"I’ll just go on a short morning hike and test out BACKPACKER’s GPS app," I thought when I woke up. "Map editor, Andrew, will be proud of me."
I don’t know why I think I’m more capable than I really am. I get lost 100% of the time. Every time.
I hate maps, I hate plans and I prefer to wing my adventures and follow random, unexplainable impulses. This preference had me making a three-mile loop around Chautauqua Park and then up under the Royal Arch, a massive rock formation in the shape of 50-foot arch of reddish-orange rock and vibrant green moss, just in time to watch a snow storm roll in.
Gray swirls and gusts formed cloud-like blobs consuming towns and skylines, coming closer and closer. Kind of like the evil rhino storm scene in James and the Giant Peach—the rhino responsible for killing James’ parents. And it also made me think of Into Thin Air. If only they would’ve turned around when they saw the signs of the storm, they could’ve survived Everest.
So I turned around. And went the wrong way. And lost the trail.
"Great, now my popsicled remains will get shipped back to Texas. And BACKPACKER Magazine will suffer the embarrassment of having an intern who died at Chautauqua Park."
I hiked up, my unacclimated Texan body heaving for the oxygen-rich air of times past. I figured the higher I was, the more I could see, but to no avail.
I traveled back down looking for a trail, any trail. And eventually I found one.
"HEY! DO Y’ALL KNOW WHERE SENTINAL PASS IS?" I shout excitedly at human life forms. That’s right—I was going to make it after all.
I ended up following them, keeping a sketchy 50-yards behind. Just enough to keep my distance, but not too far that I would lose them. I think they knew because they would wait for me after a bend or sharp ascent, to make sure I didn’t get lost.
It got increasingly colder and the wind blew stronger. I felt a few snowflakes. And I loved these people. With every step we took closer to the trailhead, I wanted to kiss their Boulder-beards, hiking boots and Patagonia jackets.
Snowshoeing Eldora Mountain: the first adventure from my new home in Boulder, Colorado.
My little brother, Josh, my roommate, Kirsten, and I hit the trails. Turns out we didn’t need the snowshoes, but being from Texas is like having a license to be wrong—it’s expected.
Josh, wearing flimsy fashion sneakers and thin cotton socks, considers the possibility of frostbite. We sit down on the trail and he removes his shoes and, in desperation, replaces them with his gloves. Fortunately, an adventure-savvy family walks by and notices his plight.
"Do you want a pair of wool socks?" asks man. "These socks have been to the highest point in the western hemisphere and the Himalayas."
As josh accepts and puts on the magical socks, I tell the kind family that they are trail angels. The man’s young child, Charlie, quickly replies they are not angels. And he pulls out his imaginary gun and proceeds to shoot all of us—at least he backed up his claim with evidence.
th no destination in mind, I headed west on I-35. Indecision had me three hours out from Austin when I stumbled upon Utopia, TX, “Texas Hill Country Paradise.” I pulled into the general store, figuring this would be a good strategic first move in a small town. Shirley, a joyful elderly woman, was unloading her 12 ½ dozen eggs from that morning, weighed and ready to sell. We began talking and I asked if she lived off her farm products. She flashed the 18 dollars and two quarters the cashier handed her, “On this? Lord, no!” She laughed and told me about her farming history, dating back to when she was a little girl in Utopia. She and her brothers and sisters used to collect the eggs every morning. “I swore I’d never touch another egg again when I got out of here…but I came back to Utopia, we always do.”
As we continued chatting, I was introduced to every Utopian who walked through. About 30 minutes after my arrival to the General Store, we had ourselves a congregation. I asked for stories about Utopian living and no one was holding back. Nearly every story involved copious amounts of alcohol, some form of tractor or golf cart, a prank and a dead animal.
Scotty, a new 30-year-old Utopian friend, took me into his office next door to show me a video of him and his buds out on the ranch shooting old tires filled with explosives. “We could feel the blow as the tire flew way the hell up in the sky—see look how far it went!” Scotty explained as he handed me the remaining explosives to look at. “This stuff also works as fertilizer.”
