MY ISRAEL TRAIL: Finding Peace in the Promised Land
Plain Sight (Cedar Fort)
The truth is, I had no idea what I was doing. I’d been on hikes before of course—many, in Israel, California, Italy, England and elsewhere—but this was different. Different? This was insane.
Setting out in the drizzle of that early Sunday morning in February, walking literally from the entrance to The Orchid Reef, the lovely little hotel on the Gulf of Eilat where I’d spent Shabbat with my friend Zvi, I wasn’t really aware of the magnitude of this endeavor I was embarking on. It soon became apparent.
These are the first steps I’m taking on a new journey; walking the path, as Yonatan wrote me in the note he emailed this morning. Here I am, moving ahead. But towards what? This initial trail is more like a dirt truck route, with only a slight rise; yet when I look up I see the mountains (hills, really, but I have a 50-pound pack on my back)—as well as the rain clouds ahead. They are stunning in the morning mist and light, brown and grey and red and hovering ahead, menacing and inviting at the same time. I’m humming to myself—partially to tamp down the growing panic and alone-ness and partly in rhythm with my steps. I have to stop looking back all the time—the sun shining on the water is sparkling and lovely, I can still see Zvi walking back to the hotel, and wave to him twice… and suddenly I just want to turn around and head back.
What the hell am I doing? I’m 51 years old (just), not 21! What kind of reaction to a divorce is this—some play on Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love? I’m thinking of the pool and the sun and the incredible breakfast at the Reef Hotel, and how Zvi would smile wryly if I showed up back there and just accept the decision to turn back as just another Aryehism…. The preparation, the equipment purchases and route planning and advice sessions with friends’ kids (and kids’ friends) and food/water burial were all good fun, a project of sorts. Here I am trying to use walking sticks for the first time, my shoulders already hurt after 15 minutes, I’m sweating in the 26C (82F) heat, striding up a dirt road I once drove along with the kids and my folks for a lark—and I really just can’t believe it. I’m DOING THIS.
So I turn around one last time and literally wave goodbye to the Reef, to Eilat, and to a certain extent to my former life, in many ways. I know—I just KNOW—I’m going to do this, I’ll get through it, I’ll make it. I am taking charge of my life, my destiny, and even though I realize it’s all hyperbole and self-absorption, I start singing at the top of my lungs. “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “I’ve Got Six Pence” from my childhood and camp hikes, and then “I Will Survive” and finally Passenger’s “Let Her Go” and I’m crying and walking faster and laughing and feeling wonderful and miserable, jubilant and pathetic all at the same time.
Then it starts to rain.
The funny thing is, I was prepared for rain. I just didn’t think it would actually happen, and certainly not on my first day out (this was Eilat after all, with about two inches of rainfall annually). The business of finding a tree under which to lower the backpack to the ground (why did it seem so heavy when not on my back?), finding my rain poncho (calling myself an idiot—I saw the forecast, it didn’t occur to me to put it somewhere accessible?), unraveling the raincover (how in the hell does that work?), and then getting the pack back on, was pretty exhausting. And then the drizzle stopped. Or was it the remarkable tree I was standing under? Wish I knew the name of it—Acacia, I looked it up now—but I knew from my years of reserve duty patrols along the borders with Jordan and Egypt that these unique flat-topped desert trees capture moisture and absorb it through their leaves as well as from the roots, so that most of the drizzle never reached me underneath it. Amazing.
Setting out anew, the path begins to rise into the hills—and I’m hot now. How do I balance protection from the rain and the heat at the same time? It’s quite unexpected; I usually wouldn’t hike in the rain. Hmmm. My first inclination is—and I say to myself, out loud—“whatever: so you get a little wet, so what?” But on second thought: if my shirt and shorts get wet, what if they don’t dry by tomorrow? Have to think this through....
