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Ten days, three people, one trail: Shvil Y’Israel

The Hike Begins in…Ramat Gan?

Our hike on the Israel Trail started in an unlikely spot: the corner of Weismann and Katznelson in a suburb of Tel Aviv. It was early fall, and seemed like an ideal time to go hiking, as we had a six-week break from classes at Bar Ilan University. One of my classmates and soon-to-be hiking mates, Ari, had become a human-turtle hybrid, with his giant pack. He ambled down the block toward me, past honking cars and mothers pushing strollers, trying not to knock over clothing sale racks. I didn’t look much better: my pack, even minus my five-liter water bladder, had forced my back into a question mark shape, my shoulders hunched, and my neck jutting out at a forty-five degree angle. From there we met our other two hiking mates, John and Nate, at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. Amidst the noise and filth we feasted on a breakfast of potato burekas and cappuccinos, before embarking on the four hour bus ride north to Kiryat Shmona.

After getting off the bus in Kiryat Shmona, we stopped at a Shufer Sol grocery store in a mall basement and stocked up on a mix of practical and impractical backpacking foods: trail mix, potatoes, tuna, cans of stuffed grape leaves, soup mix, and brown rice. Then, anticipating a diet of mostly pre-packaged food for the next few days, we ate delicious schwarmas before hopping in a taxi to Kibbutz Dan, the trail’s starting point.

Kibbutz Dan is in the Northern Galilee, an incredibly lush area of Israel, with rolling green hills and prairies filling the space between the mountains. It was two-thirty in the afternoon and we figured we’d get in four hours of hiking, thankful that the trail was flat for our virgin feet. We walked alongside four talkative Israeli twenty-somethings for a bit, and Ari found the perfect hiking stick tangled in the remnants of a barbed wire fence.

Hiking an hour past dark into the Tel Dan Nature Reserve, we were glad we brought our flashlights. We stopped at a small creek just off the road, with a concrete platform adjacent to it that looked ideal for sleeping on (as we didn’t have a tent). Relieved to remove our heavy burdens and rest our tired feet, we feasted on tuna fish pitas and dehydrated vegetable soup cooked on our propane burner. But sleeping wasn’t as easy as filling our stomachs. First, there was the constant scurrying in the bushes. Then, there was the splashing in the creek. Was it just the water flowing over the rocks or an animal getting a late night drink? In the middle of the night, John sat up in his sleeping bag and announced that the noise could have been made by nothing other than an anteater.

The Heat: Our Worst Enemy

I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but it felt like I’d only slept for three hours when I felt the cold pitter-patter of rain on my forehead at five a.m. We had what would become our regular breakfast of sugarless Turkish coffee, granola bars and/or something covered in peanut butter, and then trudged out of camp. We came across the Roaring Lion Memorial, which was dedicated to a group of IDF soldiers killed while defending the Tel Hai settlement.

After that the trail began winding up and up a dusty, shade-less road as it approached midday. We were unable to appreciate the beautiful views opening up as we climbed higher and higher, because of the sun’s searing rays. We trudged on, our clothes soon saturated with sweat, praying that no one would run out of water. Dust filled our nostrils and covering our boots and legs, and I wondered how it could be this hot in late September.

In early afternoon we stopped under a large tree, which looked as refreshing as any swimming pool. Before dozing off against our packs, we hung our sweaty clothes to dry on tree limbs and chowed down on peanut butter and stuffed cabbage. We set out again around two in the afternoon, taking in some beautiful farm field vistas and views of the Galilee as we walked a bit off the trail to Kibbutz Yiftak. Once there, we ordered pizza and slept on a neatly mown and sprinkler-equipped lawn in what looked like a middle class suburb, appreciative of the cool night air.

One Hiker Down, Hopefully Not Three to Go

We were thrilled to find that the first part of the trail the next day wound through a shaded creek bed, where we had to climb up and down boulders using metal handholds. We ran in to the hikers from our first day, who’d hiked through the night, hoping to find water, but with no success. Then we continued on, passing out of the delicious coolness of the streambed and into fields and pastures. The heat enveloped us, and we continued trekking through it for a few more hours until we came to a fruit packaging plant, which offered us much needed water.

