In the Line of Fire

Last December I began a pilgrimage hiking alone from Eilat to my mother’s grave in Jerusalem. My husband, Don, and I flew to Eilat together. We walked to the end of the Israel Trail where a few years earlier we had hidden the Golan Stone and easily found it again even after the intervening years. The next morning I started my hike which I did in 6 sections.

(1) Eilat to Uvda (4.5 days)

(2) to Mitzpe Ramon (5 days)

(3) to Sde Boker (2 days –  with my son Daniel)

(4) to the Machtesh haKatan (2.5 days)

(5) to Har Amasa past Arad, (3.5 days)

(6) to Jerusalem, (5 days).
On Thursday night October 22nd 2015 I placed the Golan Stone on my mother’s headstone.

 This is the story of one day during the last section of the pilgrimage.

I was in the middle of an orchard of small trees not far from Kibbutz Lahav. A map and a compass were in one hand and my smartphone in the other. Gmaps showed the Israel Trail was only 100 – 200 meters away, but in which direction? It wasn’t obvious because the arrow on the position icon wasn’t consistent, sometimes it was relative to where I pointed the phone, but sometimes it seemed to point in a random direction. I was lost and alone, and that was how it had been all that interminable morning. This day of all days, when I had severely underestimated the distance to Pura. If I didn’t make it to Pura today, I wouldn’t make it to Jerusalem on Thursday when my sons had arranged their busy schedules to meet me so we could walk the last few kilometers together to my mother’s grave.

I suppressed my pent up frustration and forced myself to concentrate.  The Israel Trail should be to my right through the row of trees. I walked and watched to see if the icon on my phone got closer to the trail.  It did. I walked out of the orchard but blocking my way was a trench much too deep and steep to climb through. Could this day get any more miserable!

I walked along the trench until finally there was a place where I could cross. I found a gravel road that Gmaps said was the trail, though it wasn’t, and I climbed to the top of the hill. Finally I found a faded Israel Trail tricolor symbol at the junction of the actual trail and the dirt road.  But I promptly lost the trail again.

However, it didn’t matter any more. Rt. 325 was to the north. Even I with little sense of direction couldn’t miss it. The Israel Trail meandered into the hills, but I wanted to walk as directly to Pura as I could which meant bypassing that part of the trail and walking on the side of the highway.

I dodged one truck after another until one truck came along that was actually on the shoulder of the road driving directly towards me. It didn’t swerve away, but this wasn’t some terrorist trying to run me down. It was a  truck spaying weed killer. It couldn’t go around me so I had to go around it.  Then as I continued walking, I had to breath the fumes of all the weed killer that had just been sprayed.

Finally I turned off the road and returned to the trail and at 1:30  arrived at a picnic area near Kibbutz Dvira. I unpacked my lunch of Don’s homemade bread, sliced onions, hummus, mustard and cheese.  I was an hour behind schedule, had been walking since 5am, and was exhausted yet I still had more than 12 kilometers to go. I tried to enjoy my food and rest, but the distance ahead weighed on my mind.

In my regular life I am strictly careful of what I eat, and I’m almost always hungry. I fantasize about the food on the trail – as much chocolate as I want, snicker bars, sesame candy, as much cheese as I want, peanut butter, as much bread, roasted peanuts, almonds, and hazelnuts, as much dried fruit…  anything that my heart desires!  But weirdly and ironically on the trail when calories are needed – food loses its appeal and I often have to force myself to eat.

I finished my lunch, sighed as I filled up my water bottles adding 4 kilos to my backpack, and trudged onward. From Dvira to Pura the walking is on flat gravel roads near the train tracks and Rt. 40. The two challenges were finding the tunnel under the highway which was overgrown and not well marked, and the distance in competition with my fading strength.

I reached Pura at five in the evening well before dark, but I had forgotten that the grove of eucalyptus trees where I planned to camp was still another kilometer away from the highway. I knew the place because we’d camped there a few years ago hiking the Israel Trail in the other direction.

That last kilometer was through an area of rocky outcroppings in which the vegetation was burnt. I felt exposed walking in the open with the last of the sun shining on me particularly because I didn’t want anyone to see where I was going to camp.

Up a hill, down, and there further down a steep escarpment was the grove. It had become overgrown since we’d been there, but after some wandering, and some clearing I made a space big enough for my tent. I dropped my backpack and before it became completely dark I scouted the area and placed some rocks in strategic places so that I would be able to orient myself when I started hiking the next morning before dawn. When I felt I could find my way out, I pitched the tent — just as I started to hear the whine of mosquitoes. This wasn’t a pleasant area where I could sit and make dinner, but I had the tent against the bugs, and felt sheltered and hidden by the trees and brush.

Oh what bliss! I was finished for the day. I took off my filthy clothes and stark naked I gave myself a sponge bath trying to get the layers of grime off my body. I put on soft old boxer shorts and a fresh t-shirt, went out to pee, and saw that it was now dark with no moon, no stars, and a storm threatening. Back in the tent I hung up my flashlight and prepared a light dinner of bread with hummus. It was too hot to cook my usual oatmeal.

I finished eating the bread and was just about to open my bag of treats for dessert when a bright spotlight suddenly illuminated the tent. My heart started pounding in terror. Should I run for my life… Try to sneak out… I heard voices approaching, but I was paralyzed by indecision.  Then I heard that it was Hebrew being spoken and I calmed down.  I listened carefully and it became clear that the voices belonged to soldiers with the commander quietly telling his men something that I couldn’t understand.  Quickly I put on my pants, grabbed my flashlight, and stepped out of the tent, looking up towards the voices.

There were five bright red dots on my chest.

For a second it didn’t register, but then I realized that five guns were pointed at my heart.  And yet I wasn’t afraid.  I told myself, “OK, Diana, don’t do anything stupid.” I made sure that my hands were visible, and I yelled up to the dark silhouettes on the ridge, “Shalom

The lasers moved away from me and the commander greeted me, and asked me what I was doing there. I answered in my broken Hebrew and soon he started speaking English. He told me they were IDF and I needn’t worry, I said I knew. He told me they were coming down to talk with me. Five young men in full field gear – helmets, vests with ammunition, and sophisticated rifles made their way down. The first thing the commander did was shake my hand.  He asked me again what I was doing, and I told him I was walking to Jerusalem mostly on the Israel Trail. He talked softly with his men, and then told me that they were doing exercises with their dogs. I started babbling about how much I loved dogs and asked if could I meet one of them. The commander didn’t laugh, but he obviously wanted to. He asked me if it was possible for me to stay in my tent for the next two hours because it might be dangerous while they were working. I told him I was going to sleep and that it was no problem. He smiled, said good bye, shook my hand again, then they left.

I didn’t hear them at at all that night.  No voices, no dogs.

I wrote in my log, “It was a long horrible endless hike today and everything aches: the arch of one foot and the heel of the other one, my back where the pack rests, my shoulders and breast bone where the straps rub.  My calves ache. My thighs ache.

But now I’m on a huge rush of adrenalin and pure pleasure.  I’m at peace right now, I think I will sleep well.

When I’m camping alone in the wilderness, even when there aren’t stories of terrorists stabbing people in the news every day, I’m always at least alert and nervous, and sometimes really scared.

But that night I felt completely safe and protected.

About the Author
I've lived in Israel for thirty plus years, I was a marine biologist and raised two sons here, but I didn't know the country. Then my husband and I, with our dog Taffy, hiked the 1000 kilometer Israel National Trail and a new path opened up in front of us and we discovered Israel. Now I am a Registered Israeli Tour Guide and it is the adventure of a life time to show others what I've found.
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