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Image: Tu Bui

One summer a few years ago, a friend of a friend visited Houston from Utah, on a business trip. On the way to a meeting, the man suddenly felt overcome with the oddest sensation. He stopped, pulled out his cell phone, and dialed our mutual buddy, who lives in town. “I’m downtown,” he said, bewildered. “Um, where are all the people?”

When we heard this story, we had to laugh. If you aren’t aware of the tunnel system, the ghost town that is Houston’s central business district on a boiling summer day has to be perplexing. But the truth is, the tunnels are also a bit of a mystery to Houstonians—even Houstonians who use them every day.

Not only do the area’s worker bees tend to stay in their own neighborhoods, as they call them, below their respective skyscrapers, there also appears to be no master plan for the tunnel system at all. What began in the 1930s as a simple connector between several movie theaters is now a sprawling, six-mile labyrinth assembled piecemeal below the city surface.

Over the years, the odd urban explorer has tried to make sense of things. Houston-tunnels.com, for example, provides a rudimentary map and a list of underground businesses, promising to assist citizens “tired of dropping breadcrumbs to find [their] way around.” There’s also an app that purports to help those “feeling a little lost.”

But to really figure out this subterranean world, there’s no substitute for getting underground and walking it out, a challenge we happily accepted on a recent hot and humid morning, strapping on our Fitbit and descending below the streets into the air-conditioned bowels of the earth from a parking garage off Main Street.

8:15 a.m., 922 steps

We fell in with the morning rush of downtown denizens, who brandished key cards and bagels and coffee as they made their way to work. Though there was rain in the forecast, only a few carried umbrellas—most would return to their cars without once facing the elements. Soon, they all whooshed up escalators and elevators, out of sight, like high schoolers racing to beat the tardy bell.

An eerie quiet descended as we continued to wander, almost completely alone, following along paths that twisted and turned, even undulated up and down. As we went along, we noted occasional maps and signs pointing out key entry and exit points, but these, we quickly realized, were often incomplete or showed paths for sky bridges. GPS, meanwhile, wouldn’t track, with the result that our digital-map apps—including the one designed specifically for the tunnels—were essentially worthless.

9:00 a.m., 5,287 steps

We gave up trying to find any discernable logic to the layout of things. What looked like an electrical-maintenance closet led to a new section of tunnel, while a grand set of glass doors led to nothing more than a poorly lit parking garage.

We swept past chiropractic clinics and dry cleaners as the air filled with the smells of dozens of cafes and fast food joints, already prepping for lunch. As we passed one Subway, then another—or was it the same one?—a feeling of disorientation began to set in.

Despite the signage for various buildings directly overhead, we still found it difficult to determine which direction we were headed. With no street signs or landmarks, we could be beneath the light rail on Main Street or heading south down McKinney. There was simply no way to tell.

The tunnels’ crazy-quilt assemblage contributed to the discombobulated feeling. One minute, we were traversing the basement of the JW Marriott Houston Downtown, which, with its wide-plank wood floors and artfully placed sofas, looks like a grand lobby. The next, we found ourselves strolling down a long hallway with institutional tile, low ceilings and carpeted (padded?) walls. Then, a dead end. Was that the twins from The Shining off in the distance? We blinked. It was just a couple of maintenance guys getting onto an elevator.

10:25 a.m.,  8,650 steps

We stopped at Michael’s Cookie Jar to pick up a frosted sugar cookie, which, by that point, felt well-deserved. Looking up, we noticed an actual window to the area outside Pennzoil Place. Rain was coming down in
sheets, which, happily, wasn’t our problem—while the tunnels, like the rest of Houston, were inundated during Tropical Storm Allison, flooding is not normally an issue down here.

Not all of the tunnels, we discovered, are created equal. Of the 10 color-coded portions of the system, the Red Tunnel Loop is the busiest, loaded with shops and food courts. The Yellow Tunnel, meanwhile, is a long stretch of mostly uninhabited, lifeless hallway, its sole purpose to connect a string of buildings heading southwest from the city’s center. 

11:35 a.m., 10,472 steps

We set up shop at a table near the High Tower Deli, Cubano in hand, and watched the lunch rush. As serene classical piano music piped into our brains from somewhere or other, we observed business meetings taking place, workers shouting lunch orders, office moles glued to Fox News. Even after lunchtime came to an end, a steady stream of people continued to buzz past us, getting their hair cut, teeth cleaned, passport photos taken.

It was early afternoon when we noticed a rather important fact: There aren’t a lot of restrooms in the tunnels. Most, we assume, use their fancy keycards to access office bathrooms, but we had no such luxury. Instead, we headed south through the Green Tunnel to the Park Shops, passing through a small, low-slung hallway a taller man had to duck through. We went another thousand, rather uncomfortable, steps, then another. Finally, relief.

2:01 p.m., 16,811 steps

As the day wound down—most shops close by 2:30, while the rest shut down at 5—we spotted a woman and her young daughter eyeing one of the confusing maps on the wall. “We’re gonna get lost,” the woman whispered to her giggling offspring as they strode away and out of sight.

We slowly made our way back to the over-world, possessed of a better understanding of the bewildering tunnels, anyway, and a grand total of 18,000 steps behind us. Above ground, as the brutal post-thunderstorm humidity hit us full force, we got to thinking: There are a lot worse places to lose yourself.

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