January 10, 2016

Trail Magic

Trail Angels. Anyone met one? According to a few trekking websites, this is a trail angel:

Definition A Trail Angel: a townie or other person who provides unexpected and much-appreciated assistance to a hiker.

Definition B Trail Angel: a person, or persons, who practice trail magic; (see: 'Trail Magic')
Trail Magic: an act of seemingly random kindness by a trail angel; (see: 'Trail Angel').

 I have read about this species over the years but never met one up close until last week. And no, he did not have a halo, but if I could read auras, I bet I would have seen one floating atop Aryeh’s head!

Arad bursts out from the desert.
Now that we are hiking the desert portion of the Shvil Israel, we are often gone overnight due to the distance from our home to the desert. We have stayed in modest zimmers and have camped outside. Last week, we decided to call a trail angel (in advance, of course) to book a place in his Bedouin Tent in Arad for a night.

We hiked all day and then popped into a grocery store in Arad to buy some food supplies. And a bottle of wine. Just because. We called our trail angel and he told us he was not yet home. He said we should go to his house where there would be a tent in the backyard.

“Make yourselves at home. I’ll be there soon.”

We arrived and looked around. Mattresses were piled up in the corners. There was a collection of hooka pipes, random cooking items and toiletries, a kettle, a basket stacked with signed guest books and a large photo of a handsome young man, Ofir. The inscription said he had passed away.  We quickly understood that this was probably our host’s son. 

There was a makeshift cubicle in the middle of the garden with a toilet and shower and a palm frond roof like one would expect on Gilligan’s Island.

Aryeh arrived home and proudly showed us around. He brought us toilet paper and some tea bags. He was a bit surprised to see us hiking the desert in January. "It's too cold now. Most hikers come during the spring and fall." 

We explained that we are former Canadians and can handle the cold. Or 'should' be able to; I wore my sleeping bag like a hooded vampire.

We asked Aryeh to join us for a glass of wine and we sat in his front garden as he smoked his pipe.

“Lechaim,” we clinked glasses and posed together for a photo which he printed out and pasted onto a blank page of an album. “Please write something, he said.”

He told us he has hosted some 4,500 hikers in the past nine years. We asked him about Ofir and he told us his son was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 23. Aryeh decided to set up this tent in his son's memory. 

Aryeh has never hiked the Shvil Israel but wants to. In the meantime, he does so vicariously through his guests.

Not only does he host everyone for free, providing mattresses, hot water and a kind smile, he also picks up hikers in trouble and drives long distances to return items that hikers forget at his place. With a job, wife, kids and grandchildren, he has a very full life. Yet he has a full heart.

This is not unusual to find in Israel. In fact, when the National Geographic named the world’s epic trails in an article called Holy Grails of Trails, the Israel National Trail placed way up there. Not only is the trail magnificent by world hiking standards, “The biggest blessing here comes in the form of ‘trail angels’ along the INT who give a helping hand and often offer a place to stay free of charge to thru-hikers.”

This all began around 15 years again when the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) registered the program and published a list of all of the angels.

The trail angels here open their homes to total strangers from all over the world. Some offer hikers hot food including Shabbat meals, laundry, wifi, and if they have advance notice, a birthday cake and bottle of wine. 

Hikers either sleep outside in a tent or inside on a couch or in a spare bedroom. Some angels will even pick up guests from the trail at day’s end and drop them off in morning. One trail angel explains, “I never say no.”

In a world where people have lost trust and where hospitality has been put aside due to a fast-paced life, it is comforting to know that angels exist and random acts of kindness abound. And in Israel, these acts are not so random; these are a way of life and are woven into the fabric that is Israel's magic.

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