In this dog-eats-dog-then-campaigns-for-its-corner-office world, maybe we should be celebrating the wild ones, the carefree ones, the ones who value experience as much as stuff.

World, meet Tucson’s Michelle Tanaka.

Michelle Tanaka, meet world. Oh, you’ve already met.

Michelle has seen the far reaches of the globe, traveled the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia, planted trees in Australia, fended off creeping hands in dank, dark trains in India and slept under stars, a billion flickering lightbulbs in a black sky.

And now, the 25-year-old will embark on her grandest adventure yet: the Mongol Derby. Between Aug. 5-15, she will trek 600 miles across the wooded plains and sandy dunes of the Mongolian steppe. Michelle will ride 25 semi-wild horses with long tails and thick manes that remain uncut. The arduous journey covers the sophisticated mail route that was created by the great Genghis Khan.

She leaves Sunday.

“These horses can be pigs,” Michelle said. “They can be demons. There’s only so much you can take before you give up. I’ve had friends who say there are parts of this race where you’re crazy, you’re nuts. If you could get medevaced out right then, you would.”


The Mongol Derby is perfect for Michelle, who was one of the first riders selected from over 1,000 applicants.

Born outside Seattle to Warren Tanaka and Christina Cancino but raised from infancy in Tucson, Michelle first climbed onto a horse as a child. It didn’t take. But after soccer, cheerleading and softball didn’t take, either, she doubled back to the ponies when she was 13.

This was not an easy call in the first place, as her mother, Christina, was hesitant. When Christina was a child, her best friend was trampled to death by a horse.

A teenage Michelle persisted. Eventually, Christina caved. Michelle’s stepfather, Lynn, took her to a family friend’s stable to ride, and she’s been riding ever since.

“She does not even have a can-do attitude, it’s just that there’s not even a thought she couldn’t do it,” said Kay Conlon Gillis, the family friend who has known Michelle for a dozen years and provided her first horse. “It’s just, ‘Hey, take this horse over a 5-foot jump,’ and ‘OK.’ She will just go and do it.”

Michelle continued to ride while attending Canyon del Oro High School, and after not making the equestrian team at New York University as a freshman, she staked her claim in her sophomore year and loved it.

Even though there were times in the upper-crust Northeast equestrian scene when she felt on the fringes.

Once she bought a new $90 helmet that she was so proud of. Black, velvet. Beautiful.

“Little did I know that what you ride in is an $800 GPA helmet,” she said.

But Michelle made friends for life, ones who’d travel the world with her.

Embarking on this incredible adventure is Kat Whitney, a former NYU teammate of Michelle’s who now lives in San Francisco and works as a photographer.

They met early one morning, boarding the busses on their way to a horse show. A few days before, Michelle had heard Kat and a teammate discussing an ultra-important subject — bacon — so she brought Whitney a bacon sandwich. It’s no small surprise, then, that they will compete in the Mongol Derby as Team Bacon.

Despite the high costs associated with the sport, Whitney says NYU’s equestrian team “was not a posh, put-together team. They were a club sport at NYU, so they really had to be committed.

“Everyone was willing to put in a lot of time,” Whitney said. “And if you’re willing to do that you’re gonna be the kind of person to eat blowtorched marmot.”

Speaking of committed …

“No one who knows us would be questioning our sanity — I think,” Whitney said.

No, those closest to Michelle know what motivates her.

“She’s gung-ho; she has fears, but she’s one of those people who can overcome them,” said Beth Mendivil, whose local riding club is serving as Michelle’s home base during training. “She wants to really do something. She works through anything that scares her, though not a whole lot does.”

Michelle is used to humping hurdles, so what are a few more?

One big one was funding.

The entry fee for the Mongol Derby is $12,400, and airfare and gear can cost another few thousand.

Hotel costs are covered — she’ll either sleep out in nature or she’ll bunk with nomadic herders, who open up their hearts and their yurts to her.

Her friends at Summit Hut, where she’s worked this summer to raise money for the trip, insisted she ask for help. Sponsors, including Da Brim, Troxel, Soless, EasyCare and Dover Saddlery have stepped up. Friends are lending her expensive equipment — a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a heavy jacket, a global positioning system.

It seems as if people are living vicariously through her.

“She’s my hero,” said Gillis, whom Michelle considers a second mother. “I wish I could do what she’s doing, I would love to do it. I was very timid as a kid and have gotten guts here in my middle age. I don’t have a fear for her. I have a confident knowledge that she’s going to be fine.”


For a time, Michelle had other plans.

With the real world breathing down her neck and the corporate world beckoning, she decided to settle down. After a junior year of college spent abroad, soaking in Buenos Aires for one semester and Prague the other, she bought furniture in New York, signed a lease and was ready for the next step.

Everything was neat. Tidy.

But wanderlust — Michelle’s itchy-feet syndrome — started gnawing at her. She couldn’t imagine actually embarking on a career path.

Money wasn’t the major issue; Michelle had a full scholarship at NYU, and her parents helped with some of her expenses. She saved enough for a yearlong trip and, when that ended, she made her way to Australia.

Michelle heard about the high minimum wages, nearly $20 an hour. She was hired at a tree plantation.

That’s how Michelle — a petite ball of energy who graduated summa cum laude from NYU — found herself covered in dirt and mud, on her hands and knees, digging holes and planting trees for 10 cents a pop.

“There’s something really weird and goofy, maybe therapeutic about planting trees,” she said. “Even though you’re just doing the same thing, it’s so challenging.”

She got sucked in, a routine forming that sustained her adventure.

She’d work, earn a bunch of money, as there was often work — “we are the migrant workers there,” she said — and then travel throughout Australia, attending festivals and generally seeing more of the planet than most people by her 23rd birthday.

Luxuries were sparse. Michelle slept in a sleeping bag in a tent for long patches under a quilt of stars. She found herself changing.

“Living in New York, I dressed really well, had a lot of shoes,” she said. “But traveling, living out of a backpack was really awesome. It was like, everything I need is right here. My clothes would get ratty, but who cares? Then it was really exciting when you’d get a new shirt.”

Never shy to try new things, Michelle shed all pretenses. She slept on dirty trains, in the bottom class, anything to save money. She made good use of couch surfing, with strangers in strange lands offering up places to crash for a night.

“My mother was horrified when I told her about this: ‘You’re gonna go stay at a stranger’s house and you’re gonna get murdered,’” she said. “So it’s a trust-based network.”


Michelle wants to make a few things clear.

Even though she’s chosen this path for herself, she understands why some don’t — or can’t.

And even though she’s chosen this path for herself — and this path has led, well, almost everywhere — she is still filled with the same doubts and wonder that everyone else feels.

“I’m sitting out on the porch, looking up at the stars, and the stars are just amazing over Australia, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I wasn’t here right now,’” she said. “You have moments of doubt and loneliness and regret. Sure there’s regret. And even when things are going great, you wonder what’s going on back home.”

There have been some scares.

Michelle hiked the Annapurna Circuit in the Nepalese Himalayas, the harrowing journey to Lake Tilicho with magnificent hills made out of gravel and rock that go for thousands of miles. Michelle said she had to shut her brain off, because any slip or fall would mean death.

There were “hairy moments” in India, she said.

Michelle was chased by a pack of wild dogs through the streets of Buenos Aires.

Come to think of it … what hasn’t she done?

“The Mongol Derby,” Michelle said.

But will it be enough?

“No, it’s not enough,” she said. “It might be awhile until the next one, but I know it’s not enough. I’m already like, ‘Well maybe I can do the Iditarod.”

Contact reporter Jon Gold at or at 561-1230.