His boss, Morris, walked in and inquired as to why Scotty had a young lady holding explosives in their real estate office. I told him briefly about why I was there and that I was a student from The University of Texas. “You’re not one of those Austin-fruitcake-liberals, are you?” He accused immediately. The look on his face drew an instant, unthinking “No sir, not in the least,” right out of my mouth. “Good,” He responded, cracked a grin and walked right over to me, contributing his own Utopian tales…he’d already heard there was a young girl in town asking for them. Word travels fast in a small town.
As we finished up an hour of storytelling, Scotty invited me to a barn party that evening I didn’t originally intend on attending. He had to head off to work, so he handed me off to Patrick, the mechanic, who handed me off to Chance, the electric storeowner. Chance asked me if I wanted to see Utopia. Because there was only one street, I thought I had seen Utopia, but I said yes anyways. Upon my acceptance, he demanded I get in his truck, so like any good adventurer I eagerly hopped in. We drove out of Utopia, and if he wasn’t telling such enthralling tales of backwoods childhood shenanigans I would’ve been nervous—someone with such stories couldn’t be dangerous. We drove off the main road and up into the hills, going through rivers and over shrubs, and after a last steep uphill ascent, we reached our destination. Him and his buddies had built a porch over-looking not only Utopia but thousands of acres of Texas hill country. From this birds-eye view, Chance unloaded the good, bad, laughter and tears of a Utopian upbringing. As a child he would attempt to live off the land, fishing and sleeping under the stars, and he recounted getting whipped by his sheriff father for falling asleep instead of cutting cedar. He caught me off guard with his next memory, “I used to take some kids to their orthodontist once a week out in Bandera. Well on the way home, the car flipped 10 times and two of the kids died…my sister and I survived. The fact that I can still live in this town, own a store and be a member of this community after something like that says something about this place.”
Chance dropped me off at my car. Heavy-hearted, I sat in the drivers seat churning over the stories I just heard—I was overwhelmed by the gift of experiences and memories entrusted to me by these wonderful Utopians. But the inability of anyone to explain or undo Chance’s tragedy made me sick to my stomach. I looked out the car window at the Lost Maples Café. It was almost 3 p.m. and time for some lunch, not that I had any appetite. I walked in and got a small booth. Wooden ceilings, walls, floors, beams, tables, chairs, and frames give the diner its old country feel. Eclectic old trinkets litter the windowsills and shelves. The menu offers a variety of meats, game, potatoes and a highly-recommended taco salad. My server, a sweet high school girl wearing a big floppy hat and dirtied apron, came to greet me. She asks why I’m there, but she’s heard too—she sends her grandma, the restaurant owner, over to tell a few of her stories.
According to her grandmother, a woman had been to Utopia a few years ago for three months collecting information for a book she titled Excerpts from a Small Town. They loved this woman and welcomed her in on the Utopian family, but they were ultimately betrayed by her unflattering portrayal of the townsfolk as ignorant and bigoted, which the café owner admitted to be true, but insulting nonetheless. She contributed her stories regardless, trusting that I would be different.
My lunch at Lost Maples Café inspired a trip, 13 miles out, to Lost Maples State Park. I hiked a mile up and discovered an acre of cool ponds. I jumped in, gliding back and forth through the icy liquid. After a while, I found a rock in the center of the pond to perch on. The water was still and smooth, reflecting the lush green hills and grey rock, as I curled into a ball for warmth. After a while the beaming sun rays thawed out my chills. Unfortunately, a youth leadership group of some sort arrived at the lake, disrupting the peace. They splashed around joyfully and a few of the youth began to narrate a fake and irreverent baptism in the water. One boy exclaimed it wouldn’t work because he was gay—I later discovered they were from Austin.
Back in Utopia, Chance texted saying they were drinking beers behind the general store. I hiked back down to my car and joined right in, minus the beer part. They told me about Bill. Bill voted for Obama. No one votes for Obama and no one talks to Bill—he ended up leaving town. We continued prattling along, the old men and I, about town scandals, “inferior” races and people groups and the occasional mention of the night’s drinking plans. It’s a different world out here, but, despite the offhanded political and racial remarks, it’s not a bad one.
