one of ’em showed me the spot.
Shaggy, 29, was a heroin addict in the tunnels from 2011 to 2014. His mom, One Shoe Sue, also lived in the drains: I was going back and forth by bus between Summerlin and Henderson. It’d take about three hours. I’d panhandle and make 100 bucks, and I kept my backpack and sleeping bag on me, and I’d crash wherever I landed.
Eventually a few guys from the tunnels saw me panhandling near Eastern Avenue and the 215. They actually challenged me. They tried to get me to move from my spot. They said my time was up, but I wouldn’t leave.
Later that day. they sought me out and said, “Hey, man. You got heart. You should come down with us where you’re safe and out of the way.”
Stephen, 62, was born and raised in Las Vegas. A longtime waiter and maître d’, he found himself living under Paradise Road near the Hard Rock Hotel: I just woke up one day and was living, or I should say dying, in the tunnels under Paradise.
Excerpted from Dark Days, Bright Nights: Surviving the Las Vegas Storm Drains, by Matthew O’Brien. Published by Central Recovery Press, slated for release on Nov. 17. Copyright 2020 by Matthew O’Brien. All rights reserved.