“The mountains are calling and I must go”
Two weeks ago, we finally completed the Shvil Israel, the 1,000-kilometre-long trail that wanders from the Red Sea to the foot of Mount Hermon.
This adventure started when four friends from Ra’anana hit the Israel National Trail near Latrun in central Israel. After three years of intermittent hiking, this has blossomed into a group of now obsessive walkers - complete with a what’s app group of 250 people and the Ra'anana Hikers' web site.
As I completed my last section of the trail, I was conflicted - I wanted to finish the hike, yet didn't want it to ever end. I find the farther I walk, the harder it is to exit the trail.
And this is how I felt as I trudged out of the desert below Mitzpe Ramon; I dreaded the flashing lights, the hard asphalt and the quickened pace of city life.
With each step, I reflected on our three-year adventure. More than a walking path, our Shvil Israel experience has morphed into a meaningful journey and here’s how:
Appreciating Israel from the Shvil
Having walked the length of this exquisite country, I feel intimately connected to it. Our long drives in the car have renewed meaning when I realize that I have actually walked these huge distances!
And along the way, we met up with locals. Be it people living off-the-grid in remote desert villages, soldiers racing tanks over dunes, Arab kids playing in the streets, Druze men savouring coffee, Bedouin women herding sheep, Tel Avivians in a serious game of beach badkot or kibbutzniks driving tractors through fields.
In the middle of a desert wadi or lunching on a cliffside, we ran into other hikers – some foreigners clutching their Shvil guide books, others seniors rekindling their camaraderie on the trail. We ran into singing school children on field trips and saw animated Masa Israel guides inspire high school kids with a love of their land.
And as our hiking poles clicked, the geography slowly transformed. We walked through space and time, seeing caves dating back to prehistoric man, Roman aqueducts, Nabatean fortresses, and remains of towns dating to biblical times. The Tanach became alive as we walked past the place where David fought Goliath. We passed the remains of Lakish, the second largest city in Judea, destroyed by Nebuchanezzer in 586 BCE. He then set his sights on Jerusalem and we all know what happened next.
Walking. Watching. Listening. Touching history. We developed a profound appreciation for the exquisite land of Israel.
Nature on the Shvil
Each and every hike offered a unique glimpse of nature. We learned how to dodge cows, whispered to horses, and glimpsed ibexes out for an afternoon snack. We saw camels ambling freely, blending perfectly into the rocky desert. After ascending a summit, we would sit to revel in the views. Eye level with eagles, we could hear their wings beat as they soared.
We walked through blooming deserts, marveled at anenomes poking out of crags in a rock. Up north, we ran through meadows of wild flowers that surpassed us in height, crossed orchards of flowering almond trees and around gnarled 1,000-year-old olive trees.
We explored caves and swam in the cold water of desert oases. When camping out, we gazed at stars over brimming a black velvet sky. We walked through sandstorms, braced windstorms, heat, rain and saw lightening
Imagine a day of complete solace. Leave your worries at home, carrying your essentials on your back, then place one foot in front of the other. Your phone may tucked in your pocket but it is there just to take photos or to help you navigate.
Turn your back away from honking cars and plunge into wilderness where poles rhythmically click along the path. This is life at its simplest.
In the past three years, our walks have accompanied our personal worries and joys. Our group often shared life’s challenges and offered advice and assistance.
On a personal level, I feel as if the trail offers calm, a sense of being centered and it strengthened me. I often walked alone, entering my own shvil meditation.
The path accompanied me when my mother was ill with cancer. And when she passed away, the trail was there to help me grieve.
The shvil has strengthened us all physically. As we completed more sections, our leg muscles became stronger and toned. Our feet hardened, enabling us to walk farther and ascend higher heights. Our minds learned endurance as we completed longer and more challenging paths.
We learned how to map read, navigate trails and deal with getting lost in the wilderness. We also adjusted to the fiercer elements of the shvil, enduring incredible heat without shade, pounding rain and windy days where sand pummeled our faces.
We pushed our personal limits by facing personal phobias such as fear of heights. After grappling with tenuous-looking bars carved into cliff sides, searching for footholds that simply were not there and ascending long dangling ladders, we felt like adventurers. And at the end of the day, we loved every piece of the challenge. Mid life, how many of us really push the envelope?
What started as one hike and four people bloomed into friendships with others from different towns and countries. As a result, the dynamics on the trail are constantly changing, giving every hike its own flavor.
Laughing non-stop being like little kids after falling knee deep into mud; singing around a campfire; dining under the stars; getting hopelessly lost then finding our way while working as a team. This is shvil friendship.
After many walks, we have developed our favorite shvil snacks and energy foods. We became connoisseurs of shvil markings, those orange, blue and white stripes. We analyzed the color order, obsessed over the stripes’ direction painted on rocks and trees and huddled beside the markers, maps in hand and fingers pointing in all four directions.
We even had a mascot, my muddy Golden Retriever TJ, whose photo appears more than any other on our website. TJ walked most of the shvil, and because of his herding instinct of running form the front to the back of the back endlessly, he probably tripled the mileage. He even did tricky descents in a harness.
We developed a ‘Poles ceremony’ stating our intentions and gratitude at the start of a hike. Thanks to Professor Mark, we looked forward to our ‘Mark moments’ with a minute of silence in a scenic place. This enriched our being in the now and appreciating the astounding nature around us.
I loved every step of this journey and admire everyone who participated –waking up at three am to get to the start of a trail, positioning cars, then walking over 20 kilometers in a day is quite the feat. I look forward to more hikes. My poles are itching to head out again!