A tourist in her own land

I've lived here for 37 years, but it's taken me this long to fully appreciate beauty of this land.

mount meron 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
mount meron 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I recently completed a tour in Israel and my head is still spinning with warm memories of the amazing 11 days that whirled by so quickly. No, I'm not a tourist on a first or even fifth time visit to Israel: I live here - have lived here for the past 37 years. I joined my best friend, Judy Mizrachi, on a hiking adventure in our beautiful country. She and I met here some 36 years ago on a one-year overseas program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When it ended, I stayed and she went home. But Israel was never far from her thoughts. So three years ago, at the age of 53, she established WomenWalkers Travel, a company specializing in hiking tours to Israel for small groups of women, mostly over the age of 40, from all over the world. I had joined Judy for a day on one of her previous trips, but this time I decided to do the entire 11-day tour. When I told my compatriots what I was about to do, instead of saluting me with the great reverence I deserved, they all frowned at me suspiciously. Was I delusional? Why would I want to do a tour in Israel? And hiking, of all things? The truth is, I had my own reservations about the tour - especially when Judy began throwing out scary terms like hiking boots, "camelbaks," and "blister band-aids." I had done some hiking about 25 years ago, when as a high school English teacher I was required to join the kids on their yearly class trip. Try as I might, I really couldn't muster up any fond recollections of those hikes, but Judy's enthusiasm was infectious. The group consisted of seven women including Judy and me - all in our 40s and 50s - and three 20-ish girls who had accompanied their mothers. We met on the first day, bright and early, and began traveling up North. Within a few hours, we had already begun our first exciting hike on Mount Meron. Our 28-year-old Israeli guide had worked with Judy on four other occasions and his experience allowed him to evaluate the group at one swift glance. "These are tough broads and can handle anything," he must have thought, because five hours later - after a grueling yet strangely exhilarating hike down the mountain along rocky paths and over large boulders - we triumphantly reached our goal. Red-faced and sweaty, we were all beaming. None of us had ever experienced anything quite like this and the general consensus was had we known in advance what we were about to do, none of us would have agreed. However, having accomplished the feat, we were ready to move on to the next challenge. Each day of the tour was a mosaic of breathtaking views, extraordinary trails, and delightful camaraderie. As a team, we encouraged and cajoled one another, whether we were stealthily climbing down a 35-foot ladder in the Yehudiah and plunging into a pool of water, or wading through streams and a jungle-like oasis in Nahal Arugot. Judy ran a tight ship. We were ready, under her watchful eye, to roll by 8 a.m. each morning. But she also knew how to cut loose. When our muscles were stretched to a fine slice of silly putty, she surprised us with a day at Ein Gedi Spa, where we treated ourselves to a wonderful massage, or a dip in the Dead Sea. After a tough day of six hours' hiking in the Golan Heights, we spent the next day barbecuing and splashing in the cool waters of Gan Hashlosha (Sachne) national park. One night, she passed out songbooks and we sang along to the tunes of the 70s. Another, propped against five piled-up mattresses in a Beduin tent after a camel ride and a delicious Beduin feast, we played "Two Truths and One Lie" - and the mothers and daughters learned way too much about one another. The days passed quickly and our group, mostly strangers, became a warm little family. We found ourselves regretting the passage of time - only four days left, then three, and soon we would be tearfully saying our goodbyes. I have lived in this country for 37 years but sadly, it has taken me this long to fully appreciate the great beauty and lovely trails that are right here in my backyard. In 11 days I saw an Israel that had my heart thumping, and adrenaline rushing. I saw a tiny country jam-packed with breathtaking views - from the snow-capped mountains of the Hermon to the rolling sand dunes in the Negev. I felt a bit embarrassed when the women joining me from all over the US said, "How lucky you are to live here and be able to do this over and over again." Upon returning home, I dusted off my hiking boots, and washed out my camelbak. Instead of shoving them in the closet, I placed them in the corner of my living room, a pleasing reminder of my journey. The friends who stop by ask me about the trip, a bit surprised by my passionate yet circumspect response. I can't convey in words what they are missing by not exploring our glorious country, but I keep trying. They are still suspicious, but more curious now. I even caught one trying on my camelbak.