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.

Gadling’s 13 stranger than strange sites for Friday the 13th

Happy Friday the 13th! Tributed to being an unlucky day thanks to wives tales, religion and mythology, this is a day when people might think about altering their travel plans. The thought is, why push your luck? Franklin D. Roosevelt was one such person. He never traveled on the 13th. He even died on April 12, 1945. That, my friends, was on a Thursday. That is kind of strange, no?

In honor of a day that’s associated with strangeness, here is Gadling’s list of 13 top stranger than strange sites from around the world. They are not in any order of strangeness. You decide which one ought to be number one. All of them are places we’ve either been to, written about or both.

Even though this is photo is of a Friday the 13th in February, it fits the theme.

1. Baked Bean Museum of Excellence, Port Talbot, Wales

Perhaps a museum dedicated entirely to baked beans is not that strange. (Oh, come on. Of course it is.) What’s more strange than the shelves of 200 items attributed to baked beans is the owner, Captain Beany. In a benevolent strange sort of way, he is baked bean colored–kind of. Plus, he wears a cape. If you go to the museum, you’ll get a certificate saying you were there.

2. Berkeley Pit, Butte, Montana

The Berkeley Pit is strange enough that it was once the subject of a Daily Show segment. This enormous body of toxic water–7,000 ft. long, 5,600 ft. wide and 1,600 ft. deep in Butte, Montana is a result of the town’s copper mining history. Now a tourist attraction as well as a Superfund site, a good look only costs $2. How toxic is the water, you wonder? How toxic does this sound? Back in 1995, a flock of snow geese migrating from Canada landed on the water and died. Scads of them, as in 342 or more.

3. Checkpoint Charlie and Maurmuseum, Berlin, Germany

Even though the Berlin Wall is no more, the museum that started out in a two-room apartment near “Checkpoint C,” the most famous gate in the wall that once stood between East and West Germany, is still there. Check Point Charlie is where foreigners and diplomats were allowed to cross between the two Berlins.

The private museum tells about the history of the Berlin Wall and what went on at the checkpoint. The strangeness comes from the idea that an Iron Curtain existed –and the feeling one gets while reading about the various stories of people’s escape attempts-some successful, and many not. I was there before the Berlin Wall came down. Some of those stories still give me the creeps.

4. Creation Museum, Petersburg, Kentucky.

Even though I’ve passed the billboard to this museum many a time, I haven’t gone here–yet. This museum is dedicated to the idea that the creation story as written in Genesis is word for word true. What about dinosaurs, you ask? Well, according to some of the museum’s exhibits, dinosaurs and people walked the earth at the same time. As strange as this museum may seem, it is no rinky dink establishment, but one of those museums with state of the art interactive displays.

5. Hall of Horns, Buckhorn Museum & Saloon, San Antonio, Texas

Although there are more than one oddball section of this attraction in San Antonio, Texas, one of them stands out as the strangest– the Hall of Horns at the Buckhorn Museum. Even though it’s been years since I bellied up to the bar in the saloon for a Lone Star beer here, I can’t get the images of walls filled with trophy mounts out of my head. There are 1,200 of them from 520 different species. This horn collecting started back in 1881 when the bar first opened. People could bring in antlers for a free shot. My favorite for strangeness in this museum isn’t a mounted trophy, though. It’s the chair made entirely out of horns that looks strangely comfortable.

6. Haunted Prison, Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania

Another gives-a-person -the creeps place is this 1880s prison camp. Set up as a penal settlement and a timber station in 1830, prisoners from Britain were shipped here. This historic site is made up of old houses, cell blocks and even an autopsy room that visitors can wander through. Although Mike attests to its super creepiness, he also pronounces it super cool.

7. The Heidelberg Project, Detroit, Michigan

“Brightly-painted doors, shopping carts, shoes, telephones, old signs, tires, scrap metal, and rusted appliances form a surreal landscape of discarded relics from people’s lives” create an alternative version of abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit. Conceptualized by Tyree Guyton and created by children and artists in the neighborhood, this outdoor art project is Katie’s version of strange. What’s also strange is that people who don’t like it have set the project on fire from time to time. What’s not strange is that whenever a section is burned, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, art is added to it to transform blight into beauty once more.

