If not for a journalist's visit to the Appalachian Trail and the unflinching efforts of one man, the Israel Trail might never have come into existence.
It was journalist Avraham Tamir who walked the US hiking trail, came back very excited about it and suggested it to Ori Dvir, chairman of the Israel Trails Committee.
"He suggested that we create a trail that crossed all of the country," explained Moti Ben-Shitrit, director of the Israel Trails Committee, who was also active in working on the marking of the trail for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's Trails Committee, which is one of many groups offering guided walks along the trail.
But it was Dvir, who "was intrigued with the idea." While Tamir never got to see the trail he helped to launch - he died before it was opened in 1995 - Dvir and a host of other SPNI rangers and other workers made his dream come true.
It wasn't easy. "There were many considerations about how to set up the trail," explained Ben-Shitrit. (Dvir could not be interviewed for this article because of illness, but is still actively involved with the trail.) "It was clear it needed to run north-south, but there are so many incredible places, and we couldn't cover the entire country. So it was decided to lay it out so that it would provide a representation of what the country has to offer. So, for example, we pass some nature reserves, various types of communities like kibbutzim and moshavim to get an impression. Naturally, lookout spots and exceptionally beautiful places along the way are included, as are communities of different religious groups: Druse, Muslim and Jewish.
"You have to understand that when we started the trail it wasn't completely clear where it would go. These decisions were made as we worked, because a large portion of the Israel Trail passes along preexisting paths. So we connected up these existing paths and created the trail."
What started out as 750 km. to 850 km. today is a 1,000-km. trail. The path also had to change to accommodate both practical and security issues: New roads built, growing communities, railroad lines and quarries required altering the route. Construction of the security fence also had an impact. "In the past, the trail ran along the bottom of the Samarian Hills. But now the security fence is there, and Route 6, so it required us to move the trail westward and take it toward the coast," explains Ben-Shitrit. Approval had to also be received from various municipalities, the Jewish National Fund and others for the trail to pass through areas under their control. In the end, it took about 10 years to complete.
"Our Trail Committee's job is to mark our trails, not break through places to create new trails. So it was really up to what nature gave us," says Ben-Shitrit. "Naturally if there was something interesting - a cave, a stream, an archeological site - we set it up to pass those places worth seeing."
The trail is constantly being modified, says Ben-Shitrit, who trekked its entire length with his son once and has visited parts of it many times. "It was a fantastic experience - it brought us together. People passing by see you're doing the trail and you become a star, as they compliment you on how impressed they are," he says.
They also encountered the overwhelming openness and sense of shared experience the trail provides.
"I think you need a psychologist to figure it out, because on the trail you behave differently. You don't owe anyone anything and no one expects anything of you... You can meet people and choose to talk to them or not, get closer to or further from them. But this bond, this partnership of people walking the trail apparently brings people together who are thirsty for knowledge: Where were you, what did you do, how should we go," says Ben-Shitrit. Sharing tips "brings them together and allows them to be more open to each other."
The trail, he agrees, is where all human paths meet and literally thrive on common ground. "Religious and secular, young and old, father and son, a group of women or men or mother and daughter, [and when they meet] there's a real connection."
SPNI field schools along the trail provide assistance, plus something a little different: stations where one can have the latest trail innovation, a Walker's Passport, stamped. "We issue certificates to those who complete the trail and a Walker's Passport. As you go along the trail, you get a stamp in the passport, another reminder of where you were. Then you can show it to people proving you were in these places," says Ben-Shitrit.
There are many organizations and groups offering treks along the trail, from SPNI to the JNF to Yad Avshalom and others. But Ben-Shitrit advises not missing out on the realization of Tamir's dream and the hard work of Dvir and many others on laying out the amazing attraction. "Whoever likes to hike, I'd say: Take the trail. You don't have to do it all at once, you can do it in parts, by season, and put it together like a puzzle, and then finish it up. It gives you a long-term challenge, and a reason to go on living."