John, the comic relief of the group, had been suffering from ankle problems. He decided it would be a good time to call it quits, and he called a cab to take him to the nearest bus station. While waiting, a worker threw us a few apples and pomegranates, and after snacking on them we said goodbye to John and went on our way. It was a bittersweet goodbye, and we wondered how long we’d be able to fight the urge to throw in the proverbial towel.

Once back on the path, we were officially introduced to the cows whose dung we’d been stepping in for the past three days. We were careful to avoid them, as I tried to imagine how I could use my backpack as a shield against their horns. Hiking into a nature reserve, we climbed a steep and rocky hill dotted with shrubs that looked like it hadn’t changed since biblical times. Then we descended into our second creek bed of the day, which seemed to stretch on forever, much to the chagrin of our blistered feet. We hitched a ride to a moshav with a camp site, and joining forces with some Israeli hikers, we grilled a preposterous amount of meat and washed it down with Goldstar. We settled in to a sleep, disrupted only by the roaming of feral cats and the far off howls of jackals. As it turned out the cats were the quieter yet more dangerous of the two. One attacked Nate’s toe through his sleeping bag, which was, fortunately, our only injury on the hike.

Dogs, Jackals, and Pigs, Oh My!

Still full of kebab, hot dogs, and beer we headed out, getting a little lost looking for the trail around the moshav. We hiked along some hillsides, passing a sabra cactus farm (you know those delicious pinkish-greenish thick skinned fruits you see at the market?). As the sun rose to its zenith, we stopped to refill our water at a small water plant. A nice Arab-Israeli man named Yosef offered us Turkish coffee and a few jokes, which Ari was nice enough to interpret for us. After draining our cups we were off for what turned out to be a short day of hiking up Mount Meron.

After a suspiciously easy hike, we made it to our destination, an outdoor training school, well before sundown. We got the luxury of staying in a room with hot water, beds, and pillows. Not to mention unlimited amounts of instant coffee, tea bags, and non-dairy creamer at the front desk. How much nicer of a surprise could one ask for? Certainly not a wild boar roaming the woods, attracted by the smell of the brown rice cooking on our camp stove. After leaping up and running toward the cabin with our yet-to-be-cooked rice, we were thankful when a large, wolf-like dog came out of nowhere and scared the boar off. Relieved, we returned to our spot on the bench, and resumed cooking, casting thankful glasses toward our Old Yeller. Later we learned that the pig was the school’s pet (and completely harmless), and the dog was a stray that no one had seen before. Needless to say, we went to bed that night happy to have a door between us and all the jackals, feral cats, stray dogs, and pet pigs roaming around outside.

Gastrointestinal Problems Lead to…Synagogue Dancing?

The next morning we continued up Mount Meron. We enjoyed the views of the northern Galilee at the top, then began a gradual descent. Somewhere between the top of the mountain and the bottom, Ari started to suffer from stomach pains, and he wasn’t looking so hot by the time we reached the little village at the bottom. We stopped at a grocery store, bought a delicious lunch of pita, hummus, and rugelah, and medicine for Ari. We decided it would be best to let him regain his strength for a couple days, and caught a bus to the synagogue-filled, spiritual center of Tsafat. While Ari rested, Nate and I enjoyed a decidedly Epicurean evening of Italian food, frozen yogurt, and watching Orthodox men whirling, twirling, and riding on one another’s shoulders at the Ashkenazi Ari synagogue.

Jackals Versus Teenagers

We then took a detour to Tiberias for two days to celebrate Simhah Torah. We stayed in a Sephardic family’s guesthouse, and Nate and Ari got to dance around a Sephardic synagogue holding Torah scrolls. In Israel there’s always another holiday starting as soon as the last one ends, so we had to hurry to buy a map for the next segment of the trail and stock up on food before the start of Shabat.

After not having hiked for several days, the two hour walk around the Sea of Galilee in the sweltering heat to reach the trail was trying. As we continued gaining elevation away from the sea, we had the most incredible views of the Kinnerat: a vista of rocky, sand-colored mountains hugging the blue water, sporadic pine tree clusters, and the unmistakable rectangles and squares of farm crops dotting the green hillsides. As dusk settled in, we headed toward a tower at the top of the hill, and saw a family of fallow deer outlined against the darkening horizon. It was the apotheosis of idyllic, and we hadn’t passed a soul for three hours.

