Tuesday, February 18, 2020 -
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Hiking through Israel at 63, feeling the footprints

Mountain range, starting from Eilat. (© David Wahl)

By David Wahl


AFTER miles of climbing the jagged edge of Israel’s Karbolet Mountain, wilting from the vertical and melting in 98-degree desert heat, we held the treasure map in our trembling fingers.

This was not a map to Roman ruins or a friendly hikers’ hut, though there were plenty of those on our 600 mile route through the “Shvil.” What we sought was far more precious: Bottles of water, left by our outfitters, buried in sand as protection from desert pirates. The only water source for dozens of miles to get us through the next day’s spectacular march. No water means no progress; that was the harsh desert rule.

Marked with orange, blue and white stripes, the Israel National Trail meanders over 600 miles from the southern city of Eilat, to the northernmost kibbutz Dan.

Over the 44 days that I traversed the “shvil” ( Hebrew for trail ), I renewed my awe for this very special country, and this important time in the history of our people.

Moreover, the trail revealed to me how many other peoples and civilizations over the millennia had treasured this land.

To quote Robert McFarlane, the path was “not only a means of traversing space, but also way of feeling, being and knowing.”

Departing with the support of my family and the blessings of my rabbi, I was concerned that at age 63 my strength and resilience might not hold up against the challenge.

Divided into three sections, the Shvil covers about 250 miles in a remote desert, 150 miles of beaches and rolling hills of central Israel, and finally the mountains of the Galilee.

Joined by my younger Israeli cousin for the desert segment, and my wife over the luxuriant middle, I was able to safely hike, both accompanied and solo, armed with a book of maps and directions.

Still, blisters, fatigue, scrapes and occasional loneliness were frequent obstacles during the journey. But the rewards from this break from my routine Jewish American professional life continue to be counted long since my return.

FIRST, the immense power of the desert.

Dry and rugged, the Israeli deserts open your senses to rich colors, long horizons, and beautiful skies night and day. One cannot resist the pull as the desert absorbs thoughts, as all is focused upon the journey.

Occasionally, a Nabatean spice route is followed, an oasis or Shitta (acacia) tree used for shade, or an avant-garde sculpture park enjoyed, each serving as a reminder of the ancient paths, sparse vegetation and even culture coexisting here. But these rare distractions vanish as the desert continues to draw your attention to the task at hand, traversing its expanse, managing the heat, and finding the next water cache.

Challenging mountainous terrain and steep climbs and deep pools are likewise exciting diversions. Yet, time and again, the desert takes over, submission being the only response.

LEAVING the desert and entering Arad, a modern city is a welcome reprieve, but also a bittersweet end to the desert. A day of rest and resupplying is followed by a return to the orange-blue-white stripped rocks and the journey.

On fertile ground, with ever present water, and access to services at local kibbutzim and moshavim ( villages), the trek now becomes less daunting, enabling thoughts to wander freely.

The fields and hills of middle Israel are replete with history. Bronze-age irrigation systems, unexcavated Canaanite villages, caravan routes, Roman highways and aqueducts, abandoned Ottoman railroad paths, British fortresses: each tell the story of past empires that laid claim to this special land.

Dominating this revelation is the endurance of the Jewish attachment to the valleys, hills and streams.

Monuments and memorials dot the Shvil throughout the midlands, and tell of Biblical, ancient and contemporary events.

Within one day’s hiking, the path follows the Elah Valley where David faced Goliath, then wanders atop a Roman highway, then the Burma Road, from where determined Israeli soldiers saved Jerusalem only 65 years ago. Through history, the Shvil roams.

Unexpected was the verdant route into the metropolis of Tel Aviv.

Following along the Yarkon River, the Shvil headed west, along banks rich with tall green grasses, yellow lily pads in flowing water with sounds of birds, and frogs.

The appearance of joggers, bikers and picnicking families were signs of entering the city limits, but otherwise the proximity to the city was disguised by sauntering along the expanse of Yarkon Park.

The option of veering off the trail for a day or two of Tel Aviving was certainly enticing, but the rhythm of the trek could be maintained by heading north at an excavated Canaanite village, where the river meets the Mediterranean Sea.

For a few days, the tri-colored trail markers direct us along the many unspoiled beaches of the clear blue Mediterranean. Sun-bathers, swimmers, surfers and kites bring a whimsical feel to the daily routine. But no complaints here: fresh salads, falafel, hummus and juices are endlessly available at beachside restaurants.

LEAVING the sea, the trail goes through the first of many Arab villages, Jisr a-Zarka — language now with a different cadence and resonance, flavors sweeter and fragrances uniquely aromatic.

This different culture highlights the diversity that makes Israel unique. It also engenders discomfort over that fact that two peoples still struggle to find a way to peace.

Do the warm exchanges of “Shalom” disguise a disdain or even fear of one another?

Or do these words offer a hopeful sign of what can exist between Arab and Jew?

This part of the trail reduces the news headlines and politics to a personal interaction at a restaurant or store. And the dream of two peoples living in peace seems possible.

Or does it? The shadow of this question lingers as the trail returns time and again to tranquil Arab villages throughout the North.

The Shvil now turns eastward up into the Carmel mountainous span, and the lower Galilee.

Artists colony, Druze villages and resplendent fields and vineyards create a new character for the trek. This land is fertile for crops, culture and miracles.

And soon, even a Jewish hiker can feel the footprints of another as the trail leaves Nazareth and heads toward the Sea of Galilee, the “Kinneret.”

Now identified as the Gospel Trail, the Shvil visits many sites dear to the Christian hiker. Mount Tabor and Yardenit at the River Jordan are among the first signs.

A SUPPORT along the Shvil are the Israelis and Arabs known as Shvil Malachi, or Trail Angels. The up-to-date list at WikiShvil enables contact with individuals and families who open their homes and gardens along the trail as support to the thru-hiker.

A free place to sleep is always waiting.

And a hungry look will often produce an invitation for dinner and an engaging conversation into the night, in a country where English is almost a primary language.

So much more happens along the way. Migrating storks, residential birds, hawks, omnipresent camels and ibex, frogs, turtles, fox remind us that we are not the lone inhabitants of this land.

Weekend “Shvilisties” hike portions of the trail in large groups, young Israelis use it to decompress from the demands of military service, and the infrequent European trekker comes to delight in a new destination hike.

At night camps or rest stops, stories are exchanged often with greater candor, less stridency and more intimacy than experienced in Tel Aviv cafes or Jerusalem parks.

THE final miles of the south-to-north trek provide an easy saunter and a chance to reflect.

Approaching the cul-de-sac created by the northern snow-laced mountains, the view back to the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan Valley provoke the mind to wander to all that has been experienced over the weeks.

One conclusion is inescapable: This land is a treasure and has been so to many empires, civilizations and peoples.

One cannot traverse this path without wondering how, at different moments in history, others have also prized this land.

And today, this place has been revitalized by the realization of the ancient Jewish longing for a homeland.

How critical it then is to explore, know and ponder Israel and her future, now.

“Lech Lecha” (“Go, go forth”) is a commandment the forefather of the Jewish people Abraham received as he set out on his journey from his home in the east to a land he did not know.

These words were shouted out to me as encouragement from many an Israeli along the way.

Kol ha-Kavod (“Way to go”) is another greeting I heard as young Israelis noted an older man moving slowly toward the Shvil’s finish.

Humbled by the physical challenge, and grateful for the blessing that allowed me these six weeks, I removed my worn out hiking boots at the final resting spot at Kibbutz Dan.

Dr. David Wahl is a psychiatrist in Denver.

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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