I was so uncomfortable it is hard to explain. I ached from the exertion of our first day on the Israel Trail, the ground was hard, there was no place for my rather substantial curves, and in spite of being physically exhausted, I wasn’t sleepy. I saw every hour pass on my watch and every minute seemed an hour. I remember looking at my watch at 10:30 PM, tossing and turning for hours and then looking again and it was 10:45 PM. I could not get comfortable, on my back, on my side, on my stomach, there didn’t seem to be a position where some part of my body didn’t hurt. I watched the big dipper on its trip circling around the north star, Polaris. I watched the moon come up and shine so brightly that there were shadows everywhere, I saw a breathtaking shooting star. But truly… I wished to miss all the beauty and sleep. It was a torture of sorts.
This is a quote from Leg One of our adventures on the Israel National Trail, which is posted on my website. We had started at the base of Mount Hermon, near Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights, walked through the Nimrod Fortress and found ourselves above the Banias Springs — still in the highlands — when evening descended and we needed to make camp. We found an area flat and big enough for two sleeping bags.
There were breathtaking views on all sides: the Nimrod Fortress, lit by the setting sun behind us; wild forests to the east; the domestic, cultivated Hula Valley spreading out a head of us; and further away, past the Hula Valley, the mountains on the border with Lebanon. We cooked Ramen noodles on our tiny camp stove as the sun set, and ate them sitting on the ground, out of the pot. Then it quickly got dark and chilly. It was 7:30 p.m. Now what? It was possible to read with our flashlights, but in reality reading wasn’t comfortable — too cold, no place to sit comfortably. The only real option was to go to sleep, which I simply couldn’t do.
The next day we walked about 18 kilometers from that high spot to the outskirts of Kiryat Shmona. We hiked along the Hermon River to Kibbutz Dan and then through the Senir Nature Reserve, ending up about five kilometers fromTel Hai. We are both middle aged, and neither one of us was in particularly good shape; that 18-kilometer hike pushed us to the limit of our capabilities. When we finally found a place to camp, both of us were in considerable discomfort from aches and pains. And yet, it was clear already on that first hike that, despite the discomforts, our new endeavor of hiking the Israel Trail was going to be a resounding success.
That was not in question. The question is: Why do we choose to hike it in such a rough way, sleeping on the ground, and camping in the wild, carrying everything on our backs?
There are many other ways that the Trail can be experienced. One approach (which we took for the hikes around Haifa, where we live) is to do the Israel Trial by day hikes. A person need only carry a day pack, and sleep comfortably in their own bed at night. There are also organizations that take your backpack from one camp to the next so you can carry only a day pack. There are many lodges along the way, where the proprietors are willing to take you from the trail for a night of comfort and then bring you back in the morning. And there are also “trail angels” who, for no charge, will help in numerous ways, from letting you have a room in a kibbutz to providing water or transport to and from the trail. There are even field schools along the way, which have rooms reserved for Israel Trail hikers. Usually no reservation is necessary; you just show up, first come first served. They provide beds, small kitchenettes, showers — all the conveniences.
And yet we prefer to hike the trail without availing ourselves of any of those options. We’ve become addicted to the added experiences found only if you sleep alone in the wild. Perhaps foremost, we’ve come to love the natural rhythm: We cook as darkness falls, we eat as the stars appear, and we go to sleep when it is fully dark. Then, next morning, we force ourselves to wake up and pack while the first light appears in the east, we start walking when we can see the trail, and we eat breakfast when the sun has risen and there is a great view.
Also, I have fallen in love with the night sky. Is there a sight more glorious than the Milky Way spread out in all its glittering mystery, viewed from the deep darkness of the desert?
Finally, we’ve become addicted to extreme contrast. For three or four days we live a life of hardship on the land, but then we return to our home. For a while we take nothing for granted. The ordinary life we live seems like paradise. Sitting on a chair is a luxury. The ability to eat a meal on a table is a luxury. Water on tap is a luxury. The safety of a roof over our heads and closed doors feels like an unusual jolt of security. The comfort of a soft bed, pure luxury. And, oh my dear Lord, a hot bath is like heaven itself, pure bliss.
Full disclosure: Many aspects of all this are not as hard now as they were then. I have learned to sleep on the ground; I’m in better shape, so I don’t have as many aches and pains; but as we’ve gotten more experienced and better at what we’re doing, the hiking itself has grown increasingly difficult. In one way or another, every leg of the Israel Trail has stretched us, sometimes past our limits.