Article originally published on NewYorker.com
The eighty-eight-year-old explorer Barbara Hillary recently visited Outer Mongolia.
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?”