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Urban Explorer: Dave Teti

Take a trip through Dave Teti’s photos on Instagram and the images with haunt you. A strange combination of both eeriness and beauty, Teti’s photos capture glimpses of the past that cause your mind to run wild with imagination. Teti is a modern-day urban explorer, an Indiana Jones of urban ruins and decay, if you will. However, the treasure he seeks are snapshots – a single photo that will capture a mysterious world and tell a story. Whether he’s exploring an abandoned church, a rundown building, or a vacant house, the photos take you on a journey that intersects somewhere between a horror film set and a post apocalyptic world.

After spending what seems like hours pouring through his photos, I reached out to Teti to learn more about him. I wanted to know about his adventures, how he got started exploring, and what were some of the more interesting things he had run across in his travels. He agreed to an interview and sent us a collection of photos from some of his recent trips. It was apparent from the beginning, Teti definitely embodies the MOTUS spirit. He embraces the unknown and lives to explore and discover the world around him. Every trip is a new adventure into the unexpected, and each photo creates a timeless memory to reflect upon for years to come.

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Can you give us a little background information about yourself?

My name is Dave Teti and I am a 28-year-old explorer/adventurer/overlander from Haddonfield, New Jersey. Haddonfield is a historic suburb of Philadelphia filled with great history and awesome sites. I am an auto technician by day for Lexus and have worked with Toyota for roughly 7 years now. I have been involved with the automotive industry and vehicle repair, maintenance, and modification for about 10 years now and have built everything from street cars to off-road vehicles of all different makes and models. As much as I love working on vehicles, I am currently trying to find a way to travel and still financially survive, but we’ll see. I’m still young after all.

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Your truck is pretty incredible. Can you tell us a little more about your rig?

The truck is a 1994 Toyota 4Runner, which actually was a stock truck 8 years ago. It belonged to a friend of mine used to deliver pizzas in it. She was rotting in his back yard for some time. Before the wrecker had a chance to come and get her to take her to her final resting place, I took ownership of it. Over the last 8 years she has slowly become the expedition vehicle everyone see’s all over the road, and internet today.

What are some of the main modifications you’ve done to the 4Runner? 

There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into her over the years. She wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for my knowledge and know-how, but more importantly the support I get from all of my friends who have lent a hand day in and day out with major projects we have taken on with her. The 4Runner sits 365/75/16 BF Goodrich KM2’s, is locked with a Yukon Grizzley in the rear and a Detroit in the front. A lot of custom tube work has been done from the front fenders into the sliders and rear bumper. The rear wheel wells have been reworked and cut for higher clearance. The truck was recently converted over to a leaf spring rear suspension with Bilstein 5150 shocks all for durability, flexibility, and load capacity.

The famous question I hear is “Why isn’t she solid axle swapped?” While I will be the first to admit it costs a small fortune to keep independent front suspension running strong, it is by no means as weak as some would make it seem if you have the right combination of parts and know-how. I can guarantee she has seen plenty of tough terrain over the years from the mud to the rocks. The list of modifications can go on forever as 80% of the truck is fabricated and put together from mix and match Toyota trucks and 4Runners from ’85-’95. If anyone has a specific question about the truck, please ask! Expedition and safari vehicles have always fascinated me. While most people I know were busy building rock crawlers and buggies, I went the direction of an expedition rig that is more than capable to take on what I want to throw at it.

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Your photos are pretty incredible. How did you get started with the urban exploration?

Urban exploration has always peaked my interest. There is a magazine here in New Jersey called “Weird NJ”. I believe it is now all over the place for different areas of the country, but the history, horror stories, nightmares, urban legends, of all the lost and forgotten ruins we see before us always peaked my interest. I have only recently in the last few months started documenting them with photography. Before it was simply more of a thrill factor.

Discovering the facts about these places of where, when, and why they met their downfall is what brings me to them. I was kind of hesitant at first of how other types of explorers like urban, overland, and adventurers would react to my different mix of off-road/urban exploring. So far I have received nothing but positive feedback from my fellow urbex/overlanders/adventures. The previous owner of my truck was really into the more scary explorations, with this same vehicle, and I used to tag along on a lot of his journeys. So really, in a way, the expo rig has always been a part of it.  I have always been fascinated with exploring.

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What was the first place you visited? What was going through your mind?

The first place I ever visited was a local house not to far from my hometown. The house was actually just recently vandalized and burned down. It was called “Purgatory House”. It received that name because it was on a street named Purgatory Road. The urban legend is that one night there was a horrifying murder there in which a man took his own life after taking the lives of his wife and two girls. One of the girls had walked to the local highway on route 70, and was found dead there.

