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Seeing what’s in your own backyard

We have everything right here in our backyard, there’s no reason to travel anywhere,” my father said nearly every summer when I was a kid growing up in Denver.

I longed during summer vacations to get out of Colorado and go somewhere exotic, expand my horizons, go to a place I could later brag about to my friends. I wanted to check out Omaha to the east, Oklahoma City to the south, perhaps Salt Lake City to the west.

But not my father. Nope, my dad was content summer after summer just driving our tent-trailer about 90 minutes north and spending a few days in Rocky Mountain National Park. Not only did we go to the same national park every summer, but we went to the same campground in that same national park, and — if we got really lucky — the same campsite in the same campground in the same national park.

My dad liked the familiar. Besides, he didn’t think anything could beat it.

“Look at the beauty around you, son,” my father would say. “You’re not going to find anything more beautiful anywhere in the world. People spend thousands to travel to Europe to see the Alps. Forget it — you’ve got it all right here, right in your own backyard.”

But, at nine, 10 and 11 years old, I wasn’t having any of it. At that age, you want to leap the fence and get out of your backyard. Same glaciers, same majestic mountain peaks, same idyllic lakes, same lush evergreen forests, same rushing rivers full of the same rainbow trout. Enough already, I wanted to go somewhere else on summer vacation, see something different. Forget the Alps, my soul yearned to see the Gateway Arch in St. Louis — anything different.

I was a moron.

My dad had a rare quality that took me a long time to cultivate: appreciating what’s right there in your backyard. He also had another trait I didn’t give him enough credit for: actually knowing what’s in your backyard.

When guests came through town, he knew where to take them: Rocky Mountain National Park. And he knew that park inside out: what hiking trails to go on, what time to get to the trailhead to get a parking place, and what time to get back in the afternoon before the mountain cloudbursts began.

Me? I live in a country with a million nature, religious and historic sites an hour from my home, but always scratch my head wondering what to do with guests coming through. I take them to the Western Wall and Machane Yehuda, but then what? Where else to schlep them?

This issue came up last week when my niece from Lakewood, NJ, and her 12-year-old daughter stayed with us for a couple of nights. I had Friday morning free and wanted to take them somewhere.

They had already been to the Kotel and had taken a one-day tour to Safed. Coming from Lakewood, Meah Shearim isn’t much of a thrill — they have that at home. Masada would be interesting, but although I really like my relatives, I don’t like them enough to get up at 2 a.m. to hike up the fortress before the desert sun starts beating down. Tel Aviv didn’t hold much of an allure for them, and museums aren’t their thing. So what else was nearby and easily accessible?

“How about the Dead Sea?” The Wife suggested.

The Dead Sea, I thought. Interesting idea. But it’s devastatingly hot and salty. Who goes to the Dead Sea in the middle of the summer?

Turns out, lots of folks.

Unlike my father who knew what was in his backyard, I really have little idea what’s in mine. There’s a beach at the northern end of the Dead Sea I visited 15 years ago, but must have had a bad experience, because I never went back. I should have: it’s now clean, organized and accessible — nothing like the dirty, run-down place I remembered. This is a pleasant place I could actually imagine myself going to even without foreign visitors, though I know I never will.

The thing about the Dead Sea is that — unlike a regular beach — it’s not exactly an all-day activity. How long can you really stay in the salt water, even if it’s your first time? You float, you turn over, you run in place in the water, you notice the slimy sensation of all that salt on your skin, you feel a sting in every cut and sore on your body, and then what? You can’t exactly swim laps, and there are no waves to frolic in.

Moreover, unlike a beach along the Mediterranean where being by the water has a cooling effect, there is no fresh sea breeze to speak of here. So you sit on the beach and sweat. The lifeguard, reminding everyone to drink abundantly, announced during our stay that it was 44 degrees (Celsius ones — over 111 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s the type of place where, at least in the summer, you go to experience for a short while, and leave.

Then what?

Then, but of course, DCity — the new upscale home furnishings mall right on the way home in Mishor Adumim (D is for Design).

Sure, just what my guests from New Jersey, the outlet mall capital of the world, traveled to Israel to see — a mall. But DCity is different, I explained — it looks Italian.

And, indeed, it does. It’s built around an Italian theme, and the food court, with an impressive artificial sky full of the kind of clouds you rarely see in the desert, is designed to approximate an Italian piazza.

Architecturally this is an impressive place, but there is one thing that bothers me: why take an Italian piazza and plop it down in the middle of the desert? Why not, when designing a mall in the desert, play on the rocky, desert theme? Why not leverage the vast emptiness of the existing landscape?

Who comes to the desert to feel like they’re in Venice? Do Venetians build malls in their city to make people there feel as if they’re in the Judean desert?

Probably not. Why? Because the Venetians, like my dad, surely appreciate what’s right there in their own backyard.

We should do the same.

Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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Herb Keinon, a Denver native, interned at the IJN before going on to a career at the Jerusalem Post, where he is a senior contributing editor.

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