I've been meaning to write this story down for almost 10 years now and I never have. It's going to be jumbled, because I remember things in pieces - apologies if it doesn't flow well. I also apologize in advance for my abuse of the comma, and the image quality (we're working with 10+ year old scanned images here). So here goes:
I was in the 8th grade. Kyle and I were best buds. His grandmother lived about 30min away in a city called Palm Bay. They lived right on the edge of a yet-to-be-developed area of the city, meaning they had woods all around. Kyle told me that there were several really cool trails in the woods. The "trails" were a mix of access roads (there were some kind of electrical "powerhouses" or something scattered throughout the area) and real, human-made, trails. I'd never been there, but Kyle said there were some neat things out there like a rope swing and a couple crushed up cars. To an 8th grade boy, it sounded like an awesome place.
Kyle said he'd explored the area a couple times alone, and had been really scared out there one night as it was getting dark. He said for some reason, a word came into his head that evening while he was walking the trail. He kept repeating it to himself, said it helped him be less scared. He showed me a library card he had written the word down on so he wouldn't forget it. It read: "Astrokalickrama." We called it Astro for short. It turned out to be both one of the scariest and most fun places I've ever been.
The initial trail started right near his grandmother's house, and was a traditional foot trail through some pretty dense woods. It was kinda creepy, but not too bad. You had to cross some running water over makeshift bridges people had made, and eventually the trail ended up running into one of those access roads. These things were roads only in the sense that a truck could use them if it needed to, otherwise they were just wide, overgrown trails. We spent that whole day exploring. We checked out some houses that were under construction not far from there, and then we headed over to where Kyle said a crushed up Volkswagen was. Sure enough, down a couple more access roads we came on a kind of sandy "canyon" that was off to one side. It looked like motorcycles or something came there to ride, you could see several makeshift jumps and trails. And just like Kyle said, there was a semi-crushed, chopped-in-half, Volkswagen in the middle of the whole thing. It was rusted out and had a bunch of crazy writing on the top, you couldn't read the writing - they were some kind of characters… runes or something. We tromped all over those woods that day, trying to take every trail we could.
There were all sorts of cool areas, one was this huge hill and valley below. Again, it looked like a favorite place for offroad bikes and stuff, since there were trails and soft sand, big hills, etc. We swung on the rope swing, threw rocks off the huge hill, and generally explored the whole place. I was intrigued by the whole code thing on the Volkswagen, but we eventually went home as night came.
The second trip is when things got interesting. It must have been a week or so later. When we got to the first trail, we crossed the water and found a dead dog. A dead dog with sticks in it's dead eyes. Yeah, that freaked us out. Paranoid, we swore we heard someone following us along the trail. We made it to the access road and headed towards the Volkswagen area. We had brought some bottle rockets with us (all good 8th grade boys carry fireworks at all times), and were shooting them off as we walked.
When we turned the corner, we saw a car parked near the trail that led to the Volkswagen canyon. Hesitant, we walked slowly. That's when we saw a man come out of the woods, he had a girl with him and was guiding her by the arm. Yeah, I know. He guided her to the back seat of the car, and then opened the trunk. At this point I was completely sure he was getting an axe with which he would murder us all. I turned around and started walking the other way, but Kyle kept going. Faced with that, I turned and walked towards the guy right along with Kyle. He noticed us, did something in the trunk, got in the driver's seat, backed up, and drove away down the access road. Our first thought was that he was out raping some kidnapped girl, so we were even more shook at this point.
After making sure the car had left, and checking out the Volkswagen - we decided to continue on towards the big hill. Halfway there, we smelled the nasty smell of dead animal. Being curious, we hunted for the source. We found it, all wrapped up in butcher paper. Someone had obviously killed whatever it was, my guess was a cat. But it was wrapped in butcher paper and duct taped at each end. That freaked us out even more, to the point where we were now jumping at shadows. Reaching the hill, we shot some more bottle rockets from the top. Soon thereafter, a squad car showed up. The cop saw us and we told him about the man and girl, and showed him the dead animal. He took our names and addresses - then left and told us to go home. We didn't.
Feeling a little more secure now that we had talked to the cop, we decided to continue exploring. That's when I saw it. There was a drainage pipe that ran under a road, a real road that was paved and all - but had been built and abandoned. The drainage pipe was tall enough for someone to just about stand up in, and it ran from one side of the road to the other, or about ~60ft long. On one side, above the cement pipe, were characters. Painted characters, the same funny things that were on the top of the Volkswagen in the woods (which was about a mile or so away). We talked it over, and went on in.
The pipe went straight through and was wide enough to walk in, so it wasn't that scary. We walked about 10-15ft under the road and came to a "junction" room. It was a square cement room with a ceiling and all. The big pipe came in and out on opposite sides, and two smaller cement pipes led off to the left and right. We kept to the big pipe, and after another 10-15ft hit a second junction. This one only had the big pipe coming in and out, and no other pipes. It did, however, have a grate for a ceiling - which was actually off to the side of the road for drainage. On the wall there were more painted characters, and what was clearly a map.
It didn't take us long to figure out that the map was of the pipes we were in, we could see the big pipe, the two junctions, and the smaller pipe leading to the left off the 1st junction room. The way it was drawn, it looked like the small pipe was much longer than the big one we were currently in - and drawn at the end of it there was what appeared to be a "room" and some more runes. We got so excited, it felt like we were in Goonies. But we were also super scared and it was getting dark. We decided to leave, and come back the next day with flashlights and some better "gear" for the task.
