MY ISRAEL TRAIL: Finding Peace in the Promised Land
Plain Sight (Cedar Fort)
I’m scared, standing on a thin ledge on the side of a cliff. To my left is a sheer rough wall; to my right, a drop of 30 feet or so to the river bed below. But directly ahead an angry tree blocks the way. (How does it hold to the side of the rock?) It seems threatening as it jumps in the hot wind. With about 50 pounds on my back, I’m too afraid of falling to turn around. Turn to the right and my backpack hits the rock face; turn to the left and the weight of the pack puts me off balance. And the boulders down below aren’t very welcoming.
What to do?
The trail leads into an abyss. Literally. I guess I’ve lost the path, which, while it’s happened before, has never been such a problem. Usually you just retrace your steps, find the last trail marker, and then pay a bit more attention to discover where you missed the next one. But here, on a cliff in Nachal Amud, the Stream of the Pillar connecting the holy city of Tzfat (Safed) with the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, it’s just not that easy. Even with the backpack on (including the small guitar hanging from its side), just a minute or so ago I pretty nonchalantly leapt over a three-foot gap in the ledge a few paces back. But I just know—with all my casual confidence built up over the preceding weeks of hiking through Israel’s desert mountains and northern reaches—I can’t do it again. That is, if I can even turn around on this one-foot-wide ledge.
It may be the perfect metaphor.
Sometimes you reach an impasse. Not only is it unclear what the next step is, but you’re also not sure how the heck you got there and are too scared to move. All the alternatives you can imagine are dangerous, or unpalatable, or frightening. You’re stuck, and the panic starts to rise.
Times of personal hardship, relationships, work situations, and other challenges we face test our mettle. Rabbi Herschel Schachter taught that the biblical “value” of a person in Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, is calculated by his or her response to suffering and adversity. Elie Weisel and Victor Frankl took the personal and national horror of the Shoah/Holocaust and translated their experiences into timeless lessons for humanity. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl stresses the importance of having a goal to strive for, pushing us to move ahead, to take the next step, and the next.
My goal that day was to get to the Kinneret by nightfall (and not to plunge down the cliff face onto the rocks below). My grander goal was to finish what I’d started, hiking the Israel National Trail (“Shvil Yisrael”) from one end of our tiny country to the other. (It’s not that tiny—the Shvil runs some 1000 kilometers or 600 miles from the Red Sea in the South to the border with Lebanon in the North.)
And after my devastating divorce, my ultimate goal was to get my life back on track, or to find a new track for myself.
I take three deep breaths—thank you, Thomas Crum—to calm down, focus, and discover the possibilities open before me; then I make a decision. Not moving my feet an inch, I lower the pack slowly to the ground, managing to lean it against the rock. Freed from the weight of the bag, I turn carefully and retrace my steps along the narrow path on the side of the cliff—jumping over the breach—and yes!—find the trail-marking high up on the rock face above an almost invisible foothold carved into the cliff. I did that ledge once with the pack, I know that; all I have to do now is convince myself I can do it again, this time in the opposite direction. Retracing my steps, it’s funny, but when I (carefully!) heft the pack on my back, it seems somehow lighter, more manageable. It hasn’t changed; I have changed. Or rather, my attitude, my sense of self and sense of direction and purpose, my confidence and belief in my ability to walk the path, has changed. It’s not that I’m no longer afraid; I just know I have it in me to keep going.
Sometimes we need to set aside our baggage and re-evaluate. That’s what this book is about. My hike along the Israel Trail—or my Israel Trail as I’m calling it—enabled the discovery, or rediscovery, of a number of essential truths for living. All come from the ancient wisdom of the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, but at the same time they are universal and universally relevant for anyone seeking peace.
I began to consider the concept of peace on three levels: inner peace (tranquility and wholeness); harmony and beauty in relationships (whether personal or work-related); and even conflict resolution between nations, regions, or countries.
I set out on a journey to “find peace in the holy land.” And in my search for inner serenity while walking the Land, I realized many of these truths helping me on my personal journey could perhaps be helpful to others.
I was overwhelmed by the daunting challenges facing me—on the Trail, in my life, and at the national level. Every day brought a new difficulty, from scorching heat and impossible inclines to aching loneliness and crises of confidence, from news of family problems to news of terror attacks. I meditated on mountaintops and cried in dry creek beds; I wrote anguished journal entries and composed songs to lift my spirits. I looked back, and inward, and up to the night sky, and over the valley to the next mountain range, and down at the ants in the dirt, and back along the trail to see how far I’d come.
What I discovered on the Shvil was a sense of self, a sense of personal and national history . . . and a perspective of sorts on the human condition. These are my reflections, a meditation as it were on existence, relationships, happiness, challenges, and hope.
I am no philosopher. I’m a normal guy trying to adjust to a number of life situations: some normal, some less so—divorce, loneliness, war, loss, terror. Seeking “peace,” I found it while walking ten miles a day across Israel. But what helped me find the internal tranquility I sought wasn’t just the solitude or the exercise; it wasn’t just the moving history I stumbled across or the phenomenal views. It was the realization that—for me, perhaps for you, maybe for all of us— there are a few basic concepts which, when understood and acted upon, can make our journey on the Trail and in life successful, enjoyable, and meaningful.