Once at the top we threw down our packs, took off our shoes, and ate trail mix and stuffed cabbage. The sun set, and, exhausted, we discussed where we would lay our sleeping bags, deciding on a flat area next to the tower. Then hundreds of eerie howls rose up from below and continued to get louder. Then louder still. But, alas, we were saved from being the jackals’ midnight snack by a couple riding up on their ATV to admire the night sky. Then eight hikers and two dogs came to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The twenty teenagers came to build a bonfire and blare music until four in the morning from a car stereo. Dare I say I would’ve preferred the jackals?

From Sweltering Heat to a Luxurious Retreat

After two hours of sleep we shared some of our camping mates’ birthday cake, then set off down a hill and through a cow pasture. We ran into a couple elementary school teachers smoking a joint by a spring, and we sat with them for a bit so we could wrap our blistered feet. We were out of water, but didn’t feel comfortable drinking from the open well. As it grew hotter, then hotter still, finding water became our top priority. We finally veered far off the trail towards a moshav where we were able to fill our bottles at a synagogue, and nap for a while in the shade. As we were ambling down the highway to get back to the trail, we ran into a middle-aged couple resting on their backpacks beneath some willows. They advised us to stop hiking as it was 100 degrees outside.

We walked a bit longer, then decided to call the nearest “Trail Angel” (people near the trail who offer their lawns and abodes to weary hikers), who turned out to have an empty room. When Yafa and her husband came to pick us up at a gas station and take us to their home, they told us we weren’t allowed to say ‘thank you’ until we left. Their home was huge, and had spectacular views of Mount Tabor. They gave us our own bathroom, our own guest room with three beds, and unlimited access to the kitchen and laundry room. We couldn’t help but let a few ‘thank you’s’ slip out that night.

Trail’s End: Monks, Ruins, Sewage, and Hitchhiking

We woke up to a breakfast of cookies, pastries, eggs, toast, and coffee, kindly laid out by our teacher-turned-tour guide hostess. Then with bags of pastries in tow we headed for Mount Tabor. We climbed our way up to the Franciscan Monastery at the top, and enjoyed some monk, nun, and tourist watching. After slipping and stumbling our way back down the mountain, we ate lunch outside of a gift shop, and ended up taking a succession of buses to Or Akiva, thereby skipping a portion of the trail.

As we munched on pizza in a suburban neighborhood for dinner, we tried calling another Trail Angel, but got no answer. Then a young woman with a baby approached us, and after discovering we were hiking the trail, she offered us her lawn to sleep on. By the time her husband arrived to pick us up, her mother-in-law had offered to let us stay in their guest house. A guest house that came complete with a patio, air conditioning, beds, a shower, fresh tangerines, and cookies.

The next morning, after a full Israeli breakfast, we were shown around the family’s fruit farm where we picked pomegranates and oranges. Then, donning our packs once again, it was off to the Mediterranean and Caesaria. We reached the sea by noon, passing fisherman, ancient looking boats, and fishing shacks. At Caesaria National Park we enjoyed looking at the ruins and the sights along the boardwalk. We continued hiking, stopping for an early dinner outside of a convenience store. Then, a twenty minute walk from the convenience store, we came to an impasse. There was a stream next to a sewage treatment plant that we’d have to forge in order to continue down the trail. Looking down at the blisters turned open wounds on our feet, then into the slimy-looking water, we decided that was the end.

We turned back toward the highway, where Ari laid his hiking stick to rest along the trail, saying a few words on its behalf, and then waited at the convenience store with our thumbs cocked. Thinking three filthy hikers would be lucky just to make it to the nearest bus station, we were in fact picked up by two young women, dirty packs and all, all the way to Tel Aviv. After thanking the girls profusely for the ride, we stood on the sidewalk in front of the Azrieli Center. It was surreal to be thrust back into the neon, honking horns, and maze of expressways, with sweat still streaking our faces, and dirt still caked in our boots. I became conscious of my sweat-stained hat hanging from my neck, muddy hiking pants, and red handkerchief placed in my pack’s belt loop for convenient forehead mopping. Instead of feeling ecstatic to be home, I felt melancholy descend over me. The adventure of Shvil Y’Israel, both good and bad, had finally come to an end.

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