Fast forward one day. We come back proper: equipped with flashlights, BB guns, string, and pencil and paper. First order of business, make faithful reproductions of all code and maps so we could look at them later. Next, the small tunnel. We tied the string to a rock and left it in the junction room where the small pipe originated, it was gonna be our trail of breadcrumbs. The pipe was extremely small, and we had to crawl to move. The best method seemed to be a crouch-crawl not unlike the "crab walk" exercise I used to do in 5th grade PE. We stretched the string out behind us as we went, so we could follow it out if we had to make any turns. Inside the pipe it was pitch black, and we soon couldn't see the light from the pipe entrance behind us. We each had a flashlight, and Kyle was in the lead - firing his BB gun into the darkness ahead every once in a while for good measure.
Eventually we ran out of string, but wanted to keep going. We decided to tie one of the flashlights to the end of the string, and point it down the tunnel in the direction we were going - if we lost sight of it, we'd have to turn around and come back with more string. Shortly after that, Kyle spotted some writing on the wall of the pipe. It wasn't code, it was regular letters, but they were all in groups of five and jumbled. I wrote it down on one of the index cards, and we kept moving.
Just as we were barely able to see the flashlight shining from behind us, we came on another junction room. This one had a manhole in the ceiling, and the small pipe continued on from the opposite wall we came in. The floor was sand, and there was stuff all over the walls. You could see where candles had been stuck to the wall, from the melted wax and scorch marks. The word "AUSGANG" was written above the pipe we had just crawled in from. On the wall was a picture of a treasure chest, skull, and some snakes, as well as a bunch more runes. There were several empty bottles of model paint on the ground, which is what was used to paint all the runes and stuff. We copied everything down, and decided to get the hell out of there. By this time we were completely freaked out, being several hundred feet into a small pipe under some road. We decided that we should try and get out through the manhole rather than back down the pipe. I stood with one foot on each pipe coming into the room, and pushed with my head and shoulders until the manhole moved. We climbed out off to the side of the empty road, and pushed the manhole cover back in place. We fetched our tethered flashlight and headed home as the sun was going down.
The next week at school we told the story to everyone. How we found the dead dog, the kidnapped girl, the secret code and the tunnels. I checked out books from the library on cryptography, and concentrated all my effort on breaking the code in the runes. Several weeks later we made a trip back with our friend Joey, and he discovered some more runes on another drainage fixture about ¼ mile from the pipe we'd explored. We copied them down too, and then did the whole pipe-crawl again with Joey this time. We actually brought a camera with us, and that's how you're looking at the photos right now. We also did some digging in the sandy floor of the "treasure room," and turned up a rather large bone. We put it in a paper bag and took it.
Back at school we worked on the code together. We quickly figured out the regular alphabet one as simple backwards writing, broken into groups of five letters each. It read: "Place talisman on white cliffs at time of eruption. Next proceed toward the obvious and search general area." That only fueled our desire to figure out the rune code. It went unsolved for a long time. One day Andy and I were hanging out at my place, looking at the code. We had both been reading this cryptography book that said you should take the most frequently appearing symbol and call it "e," since that's the most frequently used letter in the english language. We'd tried it before, but we decided to do it again. Taking that approach, we started blindly guessing other letters. In no time, we had figured it out - and translated all the writing. They had made it extra tough by writing all the words without spaces, and then spacing the written code at random places - so what appeared to be one rune-word might really be parts or wholes of several english words. I was so excited I called Kyle and had his sister pull him inside from mowing the lawn so we could share the news.
The result? The Volkswagen read: "The wise seek knowledge in the underworld." A reference to the pipes. The "Joey code" on the cement grate thing read: "Great knowledge lies in the chamber of doom." Over the entrance to the big pipe: "Enter other side," of course we didn't know that at the time. In the "map room:" "Bowels of earth" above the map and "Chamber of Doom" next to what we had been calling the "treasure room." In the treasure room, "Cliffs: 4 feet from top of peak."
We returned several times to try and either find more code, or figure out what the "talisman" was. We assumed the "white cliffs" were the huge hill that we had launched bottle rockets from. On one trip, Kyle found a carved stick that he called a "staff" tied to a string and hanging from a tree, and he was convinced it was the talisman. His thought was that we were supposed to stick it into the dirt at the top of the cliff at sunrise ("eruption"), and follow the shadow. We never did anything with it, but I always thought it was a good idea.
You'll note in the pictures above that the "runes" on the Volkswagen had been painted over by the time we got around to bringing a camera, and a lot of the text had blue spraypaint over it to begin with. Maybe whatever was supposed to be found already had been. Eventually, the Astro craze died down and we moved onto other things. Several years later, Joey and I drove down to Astro and made one last trip into the tunnels. My partial journal entry from November 23rd, 1995:
Joey and I went back to Astro yesterday - we pried the manhole cover off and actually descended into the chamber of doom. We took a large magic marker and wrote our own coded messages on the wall. I wrote "the chamber of doom has been breached." Then over the proper entrance to the tunnels, I wrote "we now rule the underworld" and left the initials JD KS DD.
According to terraserver, as of 1999 the place was still largely undeveloped - but I read somewhere that they eventually developed houses all in that area, so the place probably doesn't even exist anymore. But to be honest, I would love to see if the map and stuff are still in the pipes. Maybe one day...