8. House on the Rock, Spring Green, Wisconsin

The House in the Rock is one of those sites that is almost beyond words. Scott does a fine job encapsulating in this Gadling post why this creation of Alex Jordan’s is one of the strangest places he’s been. As Scott explains it, every inch of this place is filled with something to gawk at and wonder about on a do-it-yourself kind of tour. From what Scott describes, it sounds like each area of the multi-faceted building is bursting with all things wild and wonderful. I’m wondering about that “car with a heart shaped spa tub, towing a pyramid filled with elephants.” Scott snapped a picture of it. Yep, it’s strange alright.

9. Longwan Shaman Amusement Park, Changchun city, China

This park may not be any stranger than any other amusement park except that it has the world’s largest penis. Don’t you think this is a strange centerpiece for an amusement park? According to what Willy found out, the structure celebrates the area’s shamanistic culture. I guess that’s as a good a reason as any to have a 30-ft phallus made out of steel and straw.

10. Mao Zedong’s Tomb, Beijing, China

At Tienanmen Square, inside a mausoleum situated so you can’t miss it, is a crystal coffin similar to what Sleeping Beauty had while she awaited her prince. Inside the coffin, looking totally unkissable, lies Chairman Mao Zedong. If a “pickled” former head of state available for public viewing isn’t stranger than strange, than what is? Along with Mao’s dead body that looks as if it’s shrunk over the years so that his head seems out of proportion to the rest of him–seriously, he doesn’t look right regardless of the fact that he’s dead–the timbre of the experience adds to the oddness. There’s no talking, no stopping, and no moving out of the single file. The scene is one where creepy organ music would be fitting. (I’ve seen Ho Chi Minh as well, but Mao looks stranger–and so was the experience.)

11. Museum of Broken Relationships, Croatia

This is not a museum you have to go to Croatia to see. Broken relationships may be coming to you. This traveling show, created in Croatia, was last seen at Singapore’s Fringe Festival. Featuring items from people who have suffered from a broken hearts, the collection is a mishmash of love letters and objects from relationships that turned into sad, sad, tales of loss. One of the strangest items on display is a leg prosthesis that was donated by a war veteran. He had the misfortune of falling in love with his physiotherapist.

12. Museum of Forensic Medicine, Bangkok, Thailand

Located in Siriraj Hospital, this museum gets high marks for pairing the ick factor with strangeness. What will you see if you go to this museum? “Elephantiasis testicles, severed heads, Cyclops babies, murder weapons, blood-stained clothing, hanged corpses” etc., etc, etc.

13. North Korea

If you haven’t read Gadling alumni Neil’s posts on his travels to North Korea, do. Neil’s whole trip was filled with strangeness. Because Neil is not that strange, I’m assuming that the strangeness came from the country. If you’re in doubt about this, please read Sean’s open letter to Dear Leader Leader, Kim Jong. In addition to having one of the strangest world leaders, North Korea has Traffic Girls. Armed with white anklets, whistles and batons, these women whom Neil found fetching direct Pyongyang’s few automobiles.

For more Friday the 13th lore check out this article in The Valdosta Daily Times. That’s where I found out about FDR.

The House On The Rock – a hidden gem in the Midwest

While on a tour of attractions in Wisconsin, one of the places that made my list was “The House On The Rock”.

The House On The Rock is the vision of architect Alex Jordan Jr. Apparently, Mr Jordan had a dream of creating a house for himself, nestled away in the Wyoming Valley in Wisconsin. As the house progressed, people started to visit his house, and while it was never intended to be a tourist attraction, so many people wanted to see the amazing architecture, that Jordan started asking for 50 cent donations.

Before I arrived at the House, I had tried to do some research, checking out their official website, and reading reviews. But nothing I found online prepared me for what I encountered when I arrived. The House On The Rock is an absolutely astounding place, and in my opinion an attraction everyone should visit at least once.