Morris invited me to their family dinner. His daughter was home from the Air Force for a mere 24-hours, and I was to be included in the festivities. “No, no, I couldn’t intrude on that precious family time…” I started, but Morris assured me that I was coming. So I went.
Morris became a dear friend to me for many reasons that evening, one being his remark that I was “too darn skinny,” and that I needed to eat more. No one has told me I was too darn skinny since high school, and, whether or not I deserved it, it was certainly pleasant to hear. I gladly helped myself to seconds of the fruits of his hunt in the form of delicious, tender brisket and potato salad. I was a happy girl.
As we sat outside on the wooden picnic table, roosters and chickens roaming around us, Morris’ sister-in-law, a cute spunky little woman, told me about another writer, and politician, she knew—Kinky Friedman. Kinky Friedman bought property backed-up to her property. He had a dog farm; she had goats. His dogs would come over in the night and kill a goat here and there. She wasn’t having it. She shot a few of his dogs and hung them on his fence. In Kinky Friedman’s book, she was named “Uvula Crabgrass.”
The stories kept coming as I found out Morris’ son, Bruce, was my age when Morris began to brag that his son had the greatest birthday of all time, “9/1/91 at 9:10 a.m. — not shittin’ ya, opening day of dove hunting season.” Bruce came over and started talking to me, he was going to Scott’s barn party too. He wasn’t bad looking either—I’ve always had a thing for those Hemingway-esque backwoods boys.
So we (Scotty, Bruce and I) headed 45 minutes deeper into the middle-of-nowhere to this barn party. Sketchy? Yes. We picked up a few of their friends: 38-year-old Casey, his 14-year-old son and his 14-year-old friend, Michael. We rolled over to the drive-thru beer barn to stock up for the night. They loaded up the ice-chests in the truck bed full of beers. While we waited, one of the employees began promiscuously dancing against a freezer. Unfortunately for both the woman and my new friend, 14-year-old friend Michael, that woman happened to be Michael’s mother. I just wanted to hug that little guy and call CPS…but I didn’t do either of those things.
A sheriff patrolled the barn party’s entrance. Scott rolls down his window with an open, half-drunken beer in his hand and preemptively howls, “I didn’t do it!” The sheriff smiles, greets “Ole Scotty” and nods us in.
The barn party was wild. Live music, poker, barbeque, two-stepping and hundreds of trucks lined up with beer coolers littering the truck beds. At 6:00 a.m. we left for the after-party at Lightning’s house. Yes, his name was Lightning. Lightning and I were already buds at this point, family really. After using the word “ambivalent” in a sentence, he remarked, “I love when people use big words, you use big words..mmm Becky, you can be my cousin and our uncle owns all the Trudy’s in Texas.” I didn’t quite follow but I do love Trudy’s. This “uncle” was my new favorite.
We pull up to Lightning’s house and unfortunately Utopia lost it’s paradise. 21-year-old Sterlin (that’s right, Sterling without the “g”) began to hit on Lightning’s middle-aged, yet attractive, wife. Lightning grabs Sterlin by the collar and shakes him, shouting threats and affirming the relevance of his nickname. We all decided it would be a good idea to leave when Lightning retreated into his small pantry. At this point my car was in town, wherever that was.
Scotty passes me on to the next pair of Utopians, Philip and Sterlin—a few boys my age. Poor Philip drives passed out Sterlin and I back into town in Sterlin’s truck. After a long, frightening drive including the truck’s brakes locking and deer in the road, we make it back to Utopia. We left Sterlin passed out in his car on Main St., per his request, and that was that.
The night finally came to an end as the sun rose at 8:00 a.m. My Utopian experience had quenched any Texas Hill Country thirst I could’ve imagined. Who am I kidding? This adventure had exceeded my wildest imaginations in the best way possible.
Why did Paradise Lost end? The last blank page outraged my insatiable need for more. You took me so far, John Milton, you held me with every word, and now you’re through? I consumed Milton’s biographies and letters trying to create post-mortem thought for my dead theodical guide, but it wasn’t enough—I needed to book a flight to England.