OK. You paid enough for this rain jacket with air holes; keep it on to stay dry, and just accept that it’s going to be hot and you’ll sweat. I’m bored even thinking about it; just keep moving. I’m now on a trail; the dirt road has ended, I have to be really careful with the rocks and stones in the way—that’d be a laugh, having to call Zvi or worse, the nature authority people, to come get me with a twisted ankle or something. The loneliness, and the philosophizing, dissipates as the path rises and I’m focused on each step, the rhythm, breathing, sweating… and feeling the growing pain in my calves.
Now I’m remembering the Ibex we saw on that family trip; now I’m recalling the flat tire on the ‘”short cut” down the mountain; now I’m marveling at the so many shades of yellow and yellow-brown and yellow-red on the hillsides to my right and left and ahead. It’s sort of weird—striking and a little frightening—how the trail seems to end ahead, and when you get there it just turns a bit into another narrow crevice between the hills. And then the path splits.
So here’s the thing. It’s 3pm, I’m pretty hot and tired but I have energy and have gotten into a rhythm. I can hear the voices of the two guys I passed and who then passed me earlier—Israelis, young, fit, tanned, out for a day hike, Lord knows what they thought of me with my grey hair and accent, my ill-fitting rain poncho and rain cover and of course middle-age belly and a pack clearly more than a third of my body weight—and it seems to me they took the red path to the left. I consult the Red Book, the authoritative guide to the Shvil, half of which I tore out to schlepp with me, and the map seems to show two relatively equivalent trails. The red path follows and then meets the road; the blue heads to the right towards Har Shlomo—Mt. Solomon—of which I’d heard before, but can’t remember what, except something about the view. I don’t really want to meet the road; the blue meets up with a black trail which leads to the same night camp at the end of the red, which is where I’m headed.
The Red Book says the views from the top of Har Shlomo are “breath-taking.” That clinches it. On my first day, how can I miss that?
My eyes skimmed over, and my brain registered but didn’t really compute, the phrase “קשה ותלולה” (hard and exceedingly steep). So I was blissfully unaware of what awaited me. My kids had convinced me to take the Hebrew version of the guide along with me, rather than the English. It made sense: I’ve lived in Israel for some 30 years, I speak the language fluently (even if reading speed is slower than in my native English), and after all, this is the Israel Trail—Shvil Yisrael—not the Appalachian Trail. And anyway, the Hebrew version was up-to-date, a 2013 edition, whereas the English was published/updated only in 2011.
But as it turns out, it didn’t make that much sense. “Fluent” can mean many things; I function perfectly in my positions in government and business, in the non-profit sector and in high-tech companies, where specific terminology was easy to learn and adopt and my excellent conversational and even professional Hebrew is almost without accent (almost). But having not bothered to study (or even think about) the terms related to hiking, climbing, slipping, rappelling, falling, tripping, gripping, sliding, ascending, descending or the like, maybe I was a little unprepared. Or not maybe. “Steep” was one of those words I never learned in Ulpan, Israel’s famous center for accelerated acquisition of Hebrew.
I had, in fact, read through the entire English version from cover to cover in the preceding months as preparation, so I was familiar with the basic contours of the terrain and had planned out a rough schedule. What I hadn’t really digested was (1) the true meaning of words like “difficult,” or the true length of a kilometer when carrying a 50-pound (25 kilos or so) pack; and (2) that the author of the Red Book, Jacob Saar, didn’t necessarily have me in mind when creating his guide to the Israel Trail. An experienced hiker and—as I discovered when I tracked him down to complain/comment by phone much later—a somewhat arrogant, dismissive, grizzled Israeli some 20 years my senior, Saar apparently based his time and distance estimates on young day-trippers in top shape—not on a reasonable estimate of the abilities of 50-year-olds with 50-pound packs. (In fact, a few days later, a Trail Angel—to be described soon—told me that 22-year-old veterans from crack combat units have arrived at his doorstep “on their knees and in tears” having tried to follow the Red Book’s instructions. That made me feel a bit better.)
