Inside The Urban Underground: Exploration Gets Personal

New Yorker Steve Duncan was so desperate to pass his college math class, he crawled through a tunnel to finish it. A computer assignment was due the next day and the software to finish was inside a building closed for the night. In a moment of desperation, Steve came up with a crazy plan: he could sneak inside. Having heard from a classmate about a collection of well-known tunnels connecting the university’s buildings, he resolved to convince the friend to guide him. After escorting Steve to the tunnel entrance, the friend offered vague directions, wished him luck and promptly left. As Steve recalls:

“He took off in the other direction and … here I was absolutely alone – it was terrifying and eye-opening, because every building on campus was connected by these tunnels. I passed the math class, but what always stuck with me was that first moment of being alone in the dark and being absolutely terrified but realizing that if I could face that, I had access to every part of the campus.”

Duncan had educational goals in mind when he entered the underground tunnels that night, but his experience kick-started an interest in an activity he continues to practice to this day: urban exploration.

Urban explorers seek to investigate the centuries of infrastructure created (and sometimes abandoned) by modern civilization: disused factories, historic bridges and unknown tunnels entered using legal, and sometimes illegal, means. The reason they do it is not as easily defined. Urban explorers come from a range of backgrounds, ranging from urban planners to historians to preservationists to architecture lovers, photographers and just plain old thrill-seekers all of whom are often lumped together under the banner of this general term. Just in New York alone, there’s the founders of the website Atlas Obscura, Nick Carr from Scouting New York and Kevin Walsh from Forgotten New York, along with countless others living around the world. These individuals, taken together, are less a community than a loose network of individuals united by a common love: re-discovering and investigating the forgotten and sometimes misunderstood detritus of modern day urban civilization

Yet the popularity of urban exploration confronts an interesting dilemma facing many 21st Century travelers: now that so much of what we seek to “discover” has been Google mapped, investigated and written about ad nauseum, how is our relationship with the concept of exploration evolving? And what does it tell us about the future of travel?


Steve Duncan – Urban Historian, Explorer and Geographer
It’s been over a decade since that math class first brought Steve Duncan underground, but he’s continued to evolve his approach to urban exploration from his home base of New York City. Styling himself as an “urban geographer” and historian, Duncan continues to direct his energies towards understanding the unseen layers of infrastructure that constitute our urban environment – namely the sewers, bridges and subway tunnels of the Big Apple.

In more recent years, Duncan has gained increasing attention for his adventures, including a week-long expedition through the sewers under NYC with Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge and a short documentary made by filmmaker Andrew Wonder that follows him as he visits New York’s off-limits subway stations and climbs to the top of the Queensboro Bridge.

But Duncan’s urban adventures aren’t undertaken merely for thrills – they’re a means to an intriguing end. In fact, Duncan cares less about being the first to rediscover forgotten places than taking a fresh look at the urban environments we inhabit. Despite the fact more than 50% of our world’s population now lives in cities, Duncan notes, much of today’s travel media continues to focus on outward-looking explorations of far-flung places perceived to be “exotic” – for instance, the wild jungles of Borneo or the ancient temples of Jordan. Steve believes his own adventures constitute an equally exotic form of adventure – a new inward-focused method of exploration.

As he notes, “I’m not interested in going to places nobody’s been before, [but rather] I’m interested in how we shape places.” This life-long history lover views exploration not as a means for public recognition but rather as a way to better understand his personal passion for the ever-changing nature of cities. Whether or not he can “claim the place” as his is irrelevant – he’s more interested in understanding. As he tells it, “All exploration to some extent is personal. It doesn’t matter if someone’s been there before. If it’s new to you, it’s still exploration.”

Taken together, Duncan’s adventures constitutes a kind of inward-driven “time travel” – a concept in which the worlds of history, the growth and decay of cities and adventure travel merge together to define a new opportunity all of us as travelers can take to re-examine the everyday world around us as a source of curiosity.

Dylan Thuras – Cartographer of Curiosities

Not all stories of urban exploration involve spending weeks in tunnels under New York City. For Dylan Thuras, co-founder of website Atlas Obscura, a mind-altering childhood trip to House on the Rock in Wisconsin defined his early travel memories. The strange house is part museum and part hall of curiosities, filled with bizarre collections of artwork, carousel rides and giant biological specimens. As Dylan recalls, “the fact that this could be tucked away in the woods in sleepy Wisconsin made me feel like there were these magical worlds all over the place … if I just knew how to look, I would start to find these fantastical places everywhere”

Ever since that moment, Thuras and his co-founder Joshua Foer of Atlas Obscura have dedicated their website to altering travelers’ perspectives of the places worth visiting on their itineraries. To date they’ve built a worldwide, user-driven database highlighting more sites on all seven continents. As an example of the sites Atlas uncovers, Thuras mentions two sites in Florence, Italy – whereas the Uffizi Gallery is probably on most travelers’ radar, Dylan and Joshua also want to help you discover La Specola, the museum of wax anatomical models that contains a specimen of astronomer Galileo’s middle finger.

As Dylan points out, if an attraction isn’t listed on the top ten list in a guidebook “… it is easy to slip into anonymity, obscurity and disappear. I want to give people a sense that there is so much more than those ten things and that they might find that they have a better time if they venture into new territory.”