“To set out on a pilgrimage,” explains Phil Cousineau in The Art of Pilgrimage, “is to throw down a challenge to everyday life. Nothing matters now but this adventure”(Cousineau XI). As a reader gets lost in the adventure of a good book, the traveler can get lost in the adventure of it’s author. A literary pilgrimage is a form of travel physically exploring a work of literature, allowing for the traveler to experience the authors’ circumstances, thoughts and influences. The literary pilgrimage searches the marrow of an author’s creation.
As a literary traveler, I discovered imagination is key. You’ll never know what truly occurred, what a place was like or which landmarks inspired each author. But that’s not the point. A Literary pilgrimage frees the traveler to shed the burden of reality and escape into the created world of the author. As C.S. Lewis writes, “We read to know we’re not alone.” Fears, uncertainties and longings of the author are unleashed into the lifeless geography as you travel in the author’s shoes—the same fears, uncertainties and longings we all feel. Their pages of recorded perceptions spark your own perceptions, and the two of you, and any companion you bring along, search out the world’s mysteries. As Mitchell says in Walking to Walden, “Nothing plays out in an empty room, stories create landscape—or vice versa: the land begets the story. Mecca was a holy spring a thousand years before Mohammad got there…Geography engenders mythology” (Mitchell 34). Dark forests are properly restored to their enchanting potential.
A literary pilgrimage will grant the traveler a backstage pass to the life-changing experience of a good book. “If the journey you have chose is indeed a pilgrimage, a soulful journey, it will be rigorous…evoking emotion and commotion” (Cousineau XXVII). With your understanding of the reading, pick the path you believe will be truest to the experience of the author. And most importantly, take the author’s advice.
For example, Thoreau favored the unmarked paths, as he described:
To walk out into wild nature is to join with the prophets, poets, and explorers of old…it is here on the local abandoned roads and in the unfenced woodlots and pastures that you will discover the mythologies that are the truer histories of America
I cherished my opportunity to experience Thoreau’s transcendence throughout my trek to Walden, physically experiencing his words. And while I savored reaching Walden, a tourist-haven replica of Thoreau’s cabin, I found greater value in quiet contemplation and journaling alongside a pond a few miles out. When I got lost for hours in the nearly 3000 acres of Walden Woods (Thoreau walked an average of 15 miles in Walden Woods each day), I re-read my treasured highlighted portions of Walden, trembling to bein the very place he wrote them. I felt Thoreau. Starting at Lynn Woods Reservation, passing through Spencer Brook and Walden and ending at Littleton, I was immersed in Thoreau’s divine energy everywhere. My next date with Thoreau will recreate the two-week journey he and his brother John took through Massachusetts and New Hampshire recorded in Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
Over in Paris, France, quite different from the North American backwoods, I embarked to experience the muses of the 1920’s Lost Generation—to uncover the romantic inspiration of this era’s revered literature. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and Faulkner, among many other authors, drank their days away, café to café. I set to retrace their decade of debauchery. For this next literary pilgrimage, I put away my hiking boots and readied myself for indulgence. Hemingway made it clear that a writer should be a person of action as well as ideas so who was I to walk away from reading The Sun also Rises without downing absinthe or getting into a bar fight? Beyond excessive drinking, The Lost Generation found value in traversing the winding Parisian streets, as Hemingway describes in A Moveable Feast:
I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something.
At the café, on the intersection of boulevard du Montparnasse and the boulevard Saint-Michel, these authors would bleed words onto pages and napkins. Today small brass plates denote the table each author preferred. I sat at Hemingway’s table. My other beloved expatriate, Fitzgerald, wrote frequently of Paris in his novels:
The Place de la Concorde moved by in pink majesty; they crossed the logical Seine, and Charlie felt the sudden provincial quality of the Left Bank. Charlie directed his taxi to the Avenue de l’Opera, which was out of his way. But he wanted to see the blue hour spread over the magnificent façade.
