Writer Roxane Gay Takes the Trip of a Lifetime

Once upon a time, writer Roxane Gay and her wife, the illustrator Debbie Millman, set sail to Antarctica. Here, they each tell the tale—well, their version of it.

Polaroid-esque photos of writer Roxane Gay and her wife, designer Debbie Millman

Designer Debbie Millman had big plans to ring in her 60th birthday in one of the most far-flung destinations on the planet.

Photographs and lettering by Debbie Millman

On our very first date, my now wife, Debbie, told me that when she turned 60, she was traveling to Antarctica to see a total eclipse of the sun. My first thought was that this was a very Caucasian ambition. Then I thought it was strange she was planning a trip 20 years in advance. I wished her well on her future adventure because I surely was not going to Antarctica, under any circumstances. Later that evening, she revealed that she was 57.

I demanded proof, and she proffered her driver’s license, which indicated that she was, indeed, telling the truth. Her unique birthday celebration was closer than I assumed, but it was still not my concern, however lovely our date was. Three years later, in June 2021, Debbie and I eloped. Because of the pandemic, the big wedding we had been planning would not be possible for the foreseeable future. Instead, our wedding was an impromptu but romantic affair in an office building in Encino, California. Five months later, near midnight on November 27, we were on a flight to Santiago, Chile, to begin a very long journey to the bottom of the world.

International travel is a relatively new experience for me. As a child, I visited Haiti with my parents, who were born there. We took the occasional trip to Canada. And then, I gained a lot of weight for complicated reasons and got it into my head that I couldn’t travel internationally. I was worried about ancient stairs and narrow alleys and judgments I might face. For many years, I didn’t have the confidence to believe I deserved to see the world. And certainly, I could never afford it. But then, my career exploded, and suddenly, I could afford to travel. I lost some weight and tried believing I had as much right as anyone else to experience the world at any size.

Debbie Millman's collage of the first day of her and Roxane's trip to Antartica

Photos and lettering by Debbie Millman

This was around the time I met Debbie. We soon began to travel together, and fortunately, we learned that we travel well together. I handle the logistics. I apply for the visas and make the arrangements and secure the travel health insurance and take care of all the detail-oriented stuff. She encourages me to make the most of each trip, to overcome my fears, and to embrace the possibilities of a wide-open world.

I am not adventurous, but my wife is. She has climbed to Machu Picchu in Peru and ascended the stairs of the Potala Palace in Tibet. She has snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef and watched the sun rise over the temples of Angkor Wat. She has walked through the red sands of Wadi Rum beneath a blazing sun. She loves travel, and she really commits to each experience. A year after our first date, we went to Egypt. I was content to stand outside the Pyramids of Giza, but she climbed into one of the tombs, where she could barely stand as she made her way through its chambers. When she emerged, she was flushed with excitement. For me, the adventure is working up the courage to leave the comfort of my little life. Or I could say the greatest adventure of my life began the day I met Debbie. And that’s why, the day after Debbie turned 59, I started researching how to get to Antarctica.

I had imagined Antarctica as a desolate, frigid place covered in ice and snow, and my research confirmed that. Most of what I knew of the White Continent came from movies about people running away from their lives to study this or that in one of the research facilities dotting the brutal landscape. There was a certain allure to the isolation, but it was also a terrifying prospect.

I soldiered on. I told myself this was just a thought experiment, but I knew that if it were going to happen, I had only a year to plan. Maybe Debbie had forgotten about her Antarctic desires, but just in case she still wanted to go, it was probably wise to see if her dream was even feasible. It was. When you throw enough money at something, all kinds of things are possible.

Debbie Millman's collage of her and Roxane Gay's trip to Antartica

Photos and lettering by Debbie Millman

I discovered a 10-day Silversea cruise that would place us directly in the path of the eclipse. In late spring 2021—just a few months before we eloped—I told Debbie I had figured out how to get us to Antarctica. She was thrilled and pleasantly surprised that I had remembered her wishes and was moving forward with a plan. Before I could change my mind, I bought plane tickets to Santiago, Chile.

But still, we waffled. We were living in a different world from the one where we first met. On that first date, we had no idea that we and billions of others would spend more than a year in relative isolation, trying to stay healthy and safe while an ever-mutating virus worked its way around the world. Travel was fraught in a way it had never been; neither of us had ever been on a cruise before. With COVID-19 limning every decision, going on a cruise seemed like a particularly unnerving notion. Still, we decided to make the trip. A 60th birthday is a milestone; it felt important to mark the occasion with style. Plus, we were vaccinated and boosted. And several family tragedies had given us reason to understand, too intimately, just how short life can be.

