`Ahead of you is a steep climb you're not sure you can handle, and you're already thinking how good it will feel to take off your heavy pack tonight. Overhead, hundreds of birds cry loudly, as if talking to each other, flying through the clouds. Nearby, some ibex trot towards a pool of water. Surrounded by the incredible desert landscape, you realize like many others trekking the Israel Trail that this is the only way to really connect to your country - with your feet, on a 1,000-kilometer trail that works wonders on those who walk it or simply live beside it.
For some, the trek completely changes their lives. For others, it's a way of reconnecting to the land after army service, or just enjoying a few days out in the gorgeous countryside. Yet, those who've trekked the Israel Trail and were interviewed for this story all note one important extra it offers: It brings people together from all different paths of life, cutting through social or religious barriers, providing a shortcut to Israelis and visitors to share anything from a slurp of cold water, to a place to sleep or a completely different worldview that falls on more receptive ears.
The trail runs from Tel Dan in the North to Eilat, offering myriad opportunities for walking either its entire length or just short bits of it at a time. With the peak fall season approaching, we spoke to several people who've hiked the trail to hear how it moved, challenged, inspired or further connected them to Israel and, in some cases, sent them down a different path in life. Here's what they had to say about their extraordinary experiences.
A post-army awakening
For Yoni Dershowitz and Kobi Brosh, hiking the entire trail was a way of underscoring their transformation from soldier back to civilian. "It seemed a good way... to walk the entire length of the country, to meet people," says Dershowitz, 23, of Jerusalem of the trek he began last March with two friends. "At this stage of your life, after the army, you talk and think about what you want from yourself, what connection do I have to this land, to this country? What's my connection to religion?"
While trekking the trail, "discussions ensue, and one meets people who have different views." Just the mere fact that his group hooked up with some nonobservant Israelis on the trail showed him how tolerance can work both ways away from settings where such meetings rarely occur.
"You want to stop and pray, and they wait for you, or if you're preparing food and you're more careful about kashrut and they're not, they go out of their way to make sure you can eat. Or the reverse, they want to continue walking on Shabbat, and you figure out ways to meet them afterward. A way is always found to get around these problems. You feel more open and comfortable with the people around you, especially on the trail."
Brosh, 31, who hiked the trail in 2003, also after the army, said that while exotic places like India and elsewhere beckoned, "we first wanted to get to know our own country." Those ties to the land are strengthened because "you actually pass over the land with your own two feet, you feel it under you, in terms of ties to the country... You see the land as it really is, not like someone wants to show it to you. You see things more clearly, not relying on others to tell you about it."
For Brosh, one such moment came when he stopped somewhere near Kiryat Gat "and first there was a field of wheat, and then we saw a gazelle rise up in the field. It was almost surrealistic... You simply live the outdoors, you go with it. You're here and you really connect to it."
"Whether it's stopping to eat some dates after an arduous climb, and a few hours later reaching some refreshing water source, all these things really make you feel like we have a land of milk and honey," says Dershowitz.
It's the disconnect from what went before that lured Dershowitz, who had been thinking of hiking the trail for some time. "You really have time to chill out and think, and to flow more easily into your life and your thoughts," he says.
Along the way, he met a man named Eliahu from Tzofar who built a Beduin tent outside his home especially for those walking the trail, "a wonderful place." Another time they were put up for Shabbat at Merhav Am. "We didn't know what to expect, but we got there and there was an apartment ready... they really hosted us beautifully. We had a wonderful Shabbat. You learn a lot about people's graciousness as hosts."
He also remembers with a laugh the strange looks he got from Tel Avivians while walking the part of the trail in that area. "You walk along the Yarkon and the Reading power plant, and people don't understand why you're so dirty and carrying such a big backpack," he recalls.
But most importantly, Dershowitz says, he learned a lot about his connection to the land and himself. "Sleeping under the stars in the Negev is something that has its own special significance. There's a kind of powerful quiet that descends in the Negev - something deep that speaks to you, listening to the animals... it's very special. Those nights under the moon stayed with me."