So I did those things. In fact, my trip was a month spent reenacting such passages found in my favorite Lost Generation novels, walking by their old homes and studios, recreating moments, and imagining what had been. I tested the infamous Parisian muses for personal writing endeavors as well, but I’m no William Faulkner. My favorite evening was at the Dingo, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald first met—I ordered Hemingway’s now infamous concoction, the Montgomery Martini, and not too much else happened, but nothing else needed to.
The Parisian nights left me thirsting for steady ground, as Wordsworth observes:
The world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
Now in the UK, I was bound for Lake District National Park to pay homage to the nature poet, Wordsworth, and his romantic contemporaries—transitioning from the “thoughtless youth” of Parisian debauchery to the “sad, still music of humanity” experienced in the nature of Wordsworth’s stomping grounds (Wordsworth 194). In 1799, Wordsworth and Coleridge spent three weeks hiking the Lake District; I wanted to behold this same England they so reverently described. With their poetry as my map, I started at King’s Arms, Temple Sowerby and intended to complete the journey at Pooley Bridge, Ullswater. I never did make it to Pooley Bridge, but I saw an England highly worth seeing. I spent most of my days sauntering through the heart of the Lake District (Grasmere and Rydal) where Wordsworth wrote most of his poetry:
Ill suits the road with one in haste; but we, Played with our time; and, as we strolled along, It was our occupation to observe
It’s said these romantic poets invented, “a new kind of Romantic tourism, abandoning the coach and the high-road for the hill, the flask and the knapsack,” so that’s what I did (Holmes 382). These romantic poets transformed the landscapes with their keen observation and revelations. I’d seen more beautiful geography than the humble Lake District hills, but borrowing the eyes of Wordsworth radically altered my perspective. What was once a cluster of trees and lakes becomes a:
…sweep of endless woods, Blue pomp of lakes, high cliffs, and falling floods, Not undelightful are the simplest charms, Found by the grassy door of mountain-farms
And even the unmistakable beauty of a sunrise becomes sublime:
Just where a cloud above the mountain rears, An edge all flame, the broadening sun appears, A long blue bar its aegis orb divides, And breaks the spreading of its golden tides.
Beyond mere aesthetics, the lines of Wordsworth evoked self-evaluations and longings to mature in selflessness:
The happy idleness of that sweet morn, With all its lovely images, was changed, To serious musing and to self-reproach. Nor did we fail to see within ourselves, What need there is to be reserved in speech, And temper all our thoughts with charity.
The authors became deep companions as I adventured in the pathways of their thought. From Thoreau, I experienced divinity in all things, from The Lost Generation I learned to passionately seek inspiration rather than settle for complacency, and from Wordsworth I learned the transformative power of observation. Sure, I could’ve experienced this wisdom from my unaffected couch, but I’ll never forget the hours, days and weeks passed with these artists in the worlds of their awakenings. The next time I picked up The Great Gatsby, I knew Fitzgerald like a friend and we shared inside jokes as I turned pages. Let literature guide you through the wonders of our world; Imagination, your compass—a book, your map.
Hiking the Holy Lands
En route to the trailhead, Gil collects every hitchhiker we see, squeezing a few into the trunk of his beat-up ride. Our hands and mouths are stained deep red from buckets of freshly picked cherries on our laps from the kibbutz orchards. With windows down, the hot breeze carries the laughter and throaty, passionate Hebrew conversation through the car and out into and the lush mountains and trickling streams of the Israeli north. As we reach the trailhead, I emerge from the vehicle wiping off community sweat and catching my breath from laughter as we remove a new friend or two from the trunk.
We trek through valleys, splash in waterfalls of the Hasbani River, climb up into hidden caves and set up camp riverside before nightfall. Gil shimmies up a tree to collect twigs for fire to make tea. We pass around our buckets of fruit and tea while lounging in the river as more and more hikers join.
By sundown the small fire turns into a bonfire over which one of our new Israeli friends sets up a massive cauldron for stew called poyke. The different groups add varieties of meats, veggies, beer and a few mystery items to the pot providing a feast for all. The festivities continue late into the night as people retrieve guitars, flutes and harmonicas and we sing and barefoot-dance in the moonlight.
