Summer camp – there’s something about being plunged into a bunkhouse in a forest with a bunch of little strangers that touches you forever.
At camp, you’re united by a common purpose (that’s what camp songs are for). You challenge yourself physically and make new friends. And it all happens against the backdrop of nature, which helps you access something deep within your soul.
This past week, I hiked for three days in the desert with Heels of Love: a fundraising hike for Alyn Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Israel. The depth of the experience took me completely by surprise.
I had expected a good hike, a physical challenge, and the satisfaction of raising money for an important cause. But I hadn’t expected such a meaningful experience.
For the minor investment of a few short days, I shared in an adventure that changed me. The hike was full of moments that I will always remember. Sort of like summer camp – on steroids.
Step One – An Extreme Adventure
The Alyn Heels of Love Hike took us on a journey through the mountains of Eilat. Guided by our fearless leader, Assaf (whose off-color jokes kept us giggling), we climbed up and down, day after day, through riverbeds to high peaks.
Lest one think that a desert trek means boring scenery – the terrain we traversed was multifaceted and interesting. One day, we climbed a black magma mountain. The next, we wandered through a shallow riverbed, lined with green and flowering plants. On the third, we squeezed our way through red rock tunnels and climbed through multicolored canyons, like a trip through a desert kaleidoscope.
We saw ibex and gazelle. And a dozen different kinds of birds.
The scenery was never boring. And neither was the exertion level. As Assaf put it, we were “sweating our life out” as we ascended Mount Yehoram, then Maale Gishron, then Mount Shlomo: the king of Eilat mountains. In the riverbeds, we hopped across boulders and climbed down ladders to descend back to level ground. Only to then climb up again.
But each time we reached the top of another desert peak, “oooohs” and “aaaahs” were heard all around. The views made the physical exertion worth it every single time.
Throughout the group, our Alyn hikers tried to find words to describe the beauty. “This scenery is like Lord of the Rings,” said one man.
“I feel like we’re on another planet,” said another.
Step Two – Making New Friends
As an adult in my 30s (okay, almost 40!), I feel like I’ve pretty much covered the ground of friend-making. I have my neighborhood friends, my old high school friends, my very best friends. And, then there’s my family. I have no shortage of social interaction.
So, when I set out on the Alyn hike, I wasn’t really expecting to make new friends. Yes, there would be small talk. But I figured I probably didn’t have a lot in common with the 12 random strangers I would spending the next three days with.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Within the first day, it became clear. Putting my fears of social awkwardness aside, the interactions I would have over the course of the hike would be meaningful and enrich my life.
First surprise: we all shared common interests, some that I don’t necessarily share with my regular friends: We loved hiking and the outdoors. We loved the Land of Israel. We all sought physical challenge. And as a group, we felt passionate about helping children with their own physical challenges.
On the basis of those ties, there was much to discuss. This was a group I could jell with. We helped each other through the tricky parts, shared our snacks and sunscreen, and traded tips. And in the process, I heard fascinating life stories and broke out of my routine bubble of social interaction. It was deeply fulfilling.
At night, we grouped together around the campfire to drink whisky and wine. We heard inspiring stories about the hospital and shared stories of our own. Then we said goodnight to our new friends as we zipped ourselves into our own private tents, arranged in a close-knit circle.
Step Three – Back to Basics
The noise of everyday life is rich and varied. There’s so much to do and think about, so many small tasks involving our work and home life. Material possessions to acquire and use. Events to plan and attend. For most of us, there’s a lot going on.
The tempo of life changes when you’re out on a three-day hike. You are no longer in charge. You stop thinking about the schedule, the things you have to do, and where you have to go.
You don’t menu plan, fight traffic, or go over the day’s work tasks. At night, you don’t surf the internet or watch Netflix. Instead you refuel, change out of your sweat soaked clothes, and settle into your sleeping bag, happy and exhausted.
When morning comes, there’s no treadmill to tackle or closet of clothes to choose from. You put on a clean hiking shirt, lace up your dirty hiking boots, and head out on the trail again. Life becomes blissfully simple.
It’s that summer camp feeling all over again. On the Heels of Love hike, I felt completely removed from regular life. A palpable quiet rested in my soul.
Something about being in the desert, an uninhabited and empty place, made the experience more profound. The noise of life dwindled into silence, making way for inner peace.
Step Four – A Common Purpose
I think the experience of the hike would have been incredible even if we hadn’t been using it to raise money for charity. But the fact that we were able to collect over $100,000 for Alyn Hospital took it to the next level.
When we sat around a fire at night, we listened to stories about Alyn. We heard from the hospital’s director, Dr. Maurit Beeri, whose life path took her from medicine to children’s rehab.
At this point in time, medicine does a tremendous amount to save children who wouldn’t have survived a few decades ago. But it is therapy that takes these children to a place where they can live a purposeful and fulfilling life.
We heard from Dana, a nurse at Alyn who described the children as “her babies.” The hours are long and the shift work is grueling, but the knowledge that she has helped these kids recover basic skills makes it all completely worth it.
At night, when we crawled into our simple tents (some of which were completely blown over on the second, windy night), nobody complained. Everyone was satisfied and happy that the funds they raised went to helping kids rather than hot showers. We were here not to indulge, but to make a difference.
Step Five – It’s the Little Things
That said, being on the hike felt like an indulgence. In my normal life, when do I have a chance to drink sweet tea on a mountaintop? When do I get to hang out with both religious and non-religious people, with professions ranging from physicist to pharmacist?
I don’t normally get to dig up desert fossils. Or discover bulbous rocks with a crystalized inner core. Or see a rainbow revealed as I reach a mountain peak on a stormy day.
For me (as a mother of six), it is an absolutely profound luxury to return from a hike to find dinner ready and waiting, with hot soup and a campfire to boot.
Gone, But Not Forgotten
On the final day, when we reached Eilat, we took hot showers and gathered around for a celebratory dinner. We said goodbye, exchanged phone numbers, and went back to our own separate lives.
I returned home with the feeling that I had pushed myself to the physical limit, built up my soul and spirit, and contributed to a worthy cause. What better way could there be to spend three days of my life?
It wasn’t exactly summer camp. But the Heels of Love Hike was a purposeful experience in nature where new ties were formed and lasting memories created. For me, that’s just about as good as it gets.
Check out Hiking the Holyland for more great hiking adventures.
To watch a video about all the amazing work done at Alyn, click here.
Email Heels of Love to sign up for next year’s hike.