Once upon a time the Explorers Club was one of the most prestigious organizations on the planet. Its past members included such eminences as Richard Peary, Thor Heyerdahl, Charles Lindbergh, Peter Freuchen, Tenzing Norgay, and Sir Edmund Hillary. But the Club has recently gone downhill to such a degree that actual exploration is no more a part of its agenda than, for instance, frisbee throwing.
The location of the Club’s headquarters — 46 East 70th Street on New York’s Upper East Side — offers a window on its nosedive. The Upper East Side is an upscale habitat where money is the lingua franca, and its denizens (who include many of the Club’s officers) speak it as their primary language. Certain Club members have been known to suggest that the Explorers Club should be renamed The Upper East Side Club. Attempts to relocate it to somewhere else have come to naught…for the same reason that you can’t relocate Wall Street.
In the last twenty or so years, the Club has revamped itself to attract the corporate sponsors who live around the metaphoric corner. To do this, its officers can’t say, “Hey, we’ve got a guy who’s searching for Thule Period Inuit sites on Jan Mayen Land.” The corporate types would blink their eyes uncomprehendingly. But those officers can say, “Here’s a guy who’s an aerospace biochemical engineer.” In fact, a Lowell Thomas Award was recently given to one such individual.
“Remote sensing” is a phrase that nowadays has considerable appeal to the Club’s technocratically-biased higher ups. As a prank, I sponsored a putative explorer named Albert Yetti, an Abominable Snowman expert who used remotesensing to find his subject so he wouldn’t have to leave his UpperEast Side abode. Albert Yetti would have been admitted to the Club if I hadn’t confessed that I created him.
I’ve been one of many members who hasn’t been eager to dance to the corporate drummer. A Club president — a fellow who put an anaerobic tent in his office and lived in it — did not appreciate our nay-saying and threatened to drag us, he said, “kicking and screaming into the 21st century.” To my mind, this is a lot like Henry Morton Stanley’s (of Stanley & Livingston fame) positive take on slaughtering his way across Africa to rescue Emin Pasha (who did not want to be rescued). “I opened it [Africa] to the civilizing influence of commercial enterprise,” Stanley said.
In 2017, I asked the Club whether I could give a presentation on my exploration of a remote part of Hudson Bay. “But you’re not an explorer,” I was told. This is true, if Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, both of whom have won major awards from the Club, are regarded as explorers. After all, I’ve made 40+ expeditions to the Arctic and Subarctic, but I’m not a technology entrepreneur. Indeed, I have no association whatsoever with either Tesla Motors or Amazon. I have explored a part of the Amazon, but doesn’t count…nor does the fact that I’ve been a Fellow of the Club since 1990.
“You’re not an explorer” was the proverbial final straw, and I let my membership in the Explorers Club lapse. In doing so, I was in good company, for Conrad Anker, Paul Theroux, etc, have also let their memberships lapse. I’m now planning to join the Whiskey Explorers Club, which I suspect is a much healthier organization.