Throughout our days of hiking in Israel we ran into people from all walks of life — Israeli Orthodox Jews wearing full religious attire in the Middle Eastern heat, Israeli secular Jews, Arabs, Israeli school youth programs, American Jewish Birthright tour groups, Norwegian Christian pilgrims, and non-religious tourists from all over to see what the Israeli buzz is all about.
What is it about hiking in Israel that keeps these trails heavily populated? What brings these otherwise segregated cultures together in the Israeli wild? I set out to sample hikes throughout Israel for the remainder of my stay in the hopes of unraveling the mystery of hiking the Holy Lands.
Maybe it all started with Moses as he led the Jews on a hike toward the Promised Land for 40 years in the desert, parting the Red Sea and receiving divine instruction along the way? And perhaps the other prominent hiking prophets and messiahs, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad and David, helped pave the way as they journeyed through the deserts, mountains, valleys, and rivers of what is now considered modern-day Israel.
Whatever the case, the tradition continues as Israelis and tourists traverse the diverse landscapes, both natural and cultural, of Israel.
“For my army service I was in the paratrooper unit,” explains Dovev, an Israeli hiking guide, “I crossed the whole country by foot — 26 weeks of navigation. First we would navigate by day, then we would have to memorize the route, close the map and hike it again by night. This made my connection to my country even stronger. The better you know something, the better you can love it.”
I once overheard a holocaust museum tour guide explain while leading newly inducted Israeli soldiers through the Yad Vashem holocaust museum, “What you’re about to see will be difficult, but remember there’s a happy ending to the suffering of the Holocaust, and that’s this land —we have our nation of Israel.”
Uri Goldflam from the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel explains, “In the early establishment of the state in 1948, hiking through the land was a form of declaring ownership. If we walk the trails of Israel and know the land like the back of our hand, we’ll truly own it. We need to walk, hike, learn and know Israel—every single gravel, stone, flower, and animal. We want generations of Israelis who are connected deeply and physically to their land. Once they acquire this love, they will also invest in protecting it…you love what you know and you protect what you love.”
This love has churned out 15,000 km of well-marked trails including the Israel National Trail, recently ranked in National Geographic’s “World’s Best Hikes: Epic Trails,” consisting of 1,000 km of trail starting up north near Lebanon and ending in the southern Negev Desert.
Hiking through these lands will inspire you to rethink preconceived notions of Israel, infamous for it’s political conflict, religious dogmatism and gunfire. There’s a cryptic depth to these holy lands and hiking reveals the rich treasures of Israel’s geography, history and culture.
Israel is nestled between Europe, Asia, and Africa on the Mediterranean coast. It serves as a home for the northern most expansion of African species, the southern most expansion of European species, the western most extension of Asian species. The country is tiny, fitting into Florida about eight times, but within Israel you have the snowcapped mountains in the north, the volcanic flats of the Golan, the hills, valleys and wetlands of the Galilee, the beaches of the Mediterranean Coast, the Negev Desert’s Sahara-like sand dunes, the African savannah in the Arava valley, and southern Eilat with it’s granite mountains.
Go for a full moon night-hike in the Golan Heights and take a dip in the waterfalls, rent a bike in Tiberias for a ride around the Sea of Galilee or explore the craters of the Negev Desert or float in the Dead Sea — the possibilities are endless. In my experience, the best adventures come from grabbing an Israeli and asking. If this doesn’t sound plausible for you, there are plenty of certified Israeli hiking guides with adventurous spirits ready to take you through the country they know all too well.
While hiking you’ll see where Gideon fought the Midianites, where David fought Goliath, and where Saul and Jonathon were killed on Mount Gilboa. You can trace the path Jesus walked 2,000 years ago on the Jesus Trail <http://www.jesustrail.com/> , swim where he walked on water and dine where he multiplied bread and fish. While hiking Israel, ancient ruins of Roman temples and remnants from the Crusades become commonplace. You can explore the bible with your feet, whether you’re Jewish, Christian, Islam, or generally intrigued by the religious texts influencing cultures and lifestyles globally. This land gushes rich history and while traveling by foot, your mind is unleashed to imagine the thoughts of our backpacking forefathers, experience the exhaustion of long days of trekking and pick and eat the fresh fruits that would’ve kept them going.
