July 12, 2013

Hitting the Trail (again)

Hiking boots, backpack and a beautiful wilderness trail. These three simple ingredients provide for an uplifting, life changing experience.

It has been a year since we hit the trail, last summer spending five days hiking the pristine Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). This summer we do not want to travel too far from our son who is serving as a soldier.

I plan to write in detail about each day of our journey. To start, I want to share the inspiration for what may appear to be a physical challenge filled with discomfort. The trip will require us to walk over 20 kilometers a day in the intense heat of an Israeli summer, crossing very challenging terrain.

But can one find the same vast, open wilderness and sense of freedom that the PCT offers in a tiny, packed and populated country that is the size of New Jersey?

Here is yet another Israeli paradox; Israel offers a choice of incredible trails in the most dramatic settings. The longer Israeli hikes are not comparable to the PCT as we do run into roads, pass olive groves, skirt small villages and pass through farm fields. Yet we quickly leave them behind, plunging again into wilderness.

For serious 'thru hikers,' there is the Israel National Trail, which extends the length of the country from the heights of Mount Hermon to the far reaches of the Negev near Eilat, a trip which can take from six weeks to months or a lifetime of inspiring trails. There is the Golan Trail, a 125-km hike that traverses steep rifts, splashing waterfalls and cool refreshing pools. 

And there is the Yam L'Yam, a mix of trails that travels approximately 89 kilometers south-east from the Mediterranean to the Kinneret. Yam le Yam means Sea to Sea in Hebrew. We chose this hike, which can be done in three, four or five days.  The custom is to fill a bottle with sea water when you start and to empty it into the Kinneret at the finish.

We parked our car near the Achziv beach and groaned under our shockingly heavy packs. I trudged to the beach, not sure how I was going to pull this one off. I could barely lean down to fill my little bottle with sea water, my knees already moaning under the weight. But it was the start of an adventure. The waves sparkled in the morning sun and the trail beckoned.

“Why?” people ask. And my answer is always the same. Long-distance hiking is a spiritual, transformational experience. It allows us to shed the noisy world of technology and comfort and enter a place of simplicity and strength. Here we find deep tranquility. I start my hike with an erratic mind tousled with thoughts, a super highway racing with worries and blocked on ramps of negativity. Thoughts zoom in and out, creating stress and anxiety.  This is called the monkey mind, a Buddhist word that means restless, confused and uncontrollable.

Yet with each step, the mind settles. I walk into a forest, feet crunching on silky leaves. The sun dapples and dances. Crickets chirp and a curious lizard peeks up from a rock then slides away. My mind slowly opens, noisy thoughts melting, tiny raindrops dissolving into a stream. I become aware of each footstep touching the ground and of each breath.

With a clear mind, I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude. If I feel hot, discomfort dissolves by the soft breeze across my neck. If my feet ache, I am assuaged with the knowledge that I have strong legs and the ability to walk.

This is the magic of the trail. And this is where I can truly shed the weight of living in a busy, noisy, aggressive, stressful hi tech world and return to a place where humanity works in harmony with nature. 

Walking in Israel, we tread ancient paths which were formed by the Jewish people thousands of years ago. We follow remnants of Crusader roads where horses once trotted, bringing supplies to castles atop craggy cliffs and we wend our way down roads designed by Roman engineers, alongside ancient water aqueducts. These civilizations came and are now gone, yet we are here and each step in this country is a blessing.

The essence is captured in Shlomo Carlbach’s lyrics:

Return again, return again
Return to the land of your soul
Return to who you are
Return to what you are
Return to where you are
Born and reborn again

Hiking boots, backpack and a beautiful wilderness trail. This is just the beginning of a wonderful adventure and a return to simplicity, strength and to who we really are.

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