July 20, 2007 10:50 AM PDT

A trip into the depths of Las Vegas

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"Local taggers and even artists from across the country and the world come here," O'Brien says, "to leave their art."

Nearby, we see a marriage proposal spray painted on the wall. It reads, "Holly, will you marry me? Check yes or no."

It's not clear which box is checked, and sadly, my camera chose that moment to malfunction.

Meanwhile, what really interests O'Brien are the homeless people who live in the tunnels. O'Brien estimates that 300 people are living in small encampments throughout the tunnel system, and in the course of his research, he got to know many of them.

We didn't have the opportunity to visit any of them during my tour, but evidence was everywhere: here, an old set of pans; there, large heaps of garbage, including many old mattresses.

One might expect that it is dangerous in the tunnels, but I never felt that way. Perhaps that's because I was being led around by someone who has a lot of experience there.

O'Brien says he still gets jitters going into the tunnels, but it's nothing compared to when he and Ellis first began visiting.

"We just couldn't imagine what might be going on in these dark, deep places," he remembers. "But we were erring on the side of caution, so we brought knives and golf clubs and hard hats (for protection)."

He says, however, that he's only ever had a few minor confrontations with people in the tunnels, and nothing serious enough to require swinging the expandable baton he still brings with him.

"In retrospect, it was a bit of overkill, but we just didn't know what to expect."

If they had encountered problems, they would likely have been on their own. That's because, O'Brien explains, the local police pretty much ignore the tunnels, preferring not to have to venture in there themselves.

The same is true of the local politicians, as well as the casinos.

"When I would call the casinos," O'Brien says, for comments about the tunnels running under their properties, I wouldn't "get return calls. They don't want people to know that you can access the casinos that way."

It's true, too. At the end of the tunnel, we emerge in bright light coming from the garage of the Imperial Palace. O'Brien says he usually doesn't venture far in that direction because doing so triggers motion sensors, which brings security guards he doesn't want to deal with. But it's interesting to see how we were able to simply walk into this place.

Finally, we return to the tunnel entrance we started at. My shoes are soaked through, but we are safe, and I'm not sure I've ever been happier to come out from a cool climate into the blast furnace of a July day in Las Vegas. But the blue sky and civilization seem attractive right about now.

In the end, it's been a fascinating tour. O'Brien says there are many other tunnels he could have taken me to, but he usually takes friends and others to this one because of what it goes under, and what that inspired in his writing.

"It's where the most interesting stuff is," he says. "If you're walking underneath Caesar's Palace, it's going to spark some (social) commentary."

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