By foot, you’ll also experience the modern-day human culture of Israel. La’metayell is a store in Israel (translates to “for the hiker”) in which people can post notes on a huge bulletin board to find fellow adventurers for a weekend hike, a few months on the Israel National Trail or maybe even a trip to India. I used the board myself and ended up on an incredible journey hiking up the Zaki River and camping with new sweet friends, Shirli and Rina. So share a meal or a cup of tea, listen to life stories and travel tales — no Israeli will hold back an honest opinion of how they believe injustices of the world should be put to an end. A fellow adventurer, Tom Shay, is starting a community north of Tel Aviv where a group of 30 people come together to share cars, a bank account, meals and meet weekly to catch up on each other’s lives, to be reminded that this life isn’t just about themselves and their own families. Through hiking, I’ve also experienced the charity of the Israeli trail angels. Trail angels are Israelis located throughout the hikes who offer their couches, showers, and warm meals to weary travelers, in most cases, free of charge.
In hiking the Holy Lands there is also room for spiritual revelation of your own. There’s a reason Jesus, Moses and Elijah headed out to these mountains to listen for God’s voice and why many visitors today experience “Jerusalem Syndrome” and believe themselves to be the long-awaited, or second-coming, Messiah.
Being in the midst of natural phenomenon bigger than yourself evokes contemplation of the mysteries of our world, it’s creation and all the other unknowns we have found ourselves woven into. Experiencing these thoughts in the same geography some of the most prominent religious figures have explored these thoughts themselves is something special.
Dovev elaborates, “Even if you don’t believe in God — you’re out in nature, you wake up, hear the silence, see the sunrise, cross a bunch of terrains, go through physical effort, you sweat, you swim, you go through fields of flowers in the spring…it awakens your senses and something spiritual happens. Most people I’ve taken hiking have experienced this for the first time here in Israel.”
Uri of SPNI recounts a spiritual encounter of his own, “I hiked up to a jagged peak in the granite Eilat Mountains to watch the sun rise over the red mountains of Jordan. It made me understand why the Jews needed to go out to the desert to meet God — it humbles you…you come into harsh interaction with the natural forces, you understand how small and fragile our lives really are.”
I also experienced a bit of divine revelation myself. I came into contact with so many different, deep faiths. I witnessed Jews learning about and appreciating the teachings of Jesus, Christians delving into the poetry of the Indian Sufis, and travelers from all over the world falling in love with the deep, rich traditions of Judaism over a Sabbath meal. My Israeli journey of finding community in the bigger, unanswerable questions with fellow adventurers in the backyard of the Holy capital of the world has been a life-changing, unforgettable experience I highly recommend to all human beings.
“There will always be a million reasons not to go, and only one reason why you should always go” Eyal explained to me as we indulged in prickly pear fruit he picked from a nearby cactus, our feet dangling in a hidden lake after a day of hiking, “and that is to go.”
The Sabbath hath arrived. We get to spend the morning reading, laying in the grass, drinking coffee and chatting. Israel does it right.
I sat out front Eyal’s house and ran into a few friends I volunteered with last summer, Daniel, Sasha and Benyamin. Daniel just spent the year in Australia, working and adventuring. Sasha plans to head to the US to work and save up to hike the Silk Trail in Asia.
I left the conversation feeling inspired to adventure. It’s different from the high school > college > eight-to-five cubicle formula I know all too well.
At about 2:30 p.m. Eyal tells me to put on my swimsuit and we go. Where? Who knows.
He drives past “Stop! No Entry! Military Personnel Only,” and then past “Stop! Border Ahead!”
But this is Eyal. Eyal is mobile immunity. Rules don’t apply to him and danger and fear don’t exist in his presence. Adventure is his middle name and if you ever are wondering where he is at the moment, the answer is he’s doing something you didn’t think human beings were capable of doing.