Heading up to the right, along the blue trail, I turn into an ever-narrowing canyon, and I can see ahead of me a trail winding a few meters up the hill among the rocks. Looking up at the sky I see only a few clouds; it’s still hot and the rain has stopped, so I rest a bit at the edge of a wall in a slice of shade, and listen to bird calls I can’t identify from somewhere on the left. Is there shade over there, and trees? Maybe water? I’m not sure but can’t be bothered to look at my map; having made the decision to go this route, I’d better start out. Packing away the rain cover, I hoist the bag on my back (how can it be getting heavier if I’m drinking the water I’m carrying?) and get a move on.
Immediately I realize something’s different. Every step now takes an effort—both as it’s an ascending trail, and it’s the 6th hour of this hike, and I’m completely out of shape, as my various muscles (back, shoulders, arms, buttocks, thighs, calves, ankles, feet…) remind me each time I move them. Yes, I feel them all, separately and together; depending on my movement, I can actually identify each one straining against the pull of gravity. I wonder to myself: is this what a weight-lifter feels when working on a particular set?
Now I’m scrambling to keep my balance and not fall (backwards too!) as I pull myself up and over huge boulders; looking up I really can’t believe the sight. The blue trail markings are clear and terrifying: up, up and more up, on an incline of stone and dirt and huge rocks resembling more a Matterhorn on the moon than a pleasant ascent like I used to climb as a kid in the hills of the San Francisco Bay Area area. What am I doing here?!? Am I insane?
OK—I can do this. Map says it’s only two kilometers or so to the campsite—that can’t take more than an hour, and it’s not all an ascent…. So I keep going, and in continuing, I repeat to myself the child-like mantra that one step at a time, one pull up at a step, I can do, each one a single effort which is manageable. And I do it, again and again and again. I’m sweating so much it could be raining; broke a fingernail literally trying to hang on to a jagged rock and prevent myself from falling; fell in the end, and twice more. And finally, as the light begins to fade since the sun went behind a peak, I reach the meeting point of the blue and black paths.
I had heard of Mt. Shlomo a few times; in fact seen photos from my son Yonatan’s recent trip there with his girlfriend (now wife) Shira. Truly the views from the top are magnificent (the Red Book doesn’t lie). I was pretty committed to climb up; decided to leave my backpack on the ground at the trail crossing, since I’d have to return to get on the green trail to the night camp, which I thought was clever, and took just a few bottles of water with me for what I could see would be a slightly difficult but brief, 20 minutes each way perhaps, ascent to the summit to enjoy the view.
It was at this point, as I began to climb hand-over-heel up the face of the black rock to the next trail marker, that I started to think a bit. I had been so focused on the climb, the pack, the weight, the heat, the pain, that I hadn’t given any real thought to the wider picture. What time was it? How much left to go? If I misread the map on the way up, not realizing how steep and difficult it was, might I have missed something regarding the “easy” and flat last leg to the night camp? When is sunset anyway? And: how important is the view of the Gulf of Eilat, however “breath-taking,” compared to arriving at the campsite to set up while it’s still light, let alone avoiding hiking in the dark?
Pulling back; taking stock; re-thinking; looking back and looking ahead. These were the processes I hadn’t really pursued in the previous four hours, and I realized at that point how crucial a mistake it would be just to push ahead. I literally sat down—I could see the top of the mountain, some 150 meters up—and spent about 30 seconds calculating. I had to accept it: the responsible thing, the mature thing, the rational thing, was to forget the view and go back to get moving along the new trail to the campsite. It wasn’t easy: I had to give up on the view—and take the teasing I’d surely get from Yonatan and Shira and the comments from others (“What, you didn’t go to the top? Boy, you missed a great view…”)—and more, I was accepting the fact that I had to leave the trail I’d known and conquered with some effort, to embark on a new, unknown trail.
And thank God I did.