<i>You might assume, as I did before the trip, that Antarctica is a couple of hours away from South America, but it is not. It took three days of sailing across the most turbulent waters I have ever experienced to reach the tip of the continent.</i>

A couple of months before departure, Silversea sent us a list of needed supplies, mostly things to keep us warm and safe while cavorting on a remote, uninhabited landmass. I went to REI for the first and what will probably be the only time in my life and acquired the necessary gloves and socks and boots and walking poles and hand warmers. Basically, I turned into a walking advertisement for Columbia Sportswear. My wife is the frugal one. She mostly borrowed clothes from a friend. There was, however, a catch. There are specific ship rules about how much your suitcases can weigh, their dimensions, and the like. We meticulously packed and weighed and measured our luggage. (Later, after arriving on the ship, we understood that no one else had followed the rules.)

On the flight down, I was ambivalent about the journey, mostly grateful to be trapped on a plane with Debbie, with no external demands. After we landed in Santiago, we took a tour of the city and saw the highlights: the arts district, an artisan village, the city center. The next morning, we took a charter flight to Punta Arenas, a city at the very southern tip of Chile. After a brief immigration check, we applied scopolamine patches to prevent nausea and boarded the Silver Cloud, a 120-suite cruise ship with an ice-breaking hull that can slice through frozen waters. Once we were settled in our lovely two-room suite, our butler, Ashok, introduced himself. For the next 10 days, he would look after us with genuine care and consideration.

Debbie Millman's collage of her and Roxane Gay's trip to Antartica

Photos and lettering by Debbie Millman

You might assume, as I did before the trip, that Antarctica is a couple of hours away from South America, but it is not. It took three days of sailing across the most turbulent waters I have ever experienced to reach the tip of the continent. While I had done the research for the cruise, somehow the Drake Passage never came up. On that first night, a British guy dining alone at the adjacent table asked, “Are you ladies ready for the Drake Passage?” and I thought, “Wow! Drake is dropping a new album and this older chap is hip to it?” It was an innocent time.

Later, I learned that the Drake Passage lies between South America and the White Continent—a body of water where three oceans come together. Depending on the weather—stormy versus mild—you may experience the “Drake Shake” or the “Drake Lake.” Whenever people mentioned the passage, they did so with hushed and ominous reverence.

That evening, back in our bedroom, we felt the ship rock violently as it cut through massive waves. In the next room, I could hear coffee mugs and wineglasses clattering. I held onto the walls as I moved about the cabin. Later, as we were trying to fall asleep while the ship lurched about the ocean, I turned to Debbie and asked, in all seriousness, if we should lash ourselves to the bed, just in case. She assured me that we were fine, and ultimately, we were. The next morning, I stood on our balcony and blinked as the bright sun illuminated the crystalline blue of the endless ocean. There was no land in sight that morning or the next. It was overwhelming and terrifying. The world is small, but the planet is vast and unknowable.

Debbie Millman's collage of her and Roxane Gay's trip to Antartica

Photos and lettering by Debbie Millman

We began seeing the pale blue of icebergs on the second day of the crossing. Nothing could have prepared me for their majesty. As word spread through the ship that finally there was something interesting to see, people flocked to their balconies and the ship decks, craning their necks to get a good look. The icebergs were many in number, in every shape you could imagine. They looked surreal, precisely carved, and they floated serenely. When Debbie and I got tired of staring at the icebergs, we made our way to the panorama lounge, sat near a window with a view, and played Scrabble on our cute little travel set. Every so often, people would walk by our table, stare down at the game, and remark, “You’re playing Scrabble.” Many of these same passengers asked us, excitedly, if we were on the ship to see the eclipse, and then they would tell us long stories about their love of eclipses. It was mostly charming.

On an expedition ship, you aren’t merely enjoying the leisure of all-inclusive cruising. There are excursions where you can disembark and look at penguins and more icebergs and step foot on dry land, and, honestly, that’s about it. Antarctica is a realm of limited entertainment options, particularly if you are indifferent to the outdoors. The excursions are complemented by daily lectures about Antarctica, its history, and its wildlife—all kinds of birds, penguins, sea lions, whales. The first night, we attended a talk about the protocols that must be followed before setting foot on the continent—no small matter. Your equipment needs to be thoroughly cleaned and inspected. As you step onto the platform to board one of the Zodiacs—speedy little boats that take you to dry land—you must stand in a bath of disinfectant. Every effort is made to protect a largely pristine environment that has not yet been corrupted by human stains. The crew took that responsibility seriously, and we passengers did in turn.