The tour begins in the recently constructed welcome center, which has bits of Frank Lloyd Wright inspiration. In it, you’ll find the ticket desk, a gift shop and a small cafeteria.
Even as we made our way to the first part of the tour, I hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect. As it turns out, part 1 is the house on the rock itself – the residence of Alex Jordan.

The house is insane – carpet on the walls (and ceiling), packed full with Japanese artifacts, art, robotic musical instruments, plants and peculiar heating elements hidden away which were apparently put there to prepare food.

There isn’t a corner in the cramped house left untouched – every single bit of wall has something decorating it.

The final room in the house is the “Infinity Room”. This is where you begin to realize that the house on the rock is something very, very special. The Infinity Room is 300 feet long, 220 feet of which hangs unsupported over the valley. The “room” has over 3000 windows, and once you get to the end, you can look down through a window in the floor. The view is quite simply spectacular.

After the Infinity Room, you are directed through other portions of the house, up over a deck on the roof, to the end of the first portion of the tour. It was a this point where I started chatting with one of the tour guides, who told me “I ain’t seen nothing yet”. Oh how right he was.

The inside of the bathrooms – as I said, every single corner of this place has something decorative.

The second portion of the tour led us through the “streets of yesterday”, a recreation of a 19th century street, complete with fire station, sheriffs office and stores. The amount of antique stuff in this portion is staggering, every single store and office is filled with priceless artifacts from the past.

The next room was the one that impressed me most – the Heritage of the Sea is jawdropping. Inside this massive building is a 200 feet tall whale, and the spiraling walkway takes you around a tour of 100’s of antique boat models.

Face to face with a 200 feet whale – between the size of the whale, and the height of the building, you can’t help feel amazed at the detail put into the exhibit.

On the ground floor of this exhibit is where you’ll find a massive automatronic orchestra playing Octopus’s Garden, and doing quite a good job of it too.

At every single turn there is another collection of something – most of it seemingly completely random, displaying things like a Christmas plate collection and Fabergé eggs.

One of those completely random exhibits – a car with a heart shaped spa tub, towing a pyramid filled with elephants.

One of the final portions of the tour takes you through “the music of yesterday”, featuring multiple rooms with music machines. As with most of the machines on the tour, you’ll need one or two tokens to activate the music. Token machines take $1 and $5 bills and are found at random points throughout the tour.

By now, I was mentally exhausted – there is only so much a person can take in on a single tour, and the amount of exhibits really was beginning to become too much. The final exhibit at the House of the Rock, is the largest carousel in the world. And my, what a massive carousel it is. With over 20,000 lights, 269 carousel animals and 182 chandeliers, this thing is so big, that you can’t really grasp its size. One word of warning though – the carousel is for viewing only, kids (or adults) can not ride it.

Despite the cold temperatures outside, the massive amount of lamps on the carousel made this room uncomfortably warm.

As with all other parts of the tour, every single corner of this attraction is decorated with something – the ceiling and walls all display carousel animals and ornaments and in the corner is a working carousel power plant.

Everything about the House on the Rock is impressive – from the sheer number of different collections, to the wacky and confusing design. One thing that I liked was the way the tour is setup – there are no tour guides, and very few signs telling you what you are looking at. The obvious purpose of all the exhibits is to just relax, and enjoy the sights and sounds instead of trying to cram 1
00’s of years of trivia into a few hours.

The tour I took included portions one and two of the exhibit, parts of portion three were closed, and won’t be open till the summer season begins.

The House on the Rock is located in Spring Green, WI. Spring Green is about 40 miles from Madison, WI and about 200 miles from Chicago. The region is also home to the famous “Cave of the mounds” and Frank Lloyd Wrights “Taliesin”.

Admission to the House on the Rock is $28.50, which includes access to all portions of the tour. Unused tour segments are valid for a year. Children under 3 are free. Opening hours are 9am-6pm during the summer season (May 1st – September 6th) and 9am-5pm during the autumn season (September 7th – November 1st).

If you plan to visit the House on the Rock, and need more than a day, you can spend the night at the House on the Rock resort or inn, each located a couple of miles from the attraction.