Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Walking the Gobi," A Fascinating Portrait of a Land, Its People, and the Power of Human Determination

Helen Thayer was 64 years-old when she and her husband Bill set out to walk 1,600 miles across the Mongolian Gobi Desert in the middle of summer. He was 74. They battled scorching 126-degree heat, ferocious sand storms, deadly scorpions, dehydration, and dangerous drug smugglers.

With no support team, sponsors, or radio contact, theirs is a story of pure adventure. Traversing the hostile Mongolia-China border, leading two charismatic camels named Tom and Jerry, the Thayers could not have imagine the magnitude of the beauty they would encounter on their epic journey.

Helen was no stranger to hostile natural environments. At the age of 50, she became the first woman to solo trek to the magnetic North Pole, pulling her own sled without resupply. Born in New Zealand, she has become a world-reknowned explorer and motivational speaker.

Twice she has kayaked 2,200 miles in the Amazon. She walked 4,000 miles along an ancient trade route in the Sahara. She has lived alogside and studied the Canadian wild wolves of the polar sea and has been named “One of the Great Explorers of the 20th Century” by National Geographic Society and NPR.

Despite her long list of accomplishments, there had always been one dream Helen never gave up on. When she was in grade school, her teacher fascinated her with stories of the Gobi. She imagined the rugged bueaty of the land and its people. Instantly, she knew she had to go there.

That she held on to that dream for so long speaks to her determination and indomitable spirit. Just a year before their scheduled trek, Helen was involved in a serious car accident. The doctors told her she might never walk again. But, this did not stop her. Still recovering from her injuries, she set out to realize her goal of crossing the desert on foot.

"Walking the Gobi" is an absorbing book. It works on a couple of different levels. On the one hand, it is a wonderful introduction to the cultures of the Gobi. In the fashion of all good travel writing, Helen's observations of the land and the people who inhabit it are insightful; they instill within the reader a deep sense of appreciation for the power of the natural elements.

She does not condescend or pretend to fully understand the ways of the desert or its nomadic peoples. Rather, she approaches her subject matter with a genuine sense of awe and interest. Her prose is clear and precise, but still infused with passion. Readers sense in her a great, wise old teacher.

The book also works as an example of human determination. Here is a woman who has defied preconcived limits of age and physical endurance. She also defied what is traditionally expected of her gender - border patrol authorities in Mongolia were frequently hesitant to deal with a woman and rape was a major concern if she was impriosned for crossing ilegally into China. But, Helen Thayer accomplished her lifelong dream and now we are givin a invaluable glimpse of a land and people we know little about.

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