Inside the Explorers Club

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As a kid (and teen…and adult…), I dreamed of one day being a member of the Explorers Club. I mean, it only seemed natural they would want me. I’d done a pretty good job of exploring the hundred acres of undeveloped woods and caves comprising my grandfather’s property back in the day. Even still, with knowledge of the internal strife and mismanagement that has caused the glory to fade a bit, I still harbor images of reading accounts of the expedition of the Beagle whilst seated in an overstuffed leather chair surrounded by the artifacts of past adventures, occasionally interrupted by a mustachioed, pipe-smoking blowhard known only as “The Colonel” who will not shut up about the Yanomami. This summer, I got about as close as I’ll probably ever get to membership in the storied Club when I got to take a tour of their headquarters at 46 E 70th St. And while there was no The Colonel, and while crested blazers have given way to polo shirts, there was still a wonderfully cluttered array of random artifacts from past expeditions, many of them just sitting there — some of them still in common use — despite their historical provenance.

Formed, as the name suggests, as a club for explorers and in celebration of famous first expeditions, the Explorers Club had its first meeting on October 25, 1905, then at 23 West 67th Street. It later occupied the Engineering Societies Building, 29 West 39th Street (better known to the clever as Nikola Tesla Corner), then 345 Amsterdam Avenue and then, in January of 1922, 47 West 76th Street, where it remains still. The core founding members included men (and only men; despite the staggering number of intrepid female explorers in the Victorian, Edwardian, and post-war periods, women were not admitted to the club until 1981) like Adolphus Greely, Donaldson Smith, Henry Collins Walsh, Carl Lumholtz, Marshall Saville, Frederick Dellenbaugh, and David Brainard. For most of them, the focus of their explorations were the Poles, though the Club quickly expanded. Explorer Club flags are given out to members undertaking important first expeditions. They have been to the moon with Buzz Aldrin and to the bottom of the ocean with James Cameron. In the 2000s, internal strife reported on by magazines like Outside resulted in fragmentation and squabbles over leadership, leaving the future of the Club in doubt and resulting in the deterioration somewhat of the headquarters. The Club has recovered since then, though the historic interior of the headquarters is still showing its age. It’s not the building, though, that I wanted so much to see; it’s all the stuff inside it.

Stuff like a desk and chair that once belonged to Wanrong, wife of Pu Yi and the last empress of China, and the desk at which she sat while her country and husband disintegrated around her. And sledges that made the trip to the North Pole and South Pole. The signature bullwhip that belonged to the man who inspired the character Indiana Jones remains one of my heroes, Roy Chapman Andrews. The globe next to which stood another hero of mine, Thor Heyerdahl, when he pitched the Kon Tiki expedition to his fellow Explorers Club members. Most of these artifacts are casually strewn about the place. If you want to sit in Wanrong’s chair, well, that’s what a chair is for. Her chair and desk are there in the receiving room, still being used as a chair and a desk. Roy’s whip is just out on a table, though it’s a bit brittle these days and perhaps ill-suited for cracking. The topmost room is filled with trophies — uncomfortable for many no doubt (myself included; I loathe trophy hunting, but I get that it was another time), though the Club is quick to mention that it has not accepted taxidermy, tusks, or any artifact taken from a hunted living creature in a long time — and other amazing artifacts.

Gifts from the Dalai Lama. A voodoo drum that it is said will curse those who play it without possessing a proper witch doctor’s credentials (naturally, I played it — I’ll let you know how it works out f…aaarrrgghhhhh!). A penis harvested from a dead whale, and the horn of from a narwhal. Tusks from a wooly mammoth. Totem poles, a chair from Westminster Abbey, roofing from a German monastery, an ornate fireplace that is actually only there because the building’s previous owner considered it too damn heavy to take with him, and and piles of paraphernalia from past glories. Oh yes, there will be pith helmets. And of course it has its own bar, though it’s not currently stocked with selections from Johnnie Walker’s Explorers Club collection (a name that led to the Club suing Johnnie Walker parent company Diageo; a settlement was reached, allowing Johnnie to keep the name and probably giving the Club a much needed infusion of cash). There’s even a yeti’s scalp (unverified), though no sign of the yeti hand Jimmy Stewart smuggled out of Tibet in 1959.

The Club is a breathtaking celebration of human exploration and research. True, some of it represents sentiments and attitudes that are out of fashion (rightly so), but for me, these pale in comparison to the testament of a time when humans frequently launched themselves into the unknown — for science, for thrills, for fortune and glory, for the hell of it. Just to see what’s out there. And while I might not be any closer to becoming a member (they don’t seem impressed with my credentials of “I have walked a lot of Manhattan. Like, a lot. Also, I grew up on a farm”), it was inspiring to stroll through the old building, take in the artifacts, peruse the extensive library, and spend a ridiculous amount of time posing with Roy chapman Andrews’ bullwhip. I went home, poured myself a Japanese single malt whiskey, put some Les Baxter on the hi-fi, and immediately set about planning my next expedition. I’m not sure “visited every whiskey distillery in Ireland and a good many faeiry forts” is still enough to get me into the club, but somehow, I suppose I shall survive.