I haven’t personally found the documentation to actually back up the story, but that is the urban legend. My first visit there about 10 years ago and it was actually pretty intense as the family vehicles were still there. Ironically, one of them was a desirable early Bronco. The other car was an early 90’s Audi. Both of them were eventually taken over by nature in the form of big thorn bushes. The furniture, clothing, kitchen and everything else was fully intact, but the rest of the house was left to decay and rot. It had been torn apart, ransacked by scrapers looking for precious metals, and taken over by graffiti. Every window smashed out. None the less, it was a great experience. I have to admit that for my first time ever doing something like this, it was a little nerve-wracking – especially when you’re doing it at night just a flashlight after knowing the urban legend.

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What was the most interesting place you’ve ever explored?

Honestly, the most interesting place I’ve ever explored is also the one of the places with the least amount to see. Although it is surrounded by beautiful scenery and a backdrop of mountains and windmills. It is also one of the least risky adventures and explorations when compared to others with worries of trespassing and the law. I have always had a fascination with the old coal mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Not only is it absolutely beautiful, but the history of the town is phenomenal.

For those who aren’t familiar with the history of Centralia, the town met its downfall in the 1960’s. The town used to burn their trash in landfills and eventually one of the coal mines underground caught fire. As reports of carbon-monoxide related issues kept rising, the town was eventually paid to relocate all of those that were willing to leave. Problems of hydrogen explosions and dangerously high ground temperatures continued growing over the next 20 years and the town slowly shut down. The government tried everything in attempts to stop the underground fire, but it was time to give up. In 1984, the residents were relocated and in 2002 the zip code for the town was actually revoked. Problems continued with streets buckling and sink holes opening up. Local gas stations were reporting gasoline temperatures in their underground tanks of 172*F. There is roughly a half mile stretch of abandoned Route 61, also known as Graffiti Highway, hidden by a bypass Route 61 in Centralia that is generally considered impassable. But of course, I had to drive it for myself in the 4Runner.

While there isn’t much to see anymore except for a few standing structures, a church, and a couple of graveyards, there is a time capsule that is going to be opened in 2016. That is something that I definitely want to make sure I don’t miss when they open it up. I never did get to see Centralia in its full beauty of theaters, grocery stores, homes, and banks, but it’s absolutely my favorite place for the history alone. I play video games in my spare time. Growing up there was a video game named “Silent Hill” that is actually a horror story based on Centralia, which is the real Silent Hill.

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What was the scariest place you’ve ever explored?

One of the scariest places actually was one I went to recently. I took the time to visit the Sleighton Farm School in Pennsylvania. I didn’t get a chance to check the place out in its entirety as I was running out of time and daylight. Sleighton was actually a delinquent and reform school. It is literally a little town of its own with roughly 15 buildings, its own streets. Basically it’s a big campus. Everything you can think is was in that school from a gym, arcade, classrooms, and you name it. I don’t have a lot of history on it at the moment, but it’s currently one of my projects and my first visit was literally a few days ago. I spent a lot of time in the admissions building and a solid 45 minutes in one of the older buildings reading through the hospital, court, and student records of children going AWOL and never returning. I certainly don’t believe in ghosts or anything of that nature, but this place gave me a really bad vibe coming from it! I will be looking for more answers in the upcoming weeks and exploring the facts around Sleighton.

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Have you ever run across something totally unexpected?

I don’t really run into anything unexpected as I always expect and plan for the unexpected. Sometimes you’ll run into the homeless or graffiti artists, other times it’s scrapers and thieves destroying the ruins that stand. Every now and then you’ll even run into a boobie trap. You just have to always be aware of your surroundings and watch single every step as it’s a very dangerous way to explore. However, sometimes you find really cool artifacts left behind and a lot of equipment mostly in the abandoned asylums and factories. It kind of makes you wonder why it was left behind. In one of my more recent explorations, there was actually a perfect early 90’s Nissan Pathfinder left to rot for some reason.

Have you had any run ins with the law or been chased off from some place?

I have had some run ins with the law. It is inevitable that it will happen when doing this kind of exploration as it is definitely trespassing any which way you want to cut it. As long as you’re honest and don’t give them a hard time, the authorities are actually pretty cool and let you go on your way. In rare cases, they’ll let you go about your business. Most of their concerns are about defacing the property and stealing from it. One of the biggest problems with urban exploration is the defacing of properties, people smashing windows and everything else in sight. That, and scrapers ripping whatever they can out of the place to make a dollar. I believe the police are more concerned about this rather than someone just documenting the place and exploring. There is always the risk of safety hazards and worries of lawsuits, which I am sure come into play as most of these places are in extremely rough shape.

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Have you met any new people through the exploring ?

