Story 2: Interview with Hilary Oliver

By Hilary Oliver
Being Here by Hilary Oliver, Photographer: Ashlee Langholm
Photographer: Ashlee Langholm

Renowned in the travel world for her perspective on solo travel, we had the pleasure of interviewing Hilary Oliver. Her film, Being Here, is about how sometimes it takes a trip to wild place to remember just how brave, connected, vulnerable and free we can be.

Being Here by Hilary Oliver, Photographer: Ashlee Langholm
Photographer: Ashlee Langholm

Swell Travel (ST): Congratulations on the People’s Choice award at the 5Point Festival! There is a meditative quality to your film – Being Here. Was that an intended effect for your audience?

Hilary Oliver (HO): Definitely. Spending time alone in the outdoors—like living out of a van in Utah for a while—I began to see those landscapes almost as personified. They were sheltering, in a way. Because other trappings of modern life are stripped away, I’m forced to confront my true self. And I’ve also felt super comforted in the wild—I think it’s why most of us feel the urge to go back out there over and over. Something out there has said to me, It’s going to be OK. With Being Here, I really just wanted to communicate that feeling.

Being Here by Hilary Oliver, Photographer: Ashlee Langholz
Photographer: Ashlee Langholz

ST: Where are the locations for your short film? And do you go there often or is this new territory?

HO: The film was shot in southern Utah, in the Moab area. I do go there often. It’s not a very long drive from my home in Denver, for which I’m very grateful. I’ve spent countless weeks, probably months, there. For me—and I think a lot of people—it feels very timeless, and helps give context to the rest of life.

Being Here by Hilary Oliver, Photographer: Ashlee Langholm
Photographer: Ashlee Langholm

ST: How many days did shooting take?

HO: Hmmm….altogether probably eight days or so.

Being Here by Hilary Oliver, Photographer: Ashlee Langholm
Photographer: Ashlee Langholm

ST: What about post production?

HO: Post production took a lot longer. It got a slow start. My sister, who edited it, was living in Australia when we began the project. So having meetings about it required Google Hangouts and figuring out the time difference and sneaking in calls before and after her other job. Eventually she was able to spend a few days with me Denver, and we just holed up in my apartment to iron out what became the final cut.

Being Here by Hilary Oliver, Photographer: Ashlee Langholm
Photographer: Ashlee Langholm

ST:  What is one thing you would like your audience to take away from this film?

HO: A sense of belonging. Belonging out there, and belonging among ourselves as lovers of the outdoors. My dream is that people see it and feel understood—and reminded of the beautiful, powerful feelings they have in their most vulnerable, intimate times in nature.

Being Here by Hilary Oliver, Photographer: Becca Skinner
Photographer: Becca Skinner

Hilary also spent time in Antarctica(!) working in a very usual job.  We wanted to know more.

ST: Can you tell us about your experience in Antarctica?

HO: Ha! Sure. I worked as a janitor at McMurdo Station, which during the summertime can be a pretty bustling little town. I was a recent college grad at the time, doing a little freelance writing and working retail. I met someone who had worked washing dishes in the galley at McMurdo, and he said he thought I would love it. I went to a job fair, and got the job—which came with a plane ticket to McMurdo via New Zealand. I was utterly fascinated by Antarctica in general—the landscape, conditions, the science—but I was also really into the idea of a free ticket to New Zealand. I was barely making any money at the time, barely making my student loan payments, and that seemed like an unbeatable deal. So I did it partly because I was curious and interested in Antarctica, partly because I was ready for a change in my life and partly because I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to afford to travel on my own otherwise.

ST: What was the summer like?  Would you do it again?

HO: Summer was busy. It was pretty cold when I got there … maybe around -30F. And the sun was still dipping below the horizon a bit at night. By the middle of summer, the sun just circled around overhead—so bright all the time, it was exhausting—and it warmed up even to the 30’s, if I remember right. I remember walking around in just a sweatshirt a few times when it wasn’t windy. During the height of summer, lots of people come to McMurdo to help offload the cargo ship that supplies the station for the year, and lots of people are coming in and out of the station for research. It feels a bit like a really bustling little mining town with construction vehicles or fork lifts beeping all over the place. At the beginning and end of the season it’s much quieter.

ST: Any unusual facts or tidbits about Antarctica?

HO: There used to be a little indoor bouldering cave that some folks (who I actually met later on in Seattle, randomly) built in an old building. I’ve heard it’s been torn down since then. That was the first time I ever really climbed. Also, there’s a little greenhouse that grows everything hydroponically. If weather is bad, sometimes it can be weeks between deliveries of fresh food. So it’s really nice to have a little bit of lettuce or peppers and things grown there to help bridge the gap. Avocados were like currency—I assume they must have been pilfered from the galley storage, and they were super valuable for bartering.

Being Here by Hilary Oliver, Photographer: Becca Skinner
Photographer: Becca Skinner

ST: This is almost a year ago – but I love your commentary on #liveauthentic. What are your thoughts about the reaction and following of #liveauthentic (remember SocalityBarbie)?

HO: In all honesty, I haven’t really paid attention to the hashtag since researching for the blog post I wrote about it. I do look at a few hashtags regularly, but that’s not one of them. I do still feel like we’re all trying to do two things that are, frustratingly, opposite: be a unique individual (and express that to the world), and also fit in. We all want to feel like we belong to something—and that’s part of what hashtags are about. In the strictest sense of the word, you could argue that whatever it is you’re photographing loses all actual authenticity once it’s on Instagram—or the moment you thought of Instagramming it. Basically, if we’re motivated by social sharing, is that really authentic at all? To me, what it comes down to is this: A little bit of self awareness. It’s pretty tough to differentiate yourself in a world overflowing with media. Does it really matter if all our photos kind of look the same? Ideally, I think we’d all be striving for an original eye—a fresh experience, a considered shot.  Living your own experience, instead of someone else’s, or what you think would look good on Instagram. But really, it’s in all our consciences now. It’s part of how we think. So it just takes a little more work to ask yourself, why am I posting this? Why do I like that photo? What am I trying to say with my media?

ST: What is authenticity to you?

HO: I think authenticity is basically just that: self examination, thinking for yourself a little. It takes work. It’s really easy to get into a pattern of doing what everyone else does. I do it all the time. Trends are totally OK in my opinion. But I really, really respect people who have enough distance from social media or media in general and therefore construct their own style of being. That’s what I strive for. But it’s certainly a challenge—at least for someone whose work revolves around social media to some extent. We’re all very plugged in all the time, and it’s a constant challenge for me to power off more often.

Being Here by Hilary Oliver, Photographer: Becca Skinner
Photographer: Becca Skinner

ST: Lastly, what drives you to continue to travel, adventure and experience the world?

HO: I think a desire to understand what’s out there. When I was a kid, I thought I hated cities—that I’d only ever want to live in the mountains. I’m always amazed at the sheer existence of so many different places and ways in which people make lives. I get a sort of melancholy feeling about it—it’s like diving into water that’s so deep you can’t see the bottom, or even fathom that it’s there. I certainly have my fears and insecurities about travel, but I’d like to understand more about the world, by seeing it for myself instead of taking others’ words for it.

You can watch her film Being Here on Vimeo here –

Hilary Oliver is an outdoor adventure writer, editor and filmmaker based in Denver. Her work has appeared on Adventure Journal, Climbing, Sidetracked, National Geographic Adventure and many other web sites and magazines. You can see more of her work at and

NOTE: This interview was edited for clarity.

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