Debbie Millman's collage of her and Roxane Gay's trip to Antartica

Photos and lettering by Debbie Millman

Five days into the cruise, when Debbie and I were ready to go on our very first excursion, a private photography lesson on a Zodiac, we dressed in our layers and pulled on our waterproof boots and grabbed the fancy cameras we really didn’t know how to use. We strapped ourselves into our life vests and donned our hats and gloves and marched to the hold. I was anxious. The Zodiacs are small, and you basically have to launch yourself from a small platform on a bobbing ship into a bobbing skiff. Everything was cold and wet. There was a line of people behind us, all staring, so I took a deep breath and reached for the hand of the man in the boat and prayed for some dignity in undignified circumstances. Once we were safely seated, off we went, exploring a small bay flanked by low, snow-covered mountains. It was bracingly cold, despite the sun shining overhead. Before long, my cheeks were numbed by the wind. I was thankful for the hand warmers in my pockets and the wonder of fleece.

Alan, the ship’s charming photography instructor, escorted us. He spends most of his life cruising around the South Pole teaching people how to beautifully capture the place. It was an exhilarating experience. We were able to get close enough to a small iceberg to touch it. It was covered in penguins, which, you should know, are adorable. They waddle around, chattering amongst themselves. They really do fling themselves into the water headfirst like on PBS. They smell terrible, but we were in their house, and if they wanted to stink it up, that’s their business.

<i>Then, it was time. It grew very dark and still. The birds flying overhead disappeared. Everyone hushed. We looked up into the sky, hopeful. I reached for Debbie’s hand.</i>

We also saw a magnificent glacier and enjoyed birds soaring overhead. We saw a small piece of iceberg floating in the water, and Alan stopped the boat, leaned over the side, and grabbed it. I took a picture of Debbie, bundled in her bright red parka, eyes covered with goggles, beaming as she held the chunk of ice. There were more penguins. We pulled up to a craggy landing and stepped foot on land to . . . say we stepped foot on Antarctica. We admired the landscape, and I was struck by the fact that this really is one of the last places in the world that is largely unconquered. I found an unexpected comfort in that. And then, chilled to the bone, we returned to the ship.

That was enough of an excursion for me. I spent the remaining half of the cruise enjoying Antarctica from the ship. I read a lot. I watched spotty television. And I enjoyed Debbie’s stories about the adventures she had on land—touring unearthly calderas, zipping around in Zodiacs to spot penguins, birds, and whales—while we played Scrabble and ate bar snacks in the lounge every afternoon.

Debbie Millman's collage of her and Roxane Gay's trip to Antartica

Photos and lettering by Debbie Millman

We also, of course, had some business with a total eclipse of the sun. As you might imagine, I sang “Total Eclipse of the Sun,” my inspired take on the classic Bonnie Tyler song, a ridiculous number of times leading up to the trip. I subjected Debbie to the gentle strains of “turn around,” so often that I was forbidden from ever singing the song again. On the morning of the eclipse, December 4, we woke up at 3 a.m. and excitedly got dressed. I grabbed the fancy camera that we still didn’t really know how to use, and we joined the rest of the passengers on the deck. There were several groups of eclipse chasers on board—people who travel around the world for the sole purpose of seeing eclipses. There were folks from astronomy clubs. There were a couple of people who had no idea an eclipse was imminent. And then there was us.

Sometimes you plan something meticulously, and nature has other ideas. When we stepped onto the deck, it was cloudy—a thick soup of gray hovering over everything. We had about 20 minutes before the eclipse, so we hoped the clouds might clear. Everyone was talking excitedly and prognosticating about the likelihood of seeing the eclipse. The crew did not play “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which felt like a missed opportunity.

Then, it was time. It grew very dark and still. The birds flying overhead disappeared. Everyone hushed. We looked up into the sky, hopeful. I reached for Debbie’s hand. We waited and waited, but there was nothing to see. The heavy cloud cover obscured the eclipse. A couple of the more accomplished photographers caught glimpses, but that was it. The darkness dissipated. All around us, people stared up into the clouds in disbelief. Seconds passed, and then minutes, and yet we all stood still.

Debbie Millman's collage of her and Roxane Gay's trip to Antartica

Photos and lettering by Debbie Millman

Debbie’s shoulders slumped, her disappointment palpable. I, too, was disappointed, but I was also calm. I thought about how, on the day we married, we had tumbled headfirst into a great unknown. This—this eclipse-less sail, this time, this freshly joined life—was the real adventure. As we looked out over the misty ocean, I put my arm around Debbie and held her close. I leaned down and whispered that the trip was worth it, and she gave a small smile. Because the trip was worth it. The planet did not care about our little plans, but there we were, together, in a stunning, unimaginable place. I could not hope for more.

Roxane Gay, author of the New York Times best-selling collection of essays Bad Feminist, has several titles to her name, including writer, cultural critic, and the most recent addition, the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. She is currently working on two TV shows: Negroland, an adaptation of the writer Margo Jefferson’s memoir, and The Banks, which is based on Gay’s graphic novel of the same name.
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