I shoulder my pack with some reluctance, having clambered down from the ladder-like rock face of the peak, a bit scraped and battered, and stand at the trail crossing. To my left—unthinkable!—is the steep climb I’d just done; to my right that trail continues down and north to points unknown. (Don’t look at the map to see if maybe it ends somewhere near the road to Eilat and civilization. Don’t!) I look; it does; I hesitate. Behind me is the path I just took halfway up to the peak of Har Shlomo; in front of me is the trail I’m to take—and it starts, I realize dejectedly, with another sheer hand-over-heel climb up a jagged rock face. Déjà vu all over again. But I feel a sense of purpose and strength; I took the mature decision to set out for camp and relinquish the desire for the great view—having made the impetuous choice to come this way in the first place—and know from the map that this last section is relatively flat and easy.
Except it’s not. Forty-five minutes later I am sitting on the ground in despair. I’m actually crying. Not quite “sitting”; crouching, precariously, with my pack still on, leaning against the rock wall of this mountain (Har Yehoram), looking straight down to the rocks about 6 meters or 20 feet below me. After the initial few hundred meters of intense boulder-navigation and climbing up and down the large black, now brown, rocks on the path linking Har Shlomo and Har Yehoram, I find myself walking a path winding along the side of the mountain—and it becomes narrower and narrower. I see it continuing on ahead—what, is this a goat path? A mouse trail? Indeed the map is correct: it is relatively flat. But my God! I can’t keep my balance, and one step just a few centimeters to the left and I’ll fall into this crevice and break my neck!
I keep saying to myself: you are not the only person to ever have done this, others have passed here before you. This is a marked trail, schoolchildren from Eilat probably walk here! If something were to happen, you have a cell phone. But then I keep thinking that few do this with a heavy pack, or at 50, or in the late afternoon, or after a rain, or alone, or… and I’m really panicking. I can’t take another step—and even as I crouch down I recognize what a cliché that is. But I just can’t. So I start to fantasize: I’m on the cellphone with Yonatan, asking him to call in 669 (the elite IDF air rescue unit); I’m calling Zvi to come find me; I’m walking back to the trail crossing which at least is on a level part of the mountain, and setting up my tent there for the night. I have just enough water; can always pick up what I buried at the night camp when I get there in the morning. And in the morning all this will look different—brighter, easier, more passable…..
And then it hits me: Aryeh, you are here. You are alone. This is your reality and, no, in the morning the only difference would be you’ll be tired and frustrated, disappointed and hundreds of meters back from where you are now. It’s not dark YET. This path is your path; you know this. Yonatan’s note comes back to me: there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. Frankl is right, it’s all a question of attitude. Forget the fantasizing as you forget the over-dramatizing of the dangers and the narrowness of the path and sharpness of the rocks. It is what it is, as Yonatan’s friend Zachy said once, and your “is” is here and now and ahead. Deal with it; get to it.
So I get up, and look ahead. Clearly I was right: I really do have to be careful. But I can do this; and I start, slowly, keeping my weight to my right, with my hand on the rock face and walking sticks dragging and bouncing from my left hand as they hang over the edge… and I make it, some 400 meters or so, wow, to a small pass where the trail widens and I collapse on the ground, literally, a bundle of nerves and exhilarated emotion. I did it!
There’s an amazing thing about our ability as humans to re-interpret, or reassess, events in our past. In the immediate aftermath of this traumatic first day out on the Trail, and then months after I’d completed the trek, my perceptions of the danger and difficulty, of the heat and discomfort and weight and—yes—despair, were overcome with the excitement and feeling of accomplishment of getting past that harsh ascent and treacherous mountain-precipice path. It wasn’t merely the physical act of conquering the mountain (mountain? serious hikers please refrain from chuckling, but from sea level to 700m is a bit more than a hill), nor even the psychological victory of overcoming my terror. It was, I’ve come to realize, an emotional, almost spiritual recognition of my ability to persevere, and of my capacity to focus on a goal, find a reasonable path, ignore or subdue my fear of failure or injury or of the unknown, and move forward. And this all on the first day out.
