It all started when four people from Ra’anana hit the trail near Latrun. After three years of intermittent hiking, this has blossomed into a committed group of obsessive walkers complete with a WhatsApp group of over 250 people and a website.
As I completed this last section of the trail, I felt conflicted - I wanted to finish the hike, yet did not want it to ever end. I find that the farther I walk, the harder it is to exit the trail. It's that same feeling one gets when Shabbat is almost over and you just want it to keep going.
And this is how I felt as I trudged out of the desert last week 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.
And as our steps progressed, 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 the times when Pharaohs ruled. The Tanach was 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 yet troubled land that is 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 by.
We walked through blooming deserts, marvelled at purple cyclamen 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 marvelled at gnarled 1,000-year-old olive trees.
We explored damp caves and swam in the cold water of desert oases. When camping out, we gazed at stars brimming a black velvet sky. We walked through sandstorms, braced windstorms, heat, rain and saw lightening electrify desert plateaus.
Imagine a day of complete solace. Leave your worries at home, carrying just essentials on your back, then place one foot in front of the other. Your phone may be tucked in your pocket but it is there simply to take photos or 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 most minimal and yet richest.
In the past three years, our walks have accompanied our personal worries and joys. We often shared one another 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 has 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.
We pushed our personal limits by facing 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.Three years later, our Shvil Whats App group comprises over 250 people. As a result, the dynamics are constantly changing and every hike has its own flavour.
Laughing non-stop 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 their 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, the 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 from the front to the back of the back of the pack endlessly, he probably tripled the mileage of everyone. He even did tricky descents in a harness.
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 kilometres in a day is quite the feat.
I look forward to many more hikes. My boots and poles refuse to sit gathering dust. The mountains are calling, and I must go again!