The style of exploration advocated by Thuras seeks to shift the context of the worlds we already know. That’s a far cry from the conception many travelers have in their heads of an idealized explorer discovering uncharted lands. Says Thuras: “This isn’t [exploration] in the Victorian sense of climbing the tallest mountain, or finding the source of a river … but in the sense that every one of us can find new and astonishing things if we look for them … it doesn’t always have to be about far-flung adventures.”

Urban Exploration – What’s Next?

Duncan and Thuras may appear to occupy different ends of the urban exploration spectrum, but their motivation stems from a distinct similarity. After years of endless exploring, categorizing and searching, both have arrived at the realization that our mundane daily worlds can be unknown places of curiosity and wonder. The challenge of getting there then, isn’t in the physical act of getting there. Explorers like Duncan do face large risks of injury in their wanderings, but it’s not on the scale of Ernest Shackleton, Captain James Cook or Edmund Hilary.

The difference in these explorers’ adventures thus seems to be a mental reframing of what we conceive of as exploration. Their perception of what is worthy of our consideration and interest as travelers is gradually shifting from the physical towards the mental. In the relentless search for finding the most far-flung undiscovered locations on earth, all of us as travelers have neglected to look right in front of our faces at the places we inhabit everyday as worthy of discovery. Unlike Steve Duncan the journey might not require a crawl through a sewer to appreciate, but ultimately it can be just as rewarding.

Cruising the Northwest Passage

Global climate change has had an undeniable effect on the planet, with weather patterns changing dramatically, polar ice caps melting, and sea levels rising, altering coastlines and reshaping boundaries. For evidence of these changes you only need to look north, where global warming has caused arctic pack ice to break-up and melt, opening the legendary Northwest Passage for navigation for the first time.

For centuries explorers and merchants sought out a sailing route north of Canada that would link the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Such a route would have made travel to the far east much easier and faster, but all attempts to uncover such a path, which was dubbed the Northwest Passage, were met with thousands of miles of impenetrable ice. Famous adventures, such as John Cabot and Captain James Cook, risked their lives, and their ships, to find the Northwest Passage, but no one was able to complete the navigation until Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made the voyage back in 1908 aboard a specially designed ice vessel. Amundsen’s journey took three years however, and was not commercially viable for merchant ships.

Fast forward to last year, when the route was declared navigable by the Candian Coast Guard, and the first commercial ship made its way through the Passage. By late summer, the waterway was said to be nearly completely free from ice, and safe for ships to pass through, and it remained that way until the arrival of winter, when the route froze shut once again.The cruise industry has never been one to miss a business opportunity, and there have been a number of tour operators that have begun offering Northwest Passage cruises for 2009. Most begin in Nome or Anchorage, Alaska, but others can be found departing such places as Ottawa, Canada or even Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. The cruises vary in length from two to three weeks, which is a far cry from Amundsen’s three year voyage, and they remain on the expensive side now, with most staring around $10,000 and up.

A Northwest Passage cruise is a true adventure into mostly unknown waters, and a travel experience that few have had the opportunity to witness. But with increased traffic along the route, and plenty of ice to contend with, we can only hope that the ships don’t suffer an accident such as the ones that have occurred in Antarctica, where several ships have run aground, and another has sunk after striking an iceberg. However, those that do take a cruise through the Passage are booking a trip into history, as they pass through a realm that has been, until now, off limits to all but the hardiest polar explorers.

A grim outlook for Hawaii tourism

Just three months ago I provided a realistic view of Hawaii’s tourism, and I’m sorry to report that there is indeed trouble here in paradise, and the immediate outlook isn’t looking too rosy either.

According to recent local and national reports, Hawaii experienced a whopping 12.5% slump in visitors by sea and air for the month of January. I guess I should have come to this conclusion when, just this month, three of Honolulu’s beloved restaurants are shutting its doors for good. In Ward Center alone, only one restaurant of four on its usually happening second floor will be open come March. E&O, Compadres, and Brew Moon will be like ghost towns.

As an idealist, I’m hoping this is not a sign of the times, but it’s hard to be optimistic. And I was the one who proposed how 2009 could be the year of the YAYcation. Please don’t make me eat my words.

To complicate this already troubling matter, Hawaii is celebrating its 50th statehood anniversary, which among locals here is both bitter and sweet. Let’s not forget also that this month (on Valentine’s Day of all days) we celebrated the death of the man who “discovered” the islands, Captain Cook, who miraculously avoided death sailing around other parts of Polynesia, but didn’t make it out alive when confronted with the native Hawaiians.

As much as I would hate to see Hawaii resort to such a thing, the state is considering a move to turn the islands (or maybe just one) into the new Vegas and allow gambling. While this could certainly boost the state’s tourism and economy, it’s certainly no guarantee (just look at the reports from Nevada about the ghost town that Las Vegas is becoming). Yet, in that same Forbes report, Honolulu tops the list of high demand for living. I guess that doesn’t translate into high demand (or affordability) for traveling to Hawaii.

Somebody, please remind me to shoot myself if or when the “Golden Nugget” begins construction on Kalakaua Ave.