It’s not that I didn’t still hurt from the effort—my muscles wouldn’t let me forget. And later, it’s not that I didn’t remember the pain. But the hardship seemed to fade in importance—both immediately following, and then as time passed—while the sense of triumph grew and became dominant. At the time, and then periodically through the trip and following it, this gave me pause: what is it about the human psyche which allows us—in fact encourages us and almost forces us—to focus on the positive and diminish the negative? And how can we harness this, purposefully, to help us rise above our personal or societal challenges? Then, and now, it reminded me of all the stories of childbirth I’ve heard (as a man and a father)—“It was a difficult labor… but look at this beautiful child!” Without the latter emotion overcoming the former painful experience, would any woman agree to give birth (or to have another child after the first)? How does this work, and is there a way we can cognitively train ourselves to use this capacity to overcome hardship, address problems, change our lives? I wondered about this continually through and after the most challenging days of my trek.
From here I can see a long flat path along the ridge - not easy but certainly easier than it’s been up to this point. About twenty minutes along this path I come across a small plaque, and I wish my cousin Tamar (a PhD in geography) is with me (remember to message her). It says this is a unique place on the face of the earth. I’m standing at a point where the granite rock on my right, and the sedimentary layer of earth to my left, emerged some 500 million years apart, and apparently the juxtaposition of the two in one location is extraordinary. I feel privileged, and rather small, to just stand there for a few moments. It’s tremendously humbling to realize how brief our stay on this planet is, how insignificant a part we play in the vast symphony of the history of the cosmos. It kind of puts my problems in perspective.
[Ed. note: Journal entries—excerpts from the journal I kept on the trail, without repeating what was already related—would be “sidebars”.]
Journal – Day 1, Feb 16
I can’t believe the Red Book seriously recommends [this way]: unfathomable. ‘Inconceivable!’ :-) How many times did I tell myself I could do it? ‘Don’t look down.’ ‘Don’t look at the view.’ ‘Just pretend there’s lots of room’ instead of a sheer fall of 6m or so, sometimes on both sides. No room for the pack, kept bumping into the cliff – but can’t lean out or will lose balance and fall! ‘Can’t go back’….
But HaMAITH – made it! You know it….
Starting to appreciate everything I’ve been given… Shira’s walking sticks, Shuki’s backpack, Yon’s letter & Y/S’s flashlight (using now as lantern), Mo’s music and massages, wearing Tani’s throat scarf & hat now [Mo’s then-boyfriend, now husband]; have Papa’s Tallit, Mark’s Camelback & wild rice and more (and good advice to lower the pack!), Yon’s pillow, I think my hiking socks are from Mom & Dad, and even my siddur is from Katie…. I feel loved and supported,… [rainwater stained the page, can’t make out the rest]. It’s getting cold and windy….
A few steps later I arrive at an unexpected sight: a panoramic view looking north to the Arava, east to the hills of Moav/Jordan, and south to the Gulf of Eilat. So perhaps I missed what Saar says “some consider… the best panorama in Israel” at Har Shlomo but this is incredible! And more so in the gentle light of the fading day. And most so in the afterglow of the feeling of achievement I still can’t (and don’t want to) shake. This is Har Yehoram, which means I’m close to the night camp. I take another break here too, appreciating the view and the sunset, though I’m increasingly aware that I mustn’t pause too long, having lost all confidence in my map-reading abilities (and in the Red Guide’s time and distance estimates). I don’t want to tear myself away: I’m somewhat overcome with awe and gratitude for the beauty, the silence, the majesty of the mountain, the sunset, the magnificent vista and in many ways the entire day. I wish I had someone to share it with. But I’m glad I’m here alone, too. Confused, yes; emotional, certainly; ready to get to the campsite—definitely...