I have met new explorers of all different backgrounds through Instagram and in-person on the road. I  get a lot of support and talk to fellow overlanders and explorers from here in New Jersey to all the way out on the west coast and Canada. All of them have given me open door invites if I’m ever in the area. It’s pretty awesome to receive that kind of support and positive feedback as I sort of figured my mix of off-road and urban exploration would be frowned upon. I have also met plenty of people in these buildings and the locals in the area. We all seem to look out for each other’s best interests and I have actually had the opportunity to explore and share experiences with many of them. In the end, we are all after the same thing no matter what kind of diverse background of exploring you come from. We are all adventure seekers, adrenaline junkies, and always looking for a constant journey.

Are there any places that you’d love to explore?

I would actually love to get more time behind the wheel on the unbeaten paths out west. Places like Moab, Hollister Hills, and the Rubicon are definitely big goals of mine. Plus, every forest and breath-taking sight in-between here and there. I have made enough contacts where I think it could actually become a real possibility, instead of just a dream someday. I have also made contacts in Canada, which would be an awesome adventure for both overlanding and urban exploring.

As far as urban exploring itself, I am constantly expanding my travel range to see more document even more. I would actually love to make it to Detroit and see all of the history that was left behind in the great Motor City. I have a lot of big things and explorations in the works, so be sure to follow along on Instagram and see yourself. I think it’s probably every urban explorers dream to see a place like Chernobyl. That’s a big dream and a little out of reach realistically anytime soon but, we’ll see what happens. I think that is the ultimate, the Super Bowl if you will, in urban playgrounds. However, I would settle to see the abandoned Six Flags park in New Orleans here on native soil. That’s probably be more within reach.

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What tools do you use to explore?

On my person at all times I always have a good LED flashlight. I always have protection on me as well, basically my knife. Let’s face it, the homeless don’t hurt you if you don’t bother them. What you have to watch out for are junkies and thieves so by any means you need to look out for and protect yourself. I keep basic hand tools close by, and I have just about anything you can imagine in the expedition rig that travels with me at all times. I forgot to mention earlier. The 4Runner is my only vehicle and daily driver. Many people actually ask if my photos are taken on a cell phone or camera. Honestly, I don’t even own a camera. Although I am thinking of picking one up. Everything so far are all cell phone pictures taken on a Samsung Galaxy S3. It’s also always a good safety measure to keep a respirator and first aid kit in your bag because asbestos is actually a real issue.

Any tips for new explorers?

I do spend a lot of time traveling alone in these places and that is a really dangerous thing. I don’t really recommend it. In fact, in some cases it is actually pretty careless. Lately, as everything has been expanding, I have had company on some of the bigger adventures. My advice would be that you should never travel alone, if just for the fact that if you got seriously injured you’d be in trouble. Like I said earlier, a lot of these places are in really poor shape and I would hate to hear of anyone getting seriously hurt after trying this and going out solo. Keep all the basic necessities on you and to travel with them at all times. Use your instincts and don’t do anything that is out of your physical capability or anything that you feel is completely dangerous. This is where you can get into serious trouble. Watch every step and always keep your guard up. However, in the same breath, remember to use your imagination and dig for the answers you’re looking for.

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The adventurous spirit you have , what drives you to look beyond what’s in front or you or to discover new things? Is there someone you relate to that was a mentor? 

That is the million dollar question. When I was actually a young kid, I remember playing with dinosaurs and being absolutely obsessed with archeologists and paleontologists. While I goofed off in school a little too much and went down a path that led me far from that dream, I have always had an obsession with it. I never pictured myself stuck in a car dealership day in and day out. While I love helping customers fix their cars, I always pictured myself traveling the world and seeing every beautiful thing this planet has to offer. I pictured myself leaving journals of my adventures for my children to read someday like a famous explorer.

That is what drives me on my days off, to get out and document everything I see. I love finding new places to explore within my range and reach, and still be able to make it to work when I need to be there. I like to learn more about the facts and the history of these places I explore and why they were left to rot. I find the history just as fascinating as walking around the buildings and exploring their interiors. I always try to keep an open mind to find different things all over the place. Some days I just pop in some good tunes and drive in one direction, only stopping when I see something that peaks my interest.

As far as having this same adventurous qualities to share with a relative or a mentor, I have to honestly say that’s a little extraordinary when compared to any them. If I had to pick a mentor it would definitely be my father. While we have had our differences in life, he taught me how to survive, how to fight for what you want, and reach for your goals and set them high. Without those skills, I wouldn’t be equipped to take on the big dreams and tasks like these. As far as everything else goes, I’ve had to figure it out on my own. I continually look inside myself to figure out what drives me and the reasons why.

Follow along with Dave Teti on more of his adventures via his Instagram.

Images © 2013 Dave Teti

Written by

Zach is Editor and Founder of MOTUS. He's also a foodie, off-road and backcountry adventure travel lover, and has coffee running through his veins 24/7.

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