Brosh, too, found sleeping under the celestial canopy a moving experience. "You really feel nature at its height. You feel very small, and it gives you a sense of proportion. It's part of the religious connection - you realize how small you are compared to the universe."
Even the difficult climbs, particularly in the South, left him invigorated. "You sit atop a mountain and look down on what you climbed, and it gave me a tremendous sense of peace, looking out at the amazing power of the desert, of nature."
Brosh, who is observant, adds that actually visiting places he had only studied about was also special. "My friend brought a Bible, and we marked all the places mentioned that we passed. So if we passed where David and Goliath fought in the Eila Valley, it allows you to better connect to the biblical text - you can imagine what went on there, even historically."
The added factor in making the trek so enjoyable is the human one, "encounters with people you don't normally think about," explains Brosh. While the yeshiva in Safed where he and his friends were hosted isn't a place he might normally go himself, "they wanted to know what we were doing and why were doing it, and it seemed interesting and a nice thing to do to them."
Dershowitz most remembers the nights: "You get to the end of the day and take off your hiking shoes, rest a little, prepare a cup of coffee or dinner and then sit around the campfire and joke and have a good time. It's a very special atmosphere around the campfire."
He sees trekking the trail on a parallel with his high-school trip to Poland in 12th grade. "It's a trip that every Israeli and Jew should make, and I feel the same way about every Israeli doing at least a part of the trail. It links your Jewishness, Eretz Yisrael - it all comes together. You feel the people, walk the country, see the views - it brings it all together."
"You can go to India if you want, but you can find an experience here before that builds your personality and gives you time to think about things - a time out and a sense of calm," says Brosh. "Anyone who does the trail will come away with a different experience in terms of what it is to be an Israeli, and a part of the Land of Israel, and with greater awareness of what your country's all about."
In rachel's footsteps
Not everyone takes on the whole trail at once, but they come away equally impressed. Paul Blank, a teacher from Washington, DC, has been to India, Nepal and Hawaii and other places where he's trekked. He tosses off names like Mount Everest and Kilimanjaro. But while speaking by phone from his hike on the Israel Trail this summer, he reveals he'd found somewhere perhaps even more special, especially as a Jew.
After hearing about the trail during a Pessah visit and hiking parts of it, he decided to return to it this summer. Hiking four days a week, he says, even in places where he'd visited before "you just get a different perspective - you see things in their entirety. You hike above Kiryat Shmona and look down and say: 'My God, it's a real city.' It's unbelievable." Stopping at Tel Hai, he also felt a special connection to those who fought there.
Blank, a teacher of Judaic studies, does a lot of biographies of rabbis from the Talmud, and took one day on his hike to go to their graves on and off the trail. "To be able to show these pictures to my students, they come alive, they're not just names on a page anymore, but real personalities... The traditions of the Jewish people come alive as you pass these sites along the trail," he says.
Hiking up Mount Arbel and looking out at the scenery, Blank says "I felt like the early Zionists probably must have felt, looking up there and thinking what it could be like or might be like in the future... I could imagine Rachel writing her poems. You can understand what inspired those people both to build and to be creative in general."
But his best moment came during one of those trail-inspired meetings with someone so far removed from Blank's life, but with whom in a short while he became so close. While walking he realized he was low on water, "and I was told there was a place you could fill up with water along the way called Mishkenot Haro'im. I had a hard time finding it and I was really getting nervous because I didn't have any water with me."
Eventually he found it: a sheep farm where you let yourself in, "and a big canister of water... which was empty. So I shouted out: 'Is anybody here?' And somebody came out of the house, and let me in. He was very apologetic, said he always leaves water out and had neglected it the night before, as he didn't expect hikers this time of year. It was the heat of the day, and he just invited me to come in and sit on his porch, and he gave me ice-cold water. It's also a lookout point, so we just looked out at Meron and Keren Naftali... and here was this religious guy, this sheep farmer, and that was just wonderful, just terrific, meeting him and his family. It was a special encounter that wouldn't have happened if not for the trail. Absolutely."
