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PHOTO ESSAY: Three days in the desert

The Heels of Love hike to raise money for the children of Alyn who deal with physical disabilities was especially welcome after a year of the rocky terrain of COVID-19
Photo credit: Susannah Schild

4:00 a.m. It’s cold, it’s dark, and I hear footsteps right outside my tent. “Wakey, wakey,” says a whispering voice with an Israeli accent, “Time to get up.”

I roll over on my mattress and try to make out my surroundings. Reaching out my hand to the right, I grab hold of a headlamp. I flip the switch and a faint glow fills the green walls of my tent. Well-worn hiking boots are in one corner, a pile of clean turquoise hiking jerseys in another. As the fog lifts from my brain, I recollect that our group is leaving this campground at 5:00 a.m. to hike up Mount Shlomo. It’s time to start getting ready.

I change my clothes piece by piece, still holding on to the warmth of my sleeping bag.  As I dress, I clean myself up as best I can — moist towelettes from a package, deodorant, a bit of lotion and sunscreen. I brush my teeth. And by the time my routine is all done, I’m feeling more like a person, refreshed and ready to tackle the mountain in the golden glow of early morning.

Dirt, sweat, and smiles. Me on day three of the desert trek.

I pack up all my stuff and head out for coffee, which for me, is an essential start to this day.  Thank God, it’s all ready and waiting — hot coffee along with healthy snacks and sandwiches to throw in my backpack for a day of hiking. After dragging my big bag over to the jeep, I strap on my small hiking bag and I’m ready to go.

Going with the Flow

So far, this year’s Heels of Love hike for Alyn Hospital has been a completely different experience from last year’s hike in February 2020. Last year, there was no pandemic to deal with and certainly no heatwave. Instead, we had cold and rain, turning normally calm terrain into a drama-filled adventure. Last year, we hiked up Har Shlomo under a cover of grey clouds, wind and raindrops beating at our foreheads as we conquered the intense mountain peak.

This year, on the other hand, it was so hot out here that our guides had been forced to change the schedule completely.  Rather than hike through the day from one campground to the next, we were going to be reaching newly planned trails by jeep, then hiking in the early morning hours. These routes would keep us shielded from the sun as it began to shine in full force towards midday.

In it together.

Watching the group adapt to these changes was an awesome experience. Our hikers, from ages 21 to 68, were up and ready to go at 4:30. We followed our guide, Assaf, out of the campsite just as the sunlight began to peek over the mountains.

Never a Dull Moment

We tackled the ascents of Mount Shlomo with full force. Some of us led the pack, scrambling up the rocky way with relative ease. Others struggled on the climb. But we helped each other out, passing hiking poles up to make climbing easier, offering a hand to pull the next hiker up a particularly challenging step on the way.

By the time we reached the summit of the mountain, the sun was shining.  A gentle breeze blew in our faces, cooling us off after significant exertion.  Assaf made strong coffee, then passed it around in small paper cups. I sipped my bitter drink as I watched some of the men in our group wrap tefillin around their arms and heads. They said their morning prayers, eyes cast out to the incredible views all around.

Meeting God in his office.

It was the perfect spot to connect with God. I finished my coffee, then stood on a nearby rock and said my own morning prayers, expressing gratitude for my ability to experience this moment in time.

Getting Unstuck

I almost didn’t come on this year’s hike for the children of Alyn. As one tends to do over time, I had forgotten how inspiring and incredible this experience actually was. In my mind, I vaguely knew that I could use the break from reality, the escape into the majesty of the desert. I knew that helping raise money for children who deal with physical disabilities was something that was really important to me, something that I had committed to making a part of my life.

But the daily grind got in the way. I broke a toe, making three days of hiking seem slightly out of reach. There was a lot on my plate after having the kids at home for months on end.  And hiking with Heels of Love sort of fell off the radar.

How could I miss this?

Luckily for me, one of the organizers of the hike is a friend who lives in my community. He pushed and prodded me and even signed me up for Heels of Love. After giving it some thought, I realized that this was something I wanted to do.  So, there I was.

Adaptation

After hiking Mount Shlomo that day, we continued on through the shade of the canyon, sheltered from the oppressive heat. Then we took our jeeps to the beach to ride out the hottest part of the heatwave in the cool waters of the Red Sea. At the very least, we enjoyed the unexpected chance to cool off and wash away the dirt and sweat. After a cold beer, snorkeling masks came out. Quite a few intrepid souls weren’t going to sit back and relax on the beach.  How could they miss out on an underwater coral adventure?

 

Relaxing and laughing after some time at the beach.

From the beach, we headed back to another campsite, for our bonfire and campout. Over more cold beer and hot soup, we talked about the plan for the next day. Turns out that many of us loved the early morning wakeup, the chance to catch the desert at its best. So, as a group, we chose to do it again the next day, setting wake-up time at 5:00 a.m. to hike to Amram’s Pillars and beyond in the cool early morning.

That next morning, as we trekked over golden stone through red rock canyons, I spoke with the hike’s organizers about adaptation, something we’ve all had to do a lot of this year.  Throughout this pandemic, we’ve accepted change, figured out new ways to do things, moved forward through the rocky terrain of COVID-19 as if it was a rainstorm or a heatwave.  We’ve all adjusted our lives.

Scenery like this is easy to adapt to.

Could it be that we were supposed to learn some lessons from all of this change? Perhaps our small adaptations would make us more sensitive to the lives of those who are constantly struggling with change: children like those at Alyn, who have suffered a trauma and are on the road to recovery. For these kids and their families, life is a constant series of ups and downs. Constant change becomes the new normal.

Let’s Do it Again

Next year’s Heels of Love hike will likely be an entirely different experience. Some things will always stay the same: the plentiful whiskey and wine, the bonfire and camp out at night, the awe-inspiring scenery, and the wonderful, interesting people who show up to hike for the cause. But I can guarantee that Heels of Love 2022 will be a whole new adventure. One that I can’t wait to be a part of.

Will you join us on our next great journey through the desert? This incredible trek will feed your body and soul while helping disabled children take steps of their own.

Click here to be notified about Heels of Love 2022!!!

An incredible journey.
About the Author
Susannah Schild writes about hikes in Israel from her home right outside of Jerusalem. You can find more of her writing at hikingintheholyland.com
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