For 42 years I have lived in the Arava, the long narrow desert that runs from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. For 42 years I have gazed up at a particular mountain south of Kibbutz Yotvata, a mountain that towers above the cliffs, a pyramid-shaped peak that looks almost impossible to reach. I knew it was called Har Argaman (The Mountain of the Royal Purple) but not much else. It is rarely mentioned as a destination hike among the twenty or thirty that are popular among local nature lovers. It was hard to find anyone who had ever made it to the top. As mountains go it is not terribly high, just 550 meters (1800 feet) but it is remote, steep and difficult to get to. The more easily accessible mountains near Eilat with their geological variety, stunning seascapes and well-situated access roads are the stars of the show when it comes to hiking in our area. Nevertheless, something drew me to this peak, and fortunately, my friend Michael Cohen felt the same way.
We set out first thing in the morning with water, sandwiches and a trail map for the summit of Har Argaman. Just two days previous, Michael had become a grandfather for the first time, and we dedicated the day’s adventure to the precious newborn. We are both in our mid-sixties and with a mountain-sized portion of hubris we were trying to prove that even at this age, we could still pull off a challenging hike. It took us nine and a half hours. There were cliffs to scale, precarious boulders to navigate and dizzying drops to avoid looking at.
On the way, we were treated to the reason for the name of the mountain. The wadi up which we hiked was filled with stretches of colorful sandstone, formations of red, blue, yellow and yes, even purple. I like to call sandstone “God’s sculpture garden” because it combines beautiful colors with a multiplicity of weathered stone formations. Looking at sandstone and letting the imagination run free is akin to staring at the clouds and seeing the dreamy shapes turn into “bows and rows of angel’s hair” as Joni Mitchell put it.
I would not necessarily say that we bit off more than we could chew, but we certainly bit off the precise limit of chewability for our age and condition. We faced the added obstacle of a limited number of hours of mid-winter daylight. We agreed that if we did not reach the peak by noon, we would turn around regardless of where we were. Nothing would be more dangerous than having to head down these cliffs in the dark and nothing would be more embarrassing than having to call in the military rescue squad to come save us.
But we beat the noon deadline with 20 minutes to spare. The peak was no larger than a parking space, but that was enough room for us to sit down, eat our sandwiches and enjoy the stupendous 360-degree view of the Arava. We sat, back to back, washing our eyes with the grand vista, talking about Michael’s new status as a grandfather, the meaning of life and the eternal.
It is no mystery that spiritual revelation often takes place on top of a high mountain. From the giving of the Torah at Sinai to the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor, every culture has its sacred mountain, its holy high place. The peak is the meeting place of heaven and earth. One feels at once incredibly powerful (“We made it!”) and oh so inconspicuously tiny in the face of the vastness of Creation.
When Elijah was feeling dejected and lost, he went to that same mountain where Moses received the commandments. But it was not in the thunder and lightning and fire that God revealed himself to Elijah, but in the “still, small voice.” The immediate, the intimate, and the most personal revelation is that voice. The voice of the quiet atop a mountain on a day that we did not see another human being from sunup to sundown. The voice of the new life that had just come into the world with the birth of Michael’s grandchild. The voice of two good friends sharing a moment of peace in a world at war.
The long trudge down was quiet, introspective and peaceful. There were pools of water from the previous day’s rain that saved me from running out of drinking water. We arrived back at the car in the dark, exhausted but proud. Every part of my body felt that hike, but my soul was rejuvenated like a car with a full tank of gas. Our return to civilization, to tasks and to the reality of what is happening in the country was somehow easier to face.
Like Elijah with his list of kings and prophets to anoint, we had our various jobs, family responsibilities and kibbutz obligations to take on. But we were renewed and reinvigorated. Our hearts were full. We had climbed a mountain and shared a day that we will never forget.