Step on the threshold of a Mongolian nomad's hand-felted home or ger and you step on your host's neck, according to folklore. Snohomish adventurers Helen and Bill Thayer tripped over...

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Step on the threshold of a Mongolian nomad’s hand-felted home or ger and you step on your host’s neck, according to folklore.

Snohomish adventurers Helen and Bill Thayer tripped over their goal of always showing respect for other cultures when they visited their first ger on their 1,600-mile walk across the Gobi Desert.

Coming out of the blinding wind and sand, Helen smacked her head on top of the wooden doorway and lurched in like “the village drunk.” Bill collided with the family guard dog at the threshold, landing on top of Helen.

Here come the Thayers: Not like the rest of us in their lust for seeing the world under difficult conditions — and yet just like us after all.

Helen’s third book,”Walking the Gobi: A 1600-Mile Trek Across A Desert of Hope and Despair,” (Mountaineers Books, 251 pp., $23.95) is a straight-forward narrative of an extraordinary undertaking — the first documented crossing of the entire Gobi, one of the driest, most water-deprived deserts in the world.

The Thayers were 63 and 74 and in their 40th year of marriage when they crossed the Gobi in 2001, part of their ongoing drive to document vanishing cultures.

Among other feats, sturdy, compact Helen and slight, soft-spoken Bill have trekked to the Arctic and Antarctic; walked 4,000 miles across the Sahara Desert; kayaked 1,200 miles in the Amazon rain forest; and lived for a year in the Yukon and Northwest Territories among wild wolves.

Helen’s first book, “Polar Dream,” about being the first woman to solo either of the world’s Poles when she skied to the magnetic North Pole in 1988, became a best-seller. National Geographic and National Public Radio named her “One of the Great Explorers of the 20th Century.”

“Walking the Gobi” is written with the couple’s usual mix of humility and self-confidence. For the Thayers, like all good explorers, enduring the difficulty is as satisfying as reaching the ultimate goal, and hope is an eternal fountain.

Though they were recovering from a car accident that damaged Helen’s leg and back, the Thayers averaged 20 miles a day on foot in temperatures that reached 126 degrees. They came out the other side 81 days later “looking and feeling like fried eggs,” according to Helen.

“People say, ‘Well, it’s a dry heat,’ ” added the droll Bill, who was born in sizzling Needles, Calif. “Well, so is your oven.”

The Thayers lived through snakes, drug smugglers, and “black day” sand storms, crouching behind their two pack camels, “Tom” and “Jerry,” that they led as they walked. They were threatened with execution by Chinese border guards and stung by scorpions.

The couple was resupplied every 20 days by airplane, but forbidden by the Chinese government to carry two-way radios. After one of the camels crushed the water containers, this pair of longtime sweethearts watched each other stumble toward death — until they found a life-saving toxic sinkhole they could desalinate.

But tension is less the driver in Helen’s writing than an urge to teach and share what she and Bill have observed: That many ancient cultures have an enviable respect for family and the environment.

Lessons learned

“Walking the Gobi” provides easy access into a world most Westerners know only by its exotic history.

“For us, it’s terribly important to be curious about other people and to know what they’re doing,” New Zealand-born Helen said recently at the 12-acre farm east of Everett she and Bill share with goats, rescued dogs, a cat and a donkey. “Just because they’re different doesn’t mean they’re less. Sometimes they’re a whole lot more, a whole lot more.”

The Thayers used her phrase-book language skills to learn about family life, aided by the nomads’ respect for elders and outright astonishment at who had stumbled in over their thresholds.

They found life deep in the Mongolian desert unchanged in many ways from the days of the conquering Genghis Khan, despite a 70-year rule by Soviet Communists, when nomads were forced to collectivize their herds and the desert was closed to outsiders.

Half of Mongolia’s 3 million people still live in traditional felt gers and many still follow the nomadic lifestyle, squeezed by harsh winter storms and a drying desert.

