First African American Woman Travels to North Pole...She's 88

An EcoChi Vital Abstract

This article was posted on July 26, 2019 by Lauren Collins, The New Yorker.

The last time I heard from Barbara Hillary was in 2007; she was 75, and I was 27. I don’t remember how we initially got in touch. My strong suspicion is that she called me up with a 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, pumping iron and fretting about how to raise $9,000 still needed to make the trip, which requires 8-10 hours a day of cross-country skiing. Hillary was sending letters around cold. “Mayor Bloomberg referred me to the Department for the Aging, which sent 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?” In 2007, I wrote a story about her, and New Yorkers responded by making donations. Hillary reached the top of the world a month later. “I have never experienced such sheer joy and excitement,” she said. Twelve years later, Christina Hodson, LA screenwriter and producer, wrote to tell me Hillary was going to Outer Mongolia. Hodson wants to make a documentary about Hillary. Hillary and I talked a few weeks after her return. “Montana—I went there with two friends,” she told me. “We call ourselves ‘By Invitation Only’—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. Gallagher, a global-insurance company, sponsored the Mongolia trip. Hillary said, “I was sick, but I kept going because I had an obligation, so as long as I could stand.” 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. Recently, she’s had health struggles, but is already dreaming about her next trip. “I’ve discovered a place in Russia, but I have to figure out how to get permission from the Russian government to go there,” she said. “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, 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 and added, “Am I a hopeless dreamer, or was I born at the wrong time?”

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