Divorce has become so commonplace in modern life that it seems mundane; well over fifty percent of marriages in America end that way. I suppose that’s like saying death is commonplace; it doesn’t make it any easier to bear, though, does it? I was happily married for almost thirty years. “Happily” is hardly the word: ours was an epic love, an aligning of the stars, a bringing together of disparate worlds and two individuals who were destined for each other and who were emblems of all that is right with the world and of what real love is. Our friends and our children—and our friend’s children and childrens’ friends—looked to us and our relationship as a paradigm of what a loving, romantic, blissful, supportive, equal marriage is.
When Karen, my British wife of twenty-eight years, said she wanted a divorce in the Spring of 2012, it was as if everything I’d built my life on—my understanding of the dedication that is part of the institution of marriage, my commitment to Israel, my religious observance, my belief in the power of love—disappeared into an abyss. Over the course of the next eighteen months, through various stages of counselling, tears, confusion, anger, discussion, attempts at understanding, and eventual acquiescence, my life was literally turned inside out.
In the midst of the separation, as Karen was moving out, I attended a threeday silent meditation retreat soon after my son’s wedding. It was a transformative experience, and it began a process enabling me to move forward. Then, later that year, with the lessons from the retreat undeniably on my mind and the divorce imminent, at the climax of an excruciating and exhilarating hike with my youngest daughter to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite, California, I made a decision. “I’m going to hike the Shvil!” I told my daughter, referring to the Israel National Trail—Shvil Yisrael in Hebrew, or just the Shvil or the Trail for short. Six months later—six weeks after handing Karen her Get, the Jewish religious bill-of-divorce—I stepped through the revolving door of a hotel in Eilat on the Red Sea and headed into the desert, with nothing but a backpack and two walking sticks to accompany me.
My Israel Trail is the story of what I came to understand while walking the Land of Israel, its length and breadth, over the course of eight weeks, in fortytwo days of hiking (I keep Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, and didn’t hike from sundown Friday evening through stars-out Saturday night). Of those 42 days, 40 I walked alone. I hiked either entirely alone (reviewing my journal entries, there were twelve days during which I didn’t come into contact with a single soul on the trail) or with no companion save an occasional nod or exchange with others along the way or at rest stops, stores, or hosts for the night. Forty days of contemplation—of life, of destiny, of priorities, of the human predicament, of God, of fate, of politics and love and history and philosophy. It wasn’t exactly the 40 days and 40 nights of Moshe (Moses) on Mt. Sinai, nor the 40 years of the Children of Israel’s wandering in the desert—but it felt like a little of both.
And though I don’t pretend to have discovered the secrets of the universe, I did uncover the secrets of my universe, finding or recognizing a number of truths and tools that not only enabled me to overcome the challenges of the actual physical difficulties of the trek, but inspired me to move forward with my life and to conquer my anguish and despair. And at the same time—or rather, soon thereafter—I recognized how these few simple truths may well be of value to others facing hardship. (I also saw ways to apply these approaches to our Middle Eastern quandary and the hostility Israel has faced since before its founding—a subject to which I hope to return one day.)
None of these concepts are new—but some were new to me. Like the importance of looking back when on the Shvil, taking stock of how far I’d come and enjoying the very different perspective this gives on the present and future direction I was taking. None are even particularly deep, truth be told: but the truth in them, when told, is profound enough to warrant, I believe, the review offered here. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, the Ramchal, intoduces his seminal work “The Path of the Just” by noting that the study of known truths can be incredibly powerful, and helpful, and important.
I might humbly suggest that such could be said of this effort. What is original here is the combination of these ideas and how I reached these conclusions, how they connect to each other, and an innovative application of them to the hardships I was facing and the challenges we all try to meet in our lives. (Much of what follows refers to God because for me God is real and active in history; but it can also be understood from the perspective of fate or providence.)
Put simply, I learned on the Shvil that there are five fundamental elements that combine to create the framework for real peace and harmony, whether personal or national.
Combining these five elements on a hiking trail helps immeasurably. A life philosophy based on these five can lead to incredible happiness—the kind we all yearn for....
This book is not merely a travelogue—though I’ll enjoy sharing some of the many inspiring experiences, amusing anecdotes, and fascinating people from the trail as launch pads to explore the personal and communal challenges we face. And it is not just another self-help book of inner/outer exploration and personal growth—though I am confident the path I discovered can be of enormous help to others facing similar challenges and decisions, based as it is on time-honored wisdom and the works of giants, from Talmudic sages to modern psychologists, teachers, and writers. Rather, these threads are woven together, relevant to and supportive of the other. As we discover the Land and strengthen the self, we can apply the five elements as related in the context of my two months on the Shvil.
I hope you enjoy the journey, and that it may offer some encouragement for journeys of your own.
“There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” —Morpheus in The Matrix (As quoted by my son Netanel, in his farewell note given to me on the morning of the first day of my trek.)
[A note on names: This is a true story; everything in this book took place as related here. The names of some people have been changed to protect their privacy. ]
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.
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....