Blank believes that kind of magic moment engendered by the trail and those who live alongside it - the so-called "Trail Angels" - will lead to "one day people from all over the world" hiking it, "not just because it's Israel per se, but people who like history and want to hike in a foreign country. I just think this place is going to become really, really popular, so to do it relatively early on and be one of the trailblazers is really cool."
A life--changing experience
When Tal Shahar and Li-Tal Mashiach decided to hike the Israel Trail on Succot of 2005, they were completely different people. Shahar was already married, working hard as a computer programmer in Tel Aviv, and Mashiach was doing a master's degree and working. They'd both traveled the world, but "I had fantasized about doing the Israel Trail for a while, but every time the opportunity arose, I would end up going abroad," says Shahar. But at 27, "we just decided that it was time to do it - now or never... I felt the need to make a connection with the land, the people in the country.
"And at the time, I didn't realize how right I really was," nor how her life's path would be altered by the experience, documented on the women's extensive Web site at http://www.cs.technion.ac.il/~litalma/TheShvig/index.html.
Before they started, Shahar recalls, they planned a couple of days where they would sleep, but fate kept sending them in different directions. "During the first couple of days we both felt that the whole world was coming together to help us," says Shahar. "From the smallest thing of asking someone if they had some water, and they'd end up giving us a whole lunch - all kinds of surprises and gifts and people who'd invite us to come stay with them. We felt that no matter where we ended up, the people we encountered were only interested in making us feel good. And that's what happened... It was an incredible feeling to discover just how wonderful Israelis are, and how much they wanted to give, and how much love they had to share, and openness and warmth."
One example was when the two women got to Neot Smadar, a community in the South near the Shizafon junction. "We got there and as usual we had no idea where we would be sleeping that night. They invited us to be their guests at the kibbutz. It was Succot eve and they invited us for a festive meal, and they had several unusual customs: One of them was that the meals were eaten silently."
The pair were moved by "the experience of feeling this very high level of energy coming from this group sitting together... and the white clothes they were wearing... this quiet and inner peace and feeling of belonging."
The women, used to having their car broken into by Beduin during other trips to the South, this time found hospitality. "We started approaching Beduin towns and encampments on the trail, and they invited us to eat or drink something, sometimes even to sleep. They were incredible people, very open and wise... There's a difference between how we catalog people and generalize about them, and when you actually meet them. It was very hot, and this Beduin woman invited us to come inside and drink and eat. We spent some time with her and her children."
The trek also changed her spiritually. "I come from a secular family, and beforehand I didn't believe in God and couldn't even get used to the idea of a supreme being. But on the trail, I had the feeling that there was someone watching over me at all times," she says.
Beyond that, there was the sheer exhilaration of living off the bounty of the land. "You walk in the North, and that's the way it is: an orchard of pomegranates, trees, grapes, figs, apples... the feeling of a land of plenty was very palpable. It's no wonder the Children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years - it's really fun and you always get surprises; it was like the manna that the Jewish people got and allowed them to survive in the desert," even if in the women's case, the manna was in the form of a bottle of Golan wine given to them by people they befriended.
The trek "allowed me to get to know myself differently and to get to know Li-Tal better - at times I felt I knew her better than my husband - her movements, expressions."
When they reached the end at the Gulf of Eilat, "we thought we'd be so happy, but then I started thinking about how it would be to go back to the routine after all the amazing things I had done - the traffic, etc."
So she took a fork on the trail of life, and today, now a mother of a daughter, she gave up computer programming and works as a healing coach. "It took some time, but it wouldn't have happened without the trail. I became more spiritual and adopted the principle of trying to spread good things. Just as on the trail I received only good things, I decided I wanted to pass it on... It's this difference between being in a place where everything feels so right to you, and a place that isn't. I didn't know how to express that before the trek... the giving, a place of love and happiness."
