Helen and Bill Thayer begin a 1,600-mile walk across the Gobi Desert on May 1, 2001.

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 7/01/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9851
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On May 1, 2001, Snohomish County residents Helen (b. 1937) and Bill (b. 1926) Thayer begin a 1,600-mile, 71-day walk across Mongolian part of the Gobi Desert, located in Mongolia and China. The couple spends their 40th anniversary on the walk. Using two camels to carry supplies, they study and observe not just the land, but the culture of the nomadic people that inhabit it. Their adventure becomes the basis for Helen Thayer's 2007 book Walking the Gobi.

Planning and Preparing

Helen Thayer was first inspired to visit the Gobi at the age of 13, by a teacher at Pukekohe High School in her native New Zealand. "Well, it took me 50 years to do it," Thayer says, laughing. "Waited until I was 63. It'll show you what patience can do for you" (Kershner interview).

The Thayers' meticulous planning of their expedition was a large part of its success. They plotted out the water and food needed to survive the days in the desert, and broke the trip into four parts, allowing for a resupply plane to meet them at junctures. The couple delved into the culture of the nomads that lived in the desert (not to mention the politics of walking so close to the heavily guarded Chinese border), and they kept up a punishing training regime.

They made a 1,500 mile trek through Death Valley, followed by a 4,000 mile Sahara walk, supplemented by daily runs and hikes in the West Cascades near their Snohomish home.

Although many of Helen Thayer's adventures have been happily solo, she thinks her and Bill make a great team of explorers. "He is a go-getter, he knows what he's doing, and he goes out and does it," says Thayer with evident admiration of her husband's compatibility with her own personality (Kershner interview).

But before they set out, near-disaster struck. The couple were involved in a car accident that left Helen with an injury to her spine and painful leg sprains. Not one to abandon (or even stall) a dream, Helen decided that she'd arm herself with pain medication and walk as planned.

Setting Out

The Thayers began their trek on May 1, accompanied by their camels, which they named Tom and Jerry. Almost immediately, they were confronted by a wicked sandstorm, giving them a (literal) taste of the harsh weather to come.

More frightening than the weather, however, was the threat of smugglers who criss-crossed the Mongolian-Chinese border and were extremely dangerous to any witnesses. Although the Thayers had a few close calls, they never were directly confronted by smugglers.

They did mistakenly cross the border into China once. They avoided detection before making it back across to Mongolia, but were picked up by Mongolian authorities for being too close to the line of demarcation. They were taken to a nearby village and interrogated overnight, accused over and over of smuggling. They were threatened with jail and steep fines.

Helen -- not one to be delayed on a trip -- finally had enough, and used her knowledge of the area to play against the guards. Telling them that they needed to show respect for their elders, she scolded them for the rude behavior. Chastened, the guards admitted, finally, that they didn't seem to be smugglers and were free to go.

Able to stay with and interact with nomads along the way, the Thayers studied the culture of the people who make the desert -- and the search for water -- their life.


They had their own brush with thirst when one of their camels accidentally rolled onto their water containers, allowing their supply to gush out into the desert. Nine days from resupply, they were left with five gallons of water for more than a week of temperatures that regularly exceeded 120 degrees.

They were literally dying of thirst. On the sixth day of little to no water, they managed only to walk three miles compared to their usual 15 to 20. But on the seventh day, they came across a pool of salty water that they could filter. They were saved.

After 71 days walking in the desert, the Thayers reached the end of their journey. Touched by the nomads who had let them into their homes with so little to offer, they sent food, clothing, and supplies back to the families they had met along the way.

Sources: Helen Thayer, Walking the Gobi (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2007); Kate Kershner interview with Helen Thayer, May 29, 2011, Seattle, audio file in possession of Kate Kershner, Seattle; Sherry Stripling, "North Stars," The Seattle Times, January 19, 1989 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/).; Rebekah Denn, "Leg Injury Cuts Short Trek to South Pole," The Seattle Times, November 27, 1997 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Diane Wright, "Marriage Has Been an Adventure," The Seattle Times, June 23, 2004 (seattletimes.com); Sherry Stripling, "Honey, Let's Go For A Walk," The Seattle Times, October 10, 2007 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); David Brown, "At the Wolf's Door; With a Dog To Break The Ice, A Couple Moves in Next to Some Really Wild Neighbors," The Washington Post, December 23, 2004, p. C-1; KSER radio interview with Helen Thayer, October 10, 2001, KSER website accessed June 17, 2011 (http://kser.org/); Helen Thayer website accessed June 18, 2011 (http://www.helenthayer.com/).

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