Way off the beaten path

By Eric Stevick

Herald Writer

MACHIAS — For Bill and Helen Thayer, the lessons in crossing cultures and rugged terrain are intertwined and never-ending.

A new lesson gleaned this summer while walking 1,423 miles through sandstorms and 126-degree temperatures in the Mongolian Gobi Desert: Don’t squash a scorpion, even when it’s crawling up the toe of your boot, when you’re in a Buddhist family’s home.

While the family said nothing, "they were clearly appalled," Helen Thayer said.

The Buddhists would simply find a way to gently escort the scorpion out of their yurtlike home.

Over the years, Helen, 63, and Bill, 74, have explored diverse cultures and far-flung reaches of the world by foot or canoe. Helen Thayer, for instance, became the first woman to travel solo to any of the world’s Poles in 1988 when she walked alone to the magnetic North Pole, pulling her own sled. In 1996, she became the first woman to walk across the Sahara on an ancient camel trade route, 2,800 miles.

The two-month-long trek required about two years of planning.

Helen Thayer, an author and motivational speaker, has climbed mountains, kayaked remote areas of the Amazon and lived near a wolf den she was studying in the Yukon.

Crossing the length of the Gobi Desert on foot was their latest expedition. They endured an unwelcome encounter with a bellowing, wild camel, hissing swirls of windblown black dust and yellow sand, and meals served to them of half-rotten mutton, mare’s milk and foods made from goats, camels and yaks.

The Thayers grew fond of the hospitable nomadic people they met along the way. The people shared their food, and the Thayers helped them herd and milk their animals. Yet, there were stretches of hundreds of miles without people, water or food.

"I wouldn’t recommend it for tourists," Helen Thayer said with a wry smile.

The Gobi, a high-altitude desert, was an expanse so dry and barren "it made the Sahara seem like a vegetable garden," she said.

When one of the two camels they used to carry supplies rolled over on their water, they were reduced to half-rations and later quarter-rations of water for seven days.

At another point, they could not set up their tent fast enough to avoid a sandstorm. They took refuge between their camels, using their two-humped companions as a protective wall from the coarse sands that pelted the masks and goggles on their faces.

They trudged up 18 hours a day. For Helen Thayer, who injured her hip and thigh in a traffic accident a year before, it was particularly challenging.

The modern-day explorers plan to take their latest adventure onto the Internet and into classrooms, where Helen has been a frequent speaker. Beyond lessons in geography, history and the customs of different cultures, she brings a message of setting goals.

"A goal is a dream, but without a plan you aren’t going to make it," she said.

You can call Herald Writer Eric Stevick at 425-339-3446

or send e-mail to stevick@heraldnet.com.

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