Hiking the Holy Land: There Is No Better Way to Feel the Connection to Eretz Yisrael Than to Walk Its Length and Breadth

Article excerpt

I take a breath or more than a breath, and gasp, debating whether to force more of the now lukewarm water down my throat to stave off dehydration, or plow ahead in the hope of finding shade. Around me is the Sharon coastal plain, a swath of beach stretching between Netanya and Tel Aviv. As the sun beats down, the Mediterranean Sea is an alarmingly clear blue. Washed-up jellyfish sizzle in the sand, and for the first time in my life I feel bad for these creatures. It's a 100-plus degrees, and the country is in the middle of the dry and dusty wind--a sharav in Hebrew and a hamsin in Arabic--that permeates everything, making movement nearly impossible. The only people out are the desperate or the foolish. I fear I'm in the latter category.

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Despite the scorching heat and my wilting stamina, there is more than enough to amaze on the Israel National Trail (INT), a 620-mile path that winds from the Lebanese border to the Red Sea, taking about two months to hike. Along the way hikers traverse lush forests, sparkling beaches, majestic waterfalls and flat deserts; climb mountains where the Prophets argued with God, and walk on roads built by Caesar. They journey through Bedouin camps, Druze and Arab villages and teeming cities, all in a country the size of New Jersey.

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Known in Hebrew as Shvil Yisrael, the trail is the brainchild of Avraham Tamir, an Israeli journalist who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1980 at the age of 78 and was inspired to create a similar path in Israel. Tamir approached Uri Dvir, founder of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the country's largest ecological nonprofit, and together with the Jewish National Fund, Israel's Nature & Parks Authority and the ministries of tourism and education, Dvir established the Israel Trails Committee.

After 15 years of planning a route that links existing trails with new ones and avoids disputed areas such as the West Bank or the Golan Heights and for logistical reasons Jerusalem, Shvil Yisrael was born. Then-president Ezer Weizman dedicated it in 1995, and thousands of Israelis have traveled it since.

The trail has struck a chord in Israeli society. Fresh-faced 20-year-olds trek the trail as their post-army adventure instead of, or as a warm up to, their India sojourns. Fathers take their sons on the trail for their bar mitzvahs, and pensioners break it up into sections for weekend outings. Organized groups go as well: Last year, more than 200 people participated in the annual AV'I BeShvil Yisrael hike, established by parents in memory of their son Avi, who died in an IDF helicopter crash. Each day of the 60-day trek is dedicated to the memory of a soldier who has died.

"There is national feeling around INT," says Susan Lamdan, a tour guide who moved from New York to Israel in 1968. "Everyone can see the trail markers when they are crossing a road and everyone knows the trail exists." Lamdan hiked the trail a few years ago with friends to celebrate her 60th birthday. The journey took them 48 walking days over the course of two months. "The trip gave me a real sense of how all the different parts of Israel string together and how Israelis live together," she says. Three friends join me to hike the trail at Latrun, a crossroads of history halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In the Bible, it is the place where Joshua defeated the Amorites and King David vanquished the Philistines. It's also where Richard the Lionheart and his Crusaders built a castle en route to bringing salvation to the holy city of Jerusalem, and the site of a British military base that the Israelis failed to wrest from the Arabs during the 1948 War of Independence. We pick up the trail at the Monastery of Silence, a vast stone edifice nestled in forested rocky hills and founded in 1890 by an order of French Trappist monks. Even today its inhabitants take vows of silence, although those in charge of selling the monastery's wine are granted a special dispensation. …