'You're simply alone with nature," says Jacob Saar enthusiastically about the Israel Trail, and he should know. Saar has hiked the trail both in its entirety with a companion and more recently in day trips with his wife and their dog. He is also the author of Hike the Land of Israel: A Complete Guide to the Israel National Trail, an indispensable tool for those choosing either option, available at most large book shops and on the Internet at http://israeltrail.myfastforum.org/about56.html, and a guide in Hebrew published last month. It's a virtual Jacob's Ladder one can follow rung by rung while preparing to walk the trail.
Filled with maps, advice on foot maintenance, opportunities for day hikes, information on Trail Angels and a horde of other invaluable information, Saar, who lives in Omer, says no matter where you go on the trail, "you're free of any exterior interruptions, people, etc. - it's just you and nature, period."
Saar says choosing to do the entire trek in one go, as opposed to doing it in sections, "is a completely different experience. When you do it all in one go, the cutoff from civilization is about complete for about two months. There's a personal challenge in maintaining an intensive personal relationship with someone 24 hours a day, and that's an experience in itself. Because after a week everyone's finished telling their individual stories, and you have to figure out how to keep things interesting."
"One way to avoid it is to walk 200 meters from each other or even more," he suggests.
Hooked up by a mutual friend to his hiking partner, Ze'ev, Saar recalls that when they walked the trail in 2005, he remembers losing track of him near Mitzpe Ramon. "Suddenly I looked back and he wasn't there," says Saar, reliving the scary experience. "So I started going back toward him. When he saw me do this, he motioned to me he was okay. Turns out he saw a flower and wanted to photograph it close up, so he lay down. And I thought something had happened to him."
His advice: "The optimal size of a group who should do the trail for two months is two. Because two is company and three is a crowd."
While Saar, a former hi-tech person who turned to writing and publishing in 2004 and is currently working on a guide to the Jesus Trail in English, isn't sure "I could be Ze'ev's friend in a regular setting... on the trail it was great... I think people who walk the trail are connected to nature in their character... It's people who love to hike, and when a kid who just finished the army encounters a hi-tech manager on the trail, he's not just a kid who finished the army and the other a hi-tech person. They're sharing the trail experience, and all the separations disappear."
Doing the trail all in one go, he says, "you sit in the field and you meet new people almost every day, and that's a fascinating, amazing experience. What I'm doing now with my wife and dog is that we start in the morning and come home in the evening. And the short-sections approach allows you more time to pay attention to things you don't notice when you do it all in one go."
For example, he recalls, "you get drunk on the smell of hyssop in Nahal Kanfan," or admire the ibex heading to a water hole. His dog likes to chase sheep, and has even cowed some bovines on their day trips. Once, on the difficult Mount Karbolet, his wife - who listens to music on her MP3 while she walks - was simply moved by the view to dance a little jig. "It's totally different, you pay more attention to details," he says.
He urges all Israelis to hike the trail, whatever option they choose. "Everyone, even those who think it's not for them. The variety of landscapes on the trail is hard to find elsewhere. Try it, taste it. It does something to you; walking alone in nature or with a group is an incredible experience."