The last time I heard from Barbara Hillary, she had just got back to Arverne, Queens, from Longyearbyen, Norway. This was in 2007; she was seventy-five, and I was twenty-seven. I don’t remember how we initially got in touch, and neither does Hillary. My very strong suspicion is that she called me up and launched into some long, entertaining explanation of how she was about to become the first African-American woman to travel to the North Pole. A month before she was due to leave, I went to see Hillary at her gym in Rockaway Park. There she was, pumping iron, slogging away on the treadmill, and fretting about how she was going to raise the remaining nine thousand dollars that she needed to make the trip, which would require eight to ten hours a day of cross-country skiing. This was before Kickstarter and GoFundMe. Hillary was sending letters around cold, without much success. “Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg referred me to the Department for the Aging, which sent a form letter of things I could do in the senior center,” she told me. “Mister, don’t you get it? If I’m going to the North Pole, why the hell do I need a senior center?”
Hillary was going. That much was clear. In March, 2007, I wrote a Talk of the Town story about her, and New Yorker readers responded enthusiastically, making contributions to the project (someone even sent a lucky two-dollar bill) and tracking its status. Hillary reached the top of the world a little more than a month later, on April 23rd. “I have never experienced such sheer joy and excitement,” she said in a second story I wrote, that May. “I was screaming, jumping up and down, for the first few minutes.”
After a twelve-year absence, Hillary popped up in my in-box earlier this year. Christina Hodson—a screenwriter and producer in Los Angeles, who got to know Hillary through a friend—was writing on her behalf, to let me know that Hillary was planning a trip to Outer Mongolia. Hodson is hoping to make a documentary about Hillary’s life. (I would watch that!) She ran through the itinerary: Hillary would meet a group of nomads whose way of life is being threatened by the desertification of their steppes, spend a day with Kazakh rug makers, give a talk at a village school. “She will also visit a few of the region’s eagle huntresses to learn firsthand how women have begun to break into the traditionally all-male custom,” Hodson wrote in her e-mail. Then she was heading north to see a reindeer.
Barbara Hillary, in Mongolia.
Photograph by Zachary Murray / Big Mongolia Travel
Hillary and I got on the phone a few weeks after her return. She has a great voice: Harlem accent, perfect diction. Talking to her took me back to what seemed like a very different time: when New York was my North Pole, a place of bracing discovery; when Hillary was still living in her old house on Beach Sixty-eighth Street, which was gutted by Hurricane Sandy; when you did something amazing, took a picture, and just put it in a box. Hillary had been awarded two honorary degrees since we’d last spoken. She’d gone to the South Pole, too. “Montana—I went there with two friends of mine,” she told me. “We call ourselves ‘By Invitation Only’—we don’t want to hear about your miserable marriage, your boyfriend. You wanna talk about polar bears and the state of the world? You’re in,” she said. I asked what she thought of the state of the world. “It sucks,” she replied. “I think we’re hellbent on blowing ourselves up into hydrogen particles.”
Gallagher, a global-insurance company, sponsored the Mongolia trip. Hillary said that it had been interesting but draining. “About four weeks ago, I was so sick the doctors thought I was going to die,” she said. “My heart was accumulating fluid in the heart valve. I was sick while I was in Mongolia, but I kept going because there was a lot of money that had been spent, and I had an obligation, so as long as I could stand.” She’d flown from New York to Moscow, Moscow to Mongolia. “In Moscow, the gentleman who was handling my luggage was very nasty—he was throwing my luggage around, so I had to tell him off,” she recalled. “The whole airport came to a screeching halt. Apparently, they’re not accustomed to that. You could hear a flea urinate on cotton, that’s how quiet it got.” Upon landing at the Bayan-Ölgii airport, in western Mongolia, Hillary had been amused to find that there were no elevators or escalators. She asked how they got bags downstairs and someone said, “We carry them. Do you want us to carry you?” “Hell no!” Hillary answered.
She was annoyed by the arrogance of some of her fellow-Americans, and impressed by the politeness of Mongolian kids. “They were like the children I knew when I was growing up,” she said. She recalled, “I had the honor of some ritual in which the oldest person in the family cuts sheep intestines off the ankle of a child when they reach their first birthday. So I was saying, ‘Oh, shit, I hope this damn thing doesn’t bite!’ ” Hillary has never married or had children. One woman she met had received a medal from the government for giving birth nine times. “That still staggers my imagination,” Hillary said.
She turned eighty-eight on June 12th. She did what she usually does, which is to give gifts to the people who have been nice to her all year: her mechanic, who changes the oil the way she wants him to; her butcher, who gives her the best cut of meat. In the past few months, her health has not been good. She has been in and out of the hospital, and says that she’s “skin and bones.” But she is already dreaming about her next trip. “I’ve discovered a place, but it’s in Russia, and I have to figure out how to get permission from the Russian government to go there,” she said. She continued, “You see, dreams, even if they don’t come true, are important. Isn’t it great to maintain a dream or a memory? I can close my eyes and still see the wonderful mountains in Antarctica—contrary to public opinion, it is mountainous in places, and they’re blue-gray, and there’s the joy of silence.” I asked if she thought the Russia trip would happen. “I don’t know,” she said. “But I find that it’s like looking at a great dessert in the window of a store and saying, ‘I’m going to have that.’ And if I don’t? Look at all the people who have unbelievably boring lives, look at all the women who have been programmed like glorified maids.” She waited a few seconds and added, “Am I a hopeless dreamer, or was I born at the wrong time?”