He drives us right up the border of Lebanon and Israel to a tree hit by one of the 200 rockets fired at Israel daily. From here you can see the border winding it’s way through the land and we stared out as Eyal recounted the incredible history of the land from battles to border changes.
It’s weird to look at such a beautiful landscape and discover it drenched in ancient hatred and murder.
We then proceeded to hike past ancient roman temple ruins and old military barracks to a beautiful, and delightfully cold, nature reserve. We swam around and basked in all nature had bestowed upon us including, but not limited to, crystal-clear drinkable water, lilypads and yellow flowers, fruits you could pick and eat from the water, and the shade of the palm trees.
I officially decided which article in which I plan to invest all my remaining time and energy in Israel—Hiking the Holy Lands. Our spiritual predecessors in Christianity, Judaism and Islam experienced the land and their divine communication in this very fashion, and Israelis today have created this beautiful culture of hiking and adventuring which is even heavily incorporated into their school systems, starting with weekly adventures in first grade.
I decided to interview Eyal.
As he sits in his underwear, post-swim, making tea on a portable fire and cutting cactus fruit without incurring the prick of a single needle, he willingly and brilliantly answers my questions. I am so excited to continue this project…there is something incredible about the great outdoors and experiencing them with out an itinerary of plan that we have lost in our culture. Something bigger than just fresh air, but a connection to why we are here in the first place. If all of creation speaks his name, why aren’t we desperately exploring it rather than replacing it with buildings and institutions further numbing us from the opportunity to do so?
We head back to the kibbutz for my last evening up north. We eat dinner at Eyal’s mother’s house with the whole family and head to a kibbutz production of Rumpelstiltskin, in Hebrew. It’s amazing to see the whole community out to enthusiastically support their friends and family.
Eyal drives his girlfriend, Tamar, and I back to Tel Aviv.
As he drops me off, he looks at me and says first in Hebrew, then in English, “Now, when you come next, you don’t come as a daughter of your father, you come because you’re you.”
I’ll put that moment in my pocket forever.
I woke up to the sound of five 18-year-olds, remembering the night before and that leaving my room would mean round two of shenanigans…not a bad way to start the day. These boys are so full of life — bouncing off walls, throwing stuff, yelling into a megaphone at 3 a.m….let the games begin.
We begin the day with coffee and sincere good morning greetings. We go into the sunshine for some slack-lining and ultimate frisbee. It felt like all the neighborhood kids coming out to play, just a bunch of sweaty, innocent, competitive fun. (of course my ultimate team won)
We played for hours. At lunch time the boys went back to their homes and Tamar, Eyal’s girlfriend, and I tag-teamed cleaning up the mess. I spent the rest of the afternoon finishing the book Holy Cow. The book is about an Australian women traveling through India, she takes an entire chapter to discuss the prominence of Israeli travel through India.
Israelis have mandatory army service, for boys three years and for girls two years. At the end of their service they travel. My Israeli aunt, 52, still returns to India annually for freedom in spiritual exploration and sculpting. It’s hard for the Israelis to seek spiritually within the social construct of their nation. The definition of Judaism has become mangled in the layers of history, culture and traditions.
And in some cases, such as Eden — Eyal’s niece, they’re sick of it. She deferred her army for one year of service and leaves to begin in October and she is not excited to lose two years of her life.
Eden and I talked about what we liked/disliked about the kibbutz, different countries, and Israeli cities.
I mentioned that I loved being in Jerusalem. She looked at me like I was crazy, “There are ignorant people there, the Jews, the Arabs, blah, blah, it’s so dumb…when I’m done with army I want to move to America and marry an American and live there.”
I began to wonder about the passion of a city like Jerusalem, which attracts me, and the messes passion creates. Religion is unique in that it evokes human passion, compassion, and hatred so powerfully, but on the other side is the extremism and casualties incurred along the way. Is it selfish to be attracted to a place with it’s excitement rooted in tensions of ancient belief systems and modern philosophies which cause so much damage?