“The Gobi nomads are smart, persevering, talented survivalists, who manage to master living with very limited choices in one of nature’s most challenging environments,” said Marlin Greene of One Earth Adventures, a Web site devoted to promoting world awareness.

Greene, who works with the Thayers to document vanishing cultures for their two-decades-old international program, “Adventure Classroom,” says they have a “we’re just farmers” demeanor that allows them to gain information not readily passed on to strangers. “They have a unique ability to fit comfortably into the lives and homes of the locals wherever they go,” Greene said.

The Thayers shared salty tea, “mouth-puckering goat’s milk yogurt,” overripe meat, and bowl after bowl of sour horse milk with generous nomads who invited them in for a visit or to stay the night. They left behind warm socks, warm thoughts, salt and sugar and concerned families that shook their heads and asked, “Why?”

Why would these kindly grandparent types cross the entire desert and why would they do it on foot instead of by camel or horseback?

That’s easy, the Thayers say: They’re walkers.

“If we can’t go on our own two feet, we won’t go at all,” says Helen. They had to walk all the way to learn the whole story.

“Deceptive adventurers”

The Gobi journey began for Helen in her native New Zealand when she was 13 and heard her teacher describe the Mongolian desert, which is pinched between the former Soviet Union and China.

Though she was too young to go then, she was encouraged by her athletic parents — farmers who were friends of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first climber to summit Mount Everest.

“They were great goal setters, go-getters and great planners,” said Helen, who passes on that inspiration wherever she speaks, telling students that they can do whatever they set their minds to do but that “a dream without a plan is just a dream.”

After marrying Bill, an American who came to spray her family’s crops by helicopter, Helen went on to represent three countries — New Zealand, Guatemala and the U.S. — in track and field, and become the U.S. national luge champion in 1975.

In 1988, Helen became the first woman to trek solo to the magnetic North Pole, bringing stardom to a polar-bear dog named Charlie in her book, “Polar Dream.”

Charlie, who lived to 23 as the Thayers’ pampered pup, was a devoted companion, but Helen missed her husband on the 364-mile, unsupported journey. In 1992, she repeated the ski trip with Bill in honor of their 30th anniversary.

Helen’s second book, “Three Among the Wolves,” came out in 2004, documenting the years of 1994-95 when the Thayers lived with wolf packs in the Arctic with Charlie as their communication bridge.

How else could the Thayers celebrate their 40th anniversary but to gather up topographical maps, air charts, satellite desert images, pocket-size GPS units and compasses and head to the Gobi Desert?

“I wonder what we’ll do for our 50th,” Bill speculated recently.

“Something grand, I’m sure,” Helen replied.

In these days when people shy from discomfort and danger, “you have to admire their audacity,” said Ed Sobey, Ph.D., chair of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of The Explorers Club, which presented Helen with the Vancouver Award in 2006 for her pursuit of knowledge and spirit of exploration.

Sobey calls the Thayers “deceptive adventurers,” saying, “If you saw them on the street, you’d never pick them out as world-class explorers.”

But they are tough as nails and they have the people sense to relate to other cultures, including American youth. “Helen stirs the kids’ imaginations as few people can,” said Sobey. And not just kids, either. At the end of Explorer Club meetings, there is always a knot of listeners clustered around Helen — “people eager to catch some of her vitality and take it home.”

The Thayers will finish their last local leg of the Pacific Crest Trail as their next goal. Tibet’s rugged backcountry is on the horizon. They want to live with nomads, documenting their lifestyle with photos and words, before the culture disappears.

Now that they’re not skiing to the Poles, they no longer pull those “blankety-blank sleds” up and down their own hill for fitness, Bill says. But they still walk, run, climb and lift weights. As often as they can, they hike and snowshoe in the North Cascades.

They have largely recovered from the injuries from the car wreck that plagued the Gobi trek. Otherwise, Helen, now 69, and Bill, 80, make no concession to old age.

Says Bill: “We’ll tell you when we get there.”