By Zach d’Arbeloff
It was my first time in Manhattan. Hard to believe, growing up a scant 4 hours away in Boston, that I’d never made it to NYC’s most famous borough. I’ve never been a city person, but a high-society black tie gala was a fun opportunity and a good excuse to see America’s most famous city. As most of what I know about New York was gained from Gossip Girl and How I Met Your Mother, this seemed appropriate.
(Quick sidenote on Central Park: To say that I was impressed would be an understatement. A conservation area of Central Park’s size in one of the country’s biggest cities is a monumental accomplishment. That Central Park has remained relatively unchanged for over a hundred and fifty years, amidst the massive expansion perpetually surrounding it, is one of mankind’s greatest feats of conservation. It is easy to protect the grandiose natural monuments, but much harder to preserve what is essentially every New Yorker’s back yard. There is nothing particularly sublime or impressive about Central Park other than that it sits in the middle of a massive City, and the fact that encroachment into the area has been staved off permanently is perhaps proof that mankind is capable of caring enough to preserve the natural world.)
This was the 111th Explorer’s Club Annual Dinner, and the first to be held at the American Museum of Natural History. Previously it was held at the Waldorf Astoria, some kind of renowned New York hotel that was also renowned for being too small. Our hotel, the Excelsior, was directly across from the impressive, glass-enclosed Hayden Planetarium, and I was blown away by the sheer size of the Museum. It took up two whole city blocks, meshing together architectural styles from all 146 years of its existence. The famous façade of the museum, complete with a resplendent Teddy Roosevelt statue out front, is its most famous face. But on the 77thth Street side sits a brilliant old Victorian section, and the wondrously modern architecture of Hayden and the space exhibits facing 81st was not to be ignored either.
The cocktail hour was first up and promised to be a night of adventurous eating. Hors d’ouervs included a baby cricket orzo salad (made with organic, farm-raised crickets, no joke), bacon wrapped grasshopper, deep fried tarantula, cricket kabobs, worm quesadilla, fried scorpion (the only one I didn’t get to try), and then “normal” foods like spinach-potato gnocchi and hoisin duck. Held in the Teddy Roosevelt Rotunda, the main entrance of the museum, I felt like the real building really put Night at the Museum to shame. Plus, an open bar filled with top-shelf liquor was a great surprise (although the only beer they served is Dos Equis – because the Explorer’s Club tries a little too hard to embody the “most interesting man in the world”).
By 7:30, the bars in the rotunda closed and we were ushered down into the Aquatic Mammals room, where an actual-size blue whale dove towards the floor as if it had just surfaced for air. Around 100 round tables were set up, illuminated by votives and covering every inch of available floor.
Dinner was delicious yet unremarkable, a salad, some filet mignon, endless wine, and a weird kiwi fruitcake for dessert. The highlight of the dinner portion, undoubtedly, was the speeches that followed. We heard from an Explorer’s Club member who completed a sub-orbital jump, and another who is planning an expedition to search for Shackleton’s lost shipwrecks in the Antarctic. The Explorer’s Club has come to represent a group of people who push themselves to the extreme – for the extreme seems to be all we have left. Gone are the days when tremendous courage was summoned to go where history hadn’t before. Today, that courage is applied to surpassing the feats that define the limits of mankind itself. The highest suborbital jump, a record desert crossing, challenging the highest peaks in unique ways, this is the new definition of an “Explorer.”
Despite their impressive feats, their speaking was outdone by the keynote address at the dinner, delivered by the head of the American Museum of Natural History’s own Hayden Planetarium, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Thanks to the success of Cosmos, Tyson has become a household name. However, as a 14-year old boy, Tyson was supported by a Explorer’s Club youth research grant which helped foster his love of astronomy and further his evolution into our generation’s most famous astrophysicist. That he perhaps did not fit the typical definition of an Explorer was not missed by Tyson himself.
“I am a scientist,” said Tyson, “and I see Explore people jumping out of perfectly good balloons, I see people ascending mountains, and I’ve never done any of that. So I had to ask myself, how did I end up getting the Explorer’s medal?”
It was a fair question. After all, the great men who founded the Explorer’s Club, men like Ernest Shackleton and Teddy Roosevelt, laid groundwork for fellow explorers like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first men on the moon, and Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to the top of the world (women sadly weren’t admitted until 1981 – but let’s not open that can of worms). Today’s explorers are only “first” in incredibly quantified ways – like the “first American woman” to climb K2 or the first “person to ski self-supported” to the South Pole.
Neil continued: “Perhaps what matters here is not only that people explore, but at the end of the day there are people who learn why it’s something they should do.”
Tyson was the perfect speaker for such an event, an event that celebrated exploration but whose crowd was largely upper-class white amateurs. It is fitting that, in the first year in the new venue, a venue that happens to be Tyson’s place of work, the speaker was not an Explorer who had climbed mountains or crossed seas, but rather had found his exploration somewhere much more theoretical and out of reach: space.
He left us with what he described as his “second favorite quote of all time,” from author and aviation pioneer Antoine de Saint-Exupery (of Le Petit Prince):
“When you build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks and work. Instead, teach them to long for the open sea.”
In the modern age of exploration, the obvious goals have been accomplished. The purpose of the Explorer’s club has changed. What is important, today, is to continue to foster a culture of exploration and a love of the unknown. An Explorer has an inquisitive mind and a thirst for knowledge. That will never change, and explorers will continue to lead the way, as long as the spirit stays alive.