by | Jun 13, 2019 | Creative Nonfiction



O tunnels! Mysterious and misunderstood. We don’t love you for your very own selves. We only love you for what you do for us, the way you get us from Point A to Point B. You connect the past to the future. But you are mere means to an end, a place we visit only to escape.



The birth canal is the first tunnel. It prepares us for the ones that come after. From the darkness there arises an inchoate and intuitive sense of destination, a drive, without understanding of what awaits. We can only go forward, into the bright unknown. The future is unimaginable.

When I was born, the mothers were routinely given drugs that made them sleep through delivery. In expulsion, the mother gives life. This is her job: to hold her child close and then to push her out.


El Chapo

Joaquin Guzman Loera is better known as El Chapo, which sounded glamorous and dangerous to me until I learned it translated to ‘Shorty’. El Chapo is a Mexican drug lord and former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, an organized crime syndicate. El Chapo escaped from Mexico’s most secure prison through a 2 by 2 foot hole in the prison shower that connected to a tunnel built by his men. The tunnel was a mile long, thirty feet underground, and five feet tall so he could walk through it. It was the tunnel of a powerful man, the tunnel of a man who will not stoop. It had lighting and ventilation. El Chapo has a third grade education, but he would not crawl, not even for his own escape. Forbes magazine estimates Shorty’s wealth to be approximately ten billion dollars, from sales of cocaine and marijuana.


Water MOccasin

When I was a child, I roamed the creeks near my house, climbing white, chalky cliffs, watching minnows dart across pools. Sometimes, I saw water moccasins swimming in the gentle currents. At night, I dreamed of those snakes, of seeing white throats on black tunnel-shaped bodies gliding on the shadowed surface of the water. Once, one appeared to yawn as it swam by me and I saw its long poisonous fangs. Yet I returned to the creek to play. This was the central lesson of my childhood: how to keep playing in the face of fear.



Over a weekend in 1976, in Nice, France, bank robbers tunneled through sewers to the vaults of the Societe Generale and stole ten million dollars, mostly in cash. Bank officials discovered the heist when they came to work on Monday morning and found the vault locked from the inside. Once they blew the doors open, investigators found the tunnel.

The tunnel into Societe Generale was thirty feet long, two feet wide, and twenty inches tall. It was well constructed, with wood and metal buttressing, a ventilation tube, carpeting, and a half mile long electric cable. Investigators found a second route through which the bank robbers floated gear in on rafts through the sewer system.

Inside, investigators found evidence not only of theft, but of meals prepared over the weekend. Crusts of bread, bottles of wine, food packaging, and portable stoves remained in the vault. The burglars had remained in the vault over the weekend and enjoyed themselves. On the walls someone had written, “Without weapons, without violence, without hate.”

French authorities identified Albert Spagnianni as ‘The Brain’ behind the heist at Societe Generale. The robbery was conducted by a team of twenty men. Ten were Bert’s political allies, and ten were mobsters who demanded in on the deal once they heard about it. Bert had a long history of supporting right-wing political causes, including showing up at an event with the intention to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, but he failed to pull the trigger. Bert donated his share of the ten million dollars to right wing political causes.


The amusement park tunnel of love. We clambered into fake log boats that floated through the tunnel. Inside, fiberglass rocks shone with moisture, and animatronic monsters lit up and howled. Amid this, possibility. Would some damp, inarticulate boy reach for my hand? You could hear water rushing against the echoing walls.

Right at the moment I hoped things would get romantic, there would be a monster or a short roller coaster. In this way, the tunnel of love is like life.



I had two children, one born by c-section into the bright light of a surgical suite. He’d gotten stuck. Sunny side up,the nurses said, using the term for a child who wanted to come into the world facing up and not down. But the human head does not easily mold that way; I didn’t know until I gave birth that we are built to be born staring at the ground, not the stars.

As a toddler, my son was obsessed with his Thomas The Tank Engine set. The tunnel, he’d scream, wild with unnameable glee, every single time, as he maneuvered a train around a bend in the track. His excitement was palpable, as was the inevitable let-down, once his train emerged from the tunnel and went on its ordinary way.



Both El Chapo’s wife and mistress testified at his trial. Calling Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez the druglord’s sidepiece, The New York Post reported her testimony that the two of them were in bed one night when authorities attempted to raid one of his hideouts. El Chapo ran from the house naked after helping Sanchez disappear into a tunnel below the bathtub. She moved through the underground mud and sludge for an hour, until the tunnel reached a river bed. Authorities tried to follow her but couldn’t because they could not fit in the tunnel while wearing military gear. El Chapo’s wife laughed during the testimony, especially when Sanchez said, weeping, I thought we were still involved.


Tunnel visiOn

You cannot, or will not, see anything except what is right in front of you.



Forty minutes from my house, on I-70, are the Eisenhower and Johnson tunnels, the longest mountain tunnels in the United States, and the highest points on the Interstate Highway System. Their construction began in 1968 with dynamite, then boring underneath the Continental Divide between Colorado’s east and west slopes. Seven workers were killed during the initial bores. Now, more than forty years after the tunnels’ construction, more than 350 million people have traveled through them and there have been no fatalities. There are approximately three to five vehicle fires inside the tunnel each year.

When we go through the much shorter Twin Tunnels, just east of the Eisenhower, my husband holds his breath and touches the roof of our car. Usually, I join him. If there’s a lot of traffic, the breath-holding gets hard. I have never asked him why he does this. I do not know why I do this, except that we are together, and sometimes love requires unquestioning acceptance.