A group experience
Pircha Hershkowitz can't forget the first day of her Israel Trail experience. "Tu Bishvat - it was raining at Beit Ussishkin up north. It was funny to walk in the rain." But memories of getting soaked that day, the first as part of a JNF-sponsored trek of the trail broken up into two- or three-day sections a month, aren't the only thing the 65-year-old retired teacher from Jerusalem took with her from the experience. "You walk, and then you take a break, and you talk with people. And it brings together people who if they weren't on the trail wouldn't ever get to know each other, and that would be a great loss," she says.
She'd always wanted to trek the trail, she says, and the JNF offer of a hike once a month for those "who enjoy walking" appealed to her. Little did she know that she'd be clinging to swaying ladders and overcoming not a few of her own fears along the way.
At first, though, she was a novice. "I remember that there were real professional hikers who had come outfitted with hiking sticks and rain slickers; they knew what they were facing." Eventually, though, she bought her own walking stick "and it's been with me ever since," she says.
While she made her own sleeping arrangements during the first couple of sections, eventually she slept with the group, not wanting to miss the campfires and the closeness she felt, even "just stopping for a cup of coffee along the route." Her fellow hikers organized funds to buy little extras, while one of the group, a writer, "wrote down the things we did and shared it with the others." Each month, they picked up exactly where they had left off the previous one.
The Negev experience really moved her. "It's just wonderful. When we were in the Negev, in the winter, it's really cold, so we found someone who brought a Beduin-style tent, where there was heating, or we wouldn't have made it." But when they got closer to Eilat, she opted for sleeping under "the 1,000-star hotel," as she calls it. "I had a tent, but I didn't open it. I slept outside because the weather was good, and it was a dream. It's incredible to see what a gorgeous land we have: varied landscapes. The craters in the Negev are amazing. There are people who like the water and the greenery. I really loved the Negev - the sense of being in the time of Genesis."
Along the way, at the Ramon Crater, on Rosh Hodesh Adar - when one recites the Barchi Nafshi prayer - it had even more special meaning for her. "I said to myself I'm certain that this was the place where David stood and said this prayer, because it was amazing to see the animals: the ibex, the bees, etc."
Hiking along the Spice Trail, she discovered "things you never knew about" including fortresses and olive presses. "Some of us think there was never anything there, and we invented the wheel. But suddenly you see remnants of people from the past, and that we didn't invent the wheel."
At the Yatir Forest, she was filled with the feeling that "the big things in this country were done by the individual who decided to come live here and establish this spot, despite everything. And now we're here. Someone decided to plant a forest to see that the land would not be lost, and now it's what it is."
Eventually, the group made its way to Eilat, where she was overwhelmed by their success. They got a new shirt and hat, and walked with flags to the famous Degel Hadyo ("ink flag") - the site where in 1949 the original, improvised Israeli flag was hoisted over Um Rashrash, a small Turkish police station - where they were given certificates from the JNF for completing the journey. A party with their families was arranged in town and members of her group presented a Power Point program of their achievement.
While she comes from an observant home, walking the trail "strengthens the believers, let's say. It refills the batteries. It's a beautiful land, a beautiful place and such good people - I don't know why they can't get along elsewhere... We had a difficult physical task, and we laughed about how we enjoyed it. But without the group, it would've remained a dream - I wouldn't have realized it. I still don't believe I did it," she says.
The trek gives you "an experience, a feeling of having fulfilled a dream, love of the land," says Hershkowitz, who's planning a Sea to Sea hike with the group.
Summing up the feelings of all those who treasure their Israel Trail experiences, she says: "I don't know any other land, but I think God gave us the most beautiful country in the world, most interesting and most challenging, and while it's not always easy to live in and not always easy to hike in, it's fun and worth it for everyone." â€¢