Have you heard of the famed Explorer’s Club? It’s an almost mythological temple, footnoted in hundreds of National Geographic articles. The sort of place where real-life Indiana Joneses and Lara Crofts sample rare Mongolian cheeses while discussing the best boots to wear in the Arctic or proper croc-wrestling techniques. For a Portland kid with dreams of grand adventure, it’s the Holy Land.
The way it’s told, Explorer’s Club invites are nearly impossible to score. You have to cross the Australian outback with no food or navigate the Mekong River in a traditional canoe or discover a pirate graveyard in Madagascar. But I’ve done all those things and still, no word! Then, last week, the call finally came: I was invited to go to a preview of the yearly Explorer’s Club Dinner.Not because of my merits as an adventurer, but because in 2017 even the Explorer’s Club has a PR firm.
Still, it felt like a big break — my “It’s all happening!” moment. There would be Yak meatballs! Pemmican! Rich-grained leather chairs! And then the dream was shattered. The flight was $700, the notice was short, the hotel was not covered. I crunched numbers, I searched the deepest crevasses of Skiplagged.com, but to no avail.
So what happens to a dream deferred? A humble editor offers his tickets to two writers — Zach Johnston and Kaitlyn Wylde — and hopes upon hope that they’ll savor the experience while he eats mac and cheese at home.
Zach: I’d been dreaming about walking the iconic halls of the Explorer’s Club since I started leafing through the sepia soaked pages of my grandfather’s old National Geographics. Who turns down the chance to see the flag that Roy Chapman Andrews took with him to Mongolia when he discovered the first dinosaur egg? A fool, that’s who! And I’m obviously no fool — which is why I hopped on a plane from Berlin to NYC for literally one day.
What sealed the deal was the food presentation. Exotic game chef Gene Rurka was serving pemmican — a dried animal protein (usually venison or bison) that’s pulverized with dried berries and then re-rendered with the animal fat to make a nutrient rich super food. One ounce of the stuff has 255 calories. Now I had a chance to finally try it. I had to go.
Kaitlyn: I’ve heard so much about the exclusivity of the Explorer’s Club, that I built it up in my mind as some safari-themed monastery. I envisioned a bunch of men wearing cargo utility pants, cross legged in leather chairs, smoking pipes while passing around moon stones and mammoth hides — laughing about the fact that everyone else who lives in New York can barely operate a microwave.
Nonetheless, I was excited to get a chance to post an Instagram from the inside, er, I mean, learn about the planet and the heroic explorers who have brought forth invaluable information.
Zach: I arrived at an old manor house, sitting just off Park Avenue, reminiscent of an era long gone. It was everything I expected. The huge iron and glass doors led into a dark wooden hall. Inside, the Explorer’s Club is one of those places where everything has meaning. The windows are from Westminster Abbey, the sleds hanging on the walls are from the first arctic and antarctic explorations, and so on. It was the Hogwarts of scientific discovery.
Kaitlyn: My efforts to dress safari chic went unnoticed, the first explorer I met had a rat tail braid that reached his hip — no one cared what I was wearing.
6:15pm, Welcome Tour
Zach: Upstairs, we got the behind-the-scenes tour of the galleries. Examples of taxidermy dating back to Teddy Roosevelt’s own trophies from Africa are on display. The walls are covered in photos of explorers and scientists, the Moon Landing, the first explorations of the poles… The lust for knowledge wasintense.
Kaitlyn: As I plodded up the stairs, winded and dizzy from my five minute walk from the subway, I realized that my clumsiness could really cost me — the stairwell walls were covered in massive, majestic, obviously expensive paintings and I was terrified of knocking one down.
Soon, the tour brought us to the highly controversial trophy room — basically it’s a giant living room that’s littered with taxidermy. I was sure to Instagram all my new dead friends because controversy usually brings in the likes. But for the record, the club stopped collecting these specimens in the 70s — they don’t support hunting and only keep the “trophies” around for educational purposes.
Kaitlyn: The crowd was small, but intentional. I could tell that everyone there knew a bit about exploration. They knew about the significance of the flags on the walls, and could recognize the important faces that were framed in giant portraits over the many fireplaces. For this reason, I made sure the bar was not my first point of interest. I poked around the room, looking for my reflection in the glass, pretending to understand what I was looking at. Finally, I found a glass surface large enough to get a full-body reflection shot.
Zach: I chatted with a man about to set out on his third arctic expedition. This time he was flying his team of 18 huskies into northern Russia and taking the journey over the ice to the North Pole. A few minutes later, I wandered into another room and was shown the flag that Buzz Aldrin carried in his space suit to the moon and back on the Apollo 11. And then there were more flags: James Cameron’s Mariana Trench flag, which is also is the flag the Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay took to the top of Everest — making it the only flag that’s been to the world’s highest and lowest points.
Zach: I spent a fair amount of time talking to Chef Rurka — a solid 15 minutes discussing the ins and outs of pemmican and how to make it with modern appliances. I finally got to taste this almost extinct dish for the first time. It was ashy, fatty, with a hint of game tang plus some sweetness from the berries. There was something familiar to it — transporting me straight back to the woods, sitting by a warm campfire as it sends sparks into the dark night sky.
Kaitlyn: Despite the fact that I’m a vegetarian, I ate yak meatballs because “When at an Arctic-themed tasting party…” and “A woman cannot survive on cheese cubes alone!” More interesting than the food was Chef Rurka, who looked EXACTLY like the dad on The Wild Thornberrys. I considered asking for an autograph just in case.
Instead, I went to the bar and got a class of red wine because I’m #classy.
7:25pm, Tech Talk
Zach: Next I partook in the VR Everest experience and climbed icy, rickety ladders over crevasses and up sheer cliffs. And now I don’t need to spend the $50,000 to do it in real life. Thanks technology!
Kaitlyn: Overwhelmed by the gadgets, I headed to the bathroom hoping for an interesting painting or stuffed carcass to stand next to, so that I could get that selfie. Alas, the famed Explorer’s Club bathroom was just a bathroom. I had to actually do some creative angling to avoid a plunger getting in the shot. Not thrilled with the results, but what can you do when you’re in a single stall bathroom and there’s a line of full-bladdered adults waiting?
7:50, Spaced Out
Zach: Lastly, I even got a demo from the only second generation American astronaut, Richard Garriott, on how exactly space suits work. It’s amazingly simple — rubber suit on the inside and cloth on the outside, all held together with rubber bands and zippers. It’s the ultimate example of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Kaitlyn: I joined Zach to listen to an astronaut talk about his expedition but got distracted by his jewelry and rat tail braid and missed some key facts like: why he was in space and how he got there and how many years it took to grow the rat tail braid and how do you poop in space?
Kaitlyn: Before leaving, we got to hear from a few members who thoroughly made me feel like garbage about my sense of adventure and worldly curiosity. If I have dinner in a new neighborhood of Brooklyn I fancy myself a globetrotter. Heading toward the exit, I make a note (literally in my notepad app) to put more energy towards discovery and uncovering what’s new, even if it’s just new to me.
Zach: Totally worth it. Now I just have to discover something that adds to the scientific zeitgeist, so I can close the circle and become a member myself.
Kaitlyn: As I stepped out of the club, I paused to ponder my legacy. The members of the Explorers Club will leave behind discoveries of the past that will forever shape the future. I wondered what I would leave behind. A Yelp review that saved someone from bad sushi? A ton of holes in walls from gallery attempts? …Oh, my bag. I left my bag behind. Literally. At the Explorers Club. I ran back to get it.