More than 200 tunnels between the United States and Mexico have been discovered by US Border patrol. Tunnels to California and Arizona, tunnels to Texas. People want to emigrate to the US, through the tunnel, to create a new future for themselves. But we don’t want them here, so we’re going to build a wall. How will a wall stop people in tunnels? No matter, no mind.

The Washington Post quotes a deputy director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who says that there are always new tunnels being built and that a border wall alone won’t stop undocumented immigration.

“In terms of return on investment, $5 billion or $20 billion or $60 billion for a wall, it’s not going to give a good return on investment,” he said.

The ROI! I had not thought of this analysis of walls or tunnels or migration or desperation. How might we monetize our isolation? What will we recoup from our investment in fear?



In 2010, I was diagnosed with celiac sprue, which is an auto-immune disease of the small intestine, a twenty foot long tract, or tunnel, in the human digestive system. In auto-immune disease, the body’s own tissues attack and destroy themselves. Images from my biopsy show that my small intestine was pale pink and smooth as marble. The small intestine should be wrinkled, like long sleeve pushed up over an elbow. One job of the small intestine is to absorb nutrients from food, which makes the intestine a kind of a monster tunnel that consumes and extracts the value from that which passes through.



In 1952, Friedrich Durrenmatt published a short story called The Tunnel. In the story, a young, fat, lonely scholar boards his regular train, but when the train enters a familiar tunnel, the scholar realizes that something is awry: the tunnel never ends. The other passengers don’t seem to notice and continue drinking and talking. When young man asks the conductor what’s going on, the conductor reveals, after some attempts at deception, that the engineer has jumped off and the unmanned train is hurtling toward an abyss at breakneck speak.

“I, too, have always lived without hope,” the Conductor says.

The train continues its terrible journey downward, toward the center of the earth, and the scholar, seeing the abyss, says the last line of the story, in response to the question What are we to do?: “Nothing. God let us fall. And now we’ll come upon him.”

One interpretation of the story is that those who are aware of the abyss are nonetheless powerless to avoid it. And those who are unaware of the abyss, like the passengers, carry on blissfully. Another interpretation is that God has given us free will, and we turn away from him, toward unworthy leaders who abandon us.



During the construction of the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels, a woman named Janet Bonnema applied for a job as an engineering technician. She got the job because the supervisor misread her name as James. The men working on the site, most of whom were miners, threatened to walk off the job because of a superstition that women bring bad luck to mines. According to one report, a man said, “It’s a jinx. I’ve seen too many die after a woman was in the tunnel.” Bonnema sued and won. She also began wearing overalls to work and from a distance, no one realized she was a woman.



Some years ago, my husband, who was then my boyfriend, and I went on the sewer tour of Paris. We went because we had been to Paris multiple times together and had seen and done much of what there is for tourists to see and do. Outside it was cold, but when we went below street level to the sewer, the air was warm and moist. The odor was dank and biological. We walked, with our group, through the branching, bricked tunnels, amid talk of hundred-year-old infrastructure and public health. Afterward, we went outside, gulped clean air, and realized that we were no longer simply dating: we were together forever.  We had been fortunate to travel to Paris several times during our courtship. But once you have been to Paris so many times that you have run out of things to do and must tour a sewer together, you no longer need Paris. We’d always meant to travel through the Chunnel, but we were past all that now. Sometime after that, we got married.



“But now well democracy has shown us that what is evil are the grosses têtes, the big heads, all big heads are greedy for money and power, they are ambitious that is the reason they are big heads and so they are at the head of the government and the result is misery for the people. They talk about cutting off the heads of the grosses têtes but now we know that there will be other grosses têtes and they will be all the same.”—Gertrude Stein



A story is a tunnel, a thing with an entrance and an exit, linked by some muddy middle.



In my twenties, I went into a Mexican jungle to go scuba diving in a cenote, or cave. Our group suited up and jumped into a small lake. From there, we followed our guide, Jose, underwater and toward the cenote. Jose had a rope and an underwater flashlight. We formed a line behind him, holding the rope, as we entered the cave, which was actually a long, underwater tunnel. The passages narrowed. I could not see in front of me and I could not go backward because of the people behind me, even if the space had been large enough to permit a turn. The top of my metal oxygen tank scraped the rock above me, making a hollow sound; the skin of my legs stung with scratches from rock below me. Jose shone his light up toward a small air pocket just in front of us, and I panicked at the sight of air I could not have. Then, as we moved into a slightly wider section of the tunnel, Jose shone his light to an area below us to show us fish who have evolved to live in dark caves. They were white with no eyes; they swam to and fro. About the time I began to fear that I would die from lack of oxygen because I was using my air so quickly, we exited the cenote. Sunlight filtered through the water. Color returned. Jose gave us the signal to go up. I broke the surface of the water.

I rocked myself onto my back to float on my buoyancy compressor and removed the regulator from my mouth to suck in air, real air. My tank was nearly empty. Within minutes, everyone in our group was at the surface, talking, laughing, breathing. We were alive! We had survived! We could breathe! Jose made the ‘OK’ signal with his hand to each of us and we each made OK back. Then Jose touched his eyes to signal ‘look’ and pointed his finger across the small lake, where we could see the eyes of several alligators just above the surface of the water. They were watching us.

This is the truth: the tunnel ends, the daylight comes, the alligators wait.

What now?

Photo used under CC.

About The Author


Emily Sinclair’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, River Teeth, Colorado Review, The Normal School, and many other journals, and has been recognized by Best American Essays. She holds a degree in Fiction from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Emily lives with her husband, their dog, and six chickens, on an apple orchard in Golden, Colorado. She teaches for Lighthouse Writers.