shay cole 248.88.
(photo credit: Daniel Perna)
Listening to his car radio in Norman, Oklahoma in July 2006, Shay Cole Rabineau had a flashback. The news reports were tracking the Second Lebanon War, and the latest bulletin spoke of 12 Israeli soldiers killed in a parking lot at Tel Hai.
Rabineau, a son of a Christian minister, felt an immediate connection, because only a few months earlier, he and his friends had camped in that very spot, as part of a hike on the Israel Trail that eventually led him to create not only a highly useful Web site on the trail (www.israelnationaltrail.com) but also a new career for himself, far from his desk at a company in Oklahoma.
"Watching that whole part of the world erupt into chaos, it was a strange contrastâ€¦ the most surreal moment was when I was on my way to work driving in my car and I'm listening to the news and I hear about this rocket that had landed just near the Roaring Lion statue of Tel Hai, at Kfar Giladi," the Indiana-born Rabineau recalled.
"There's this parking lot where we spent our very last night on the trailâ€¦ That very last night there were some kids hiking on it in the opposite direction and the father of some of the kids was with them as they were preparing their camp siteâ€¦ He spoke to me about living near Kiryat Shmona in 1967 and 1973, watching the Syrian tanks come into the Hula Valley. He said he was worried about his children being on the trail. And I told him: 'You know, everything's been fine, we've stayed with Arabs, visited with Beduin, you really don't have to worry.' And I don't think he took me very seriously, and he was probably right, because what he said was almost prescient, almost prophetic. It just presaged everything that ended up taking place, and it certainly was surreal to me that on that very spot where we had the conversation, Israeli soldiers were killed."
Rabineau's even being on the trail in 2006 - his incredible blog on the trip, available on the Web site, is must reading for anyone planning to hike it - came from accompanying a series of Christian tours of the Holy Land, beginning in 2001. "I eventually got really tired of seeing everything just through a bus window, and I started thinking what's between these sites we visit in buses, beyond the crowds of tourists," he explained in a recent phone interview, taking a break from ulpan studies in Beersheba aimed at grounding him in Hebrew for his PhD work at Brandeis University in Near Eastern and Jewish studies, with a focus on Israeli studies. He plans to do his doctoral research on hiking trails and tourism in Israel.
WHILE HIS parents gave him his name not knowing it was a Jewish or Israeli-sounding name, he says, "I guess my Christianity is very conscious of its own Jewish roots, and I've become more attentive to that as I've hiked the trail in Israel. I really feel that the time I've spent in Israel has caused me to identify more with the Jewish people and the Jewish faith."
After ordering the only existing guide to the trail - in Hebrew - at a time when the publishers, Mapa, said "there aren't many people interested in our little trail," Rabineau, his brother and a friend set out at the end of May 2006 from the southern end of the trail, which proved to be a bad idea. "We ended up getting onto an old trail which is no long part of the Israel National Trail, and kind of getting stuck in the open in the heat of the day. We had to find a cave and hunker down, and our water was running out. So we got into a difficult situation. We didn't panic, we weren't too afraid, but we were all conscious of the fact that at that point, if we had made a mistake it really could've been fatal."
They also endured the Hike of the Flies, outlined on Rabineau's blog, a spot southeast of Paran where they stopped at midday to get out of the sun, "and for some reason, we were in that part of the desert where the flies absolutely swarmed usâ€¦ it was pretty amazing."
In Timna Park, they were the guests of guide Abu Abdullah, who months later called Rabineau in the US to make sure the group had made it out of the desert OK. "The whole experience was amazing because there we were, Christians and Muslims, sitting across from each other in a Beduin tent, with Hebrew as our only common language," Rabineau remembers fondly.
One of the most moving moments, however, came when Rabineau stopped one night to check his voicemail and was asked to call home by his wife, Amanda. "We had just finished a really long hike to the Shizafon Junction. We were tired and exhausted, but Amanda said I needed to call her up as soon as possible because she needed to talk to me. So I thought it was some kind of emergency. She told me she had just taken a pregnancy test, and found out she was pregnant. So I basically found out about the existence of my daughter while I was out there in the Negev, sitting on top a lonely hilltop about the Shizafon Junction, and that's a spot I'm going to remember for the rest of my life."
Rabineau, who proposed to his wife in Jerusalem in 2003, and his wife decided to call the girl Ariela, after one of the many names for the Israeli capital in the Bible, and because when he got the news, Rabineau was hiking towards Jerusalem, or "Ariel-a."
RABINEAU RETURNED to the trail in subsequent years, set up the Web site, which features frequently asked questions (Q: Are people on the trail friendly towards Americans? A: We've never heard or seen otherwise. For the most part, when traveling through Israel, we have been treated kindly by everyone, regardless of ethnic backgroundâ€¦ Most people in Israel like American movies or music, so it may be easy to shift the conversation in that direction."), contributions from hikers on a forum, and Rabineau's blog.
While he himself hasn't hiked the Appalachian Trail, which inspired the Israel Trail and is nicknamed "The Long Green Tunnel" because it's almost completely forested throughout, "the INT is really the opposite: there are parts of the trail that are completely forested, but others where there isn't a single tree to be found. You see snow at the very northern end, and by the time you get to the South, you're hiking through hundreds of miles of desertâ€¦ It's hard to imagine a trail of comparable length that has the kind of biodiversity the Israel Trail has."
For now, he is relying on contributors to the forum to add information while he pursues his studies, but "my doctoral research is going to contribute to the data project on the site just by making Israeli hiking trails more accessible to Americans." He believes the Brandeis staff realized "how I was impacted by Israel and by this trail. I was still hiking and doing research on my own, but I decided that rather than continuing to do it that way, to turn it into a career."
He sees the trail as "almost a microcosm of Israel, not in the geographic sense, but in the sense I'm talking about now. Everybody comes to Israel with something, and maybe they're looking for something, and on the trail I think everyone finds somethingâ€¦ Once you get out there, and you've been walking, you realize that this isn't just about you or your tradition, it's about a lot of overlapping ideas and traditionsâ€¦"
One such encounter had Rabineau and his two hiking buddies share breakfast with hassidim at Mount Meron. "It was one of the best experiences on the trip," he recalls. "What surprised us what that, in comparison to them, we were very secular-looking people and we weren't Jewish, but they knew it, and we made it clear who we were, and they were incredibly welcoming and accepting, and we had an amazing time with them."
Shay and Amanda now have a second child, Talya, and he plans on spending an extended stay in Israel as part of his research. Meanwhile, through his work and his Web site he pays tribute to the trail, hoping to use his efforts to get others to share the kinds of experiences they can read about on his blog and its ability to break down barriers between people.
"It's not a road to utopia by any means," he says, "in some ways it highlights the differences that exist in Israel, but I think a person who hikes the trail is in a better position to understand those differences and deal with them."
If you really want to understand Israel as a country, says Rabineau, the Israel Trail "is a good place to start."