3 Days in the Israeli Wild

It was the Spring of 2015. I had just graduated college and was working a temp job, killing time before starting medical school. All my friends were hustling to finish graduation requirements, but day in day out, I worked.

One day in June, my friend Ben called me out of the blue. We had met the previous summer in Israel while I was on Birthright and I had only seen him once since. A wave of nostalgia hit me the moment I answered.

After catching up with the pleasantries, he dropped the real reason he was calling — he wanted me to return to Israel with him.

“I can’t, Ben. I have work.”

“But, c’mon man! Is this job going to matter in a year?”

“Well…let me see if I can swing it.”

When the words left my mouth, I knew I’d find a way to make it happen. It was the perfect excuse to go back to Israel. After Birthright and Onward Israel (a post-birthright program), I could still feel some cosmic pull back to the country. And I knew this would be my last chance to return for a while — these next few months would be my final substantial stretch of free time. Soon I would return to school where another four years of late nights awaited me, time divided between a textbook and the fluorescent glare of a laptop screen. I arranged an earlier end date with my boss and started searching online for plane tickets.

Why Israel? Perhaps it’s that Birthright often seems to inculcate a love of the country. The itinerary was vast, surveying every aspect of the country from religious to secular. We had visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem one day and then attended talks from start-up founders in Tel Aviv the next. Even time between destinations on the bus was spent in conversations with Israeli soldiers — many of them my age or even younger. The mix of cultures, history, spirituality, and adventure combined into an addictive brew. One of my most vivid Birthright memories was watching the sunset past the city of Tiberias from our group’s hotel on the Sea of Galilee. That may have been the moment I fell hopelessly in love with the place.

I bought a round trip ticket and arranged to be there for two weeks in June. Ben would arrive a week or so before I did, but we would be there together for a solid week and a half together.

Ben and I have an interesting relationship. We are both from Cleveland, but met in Israel. Most of the time we’ve spent together has been while traveling. We’ve actually only met up once in Cleveland. That summer in Israel, Ben and I arranged to stay with a friend in Tel Aviv. After hammering down housing options on my pre-trip planning calls with Ben, we had also talked about doing a hike in the country. An outdoorsy cousin of mine recommended Yam L’Yam, 80 km (~50 miles) in total, spanning the breadth of Israel — from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee. Also, it could be done in 3–4 days, fitting snugly into our 2 week holiday. We were sold.

It’s probably useful to provide a bit of background here about hiking in Israel, which I knew approximately nothing about before Ben and I naively dove in head first. Like most hikes, Yam L’ Yam requires trail maps, adequate hydration, and general knowledge about the region. Additionally, signs in rural areas and parks are often only in Hebrew. And although the news outlets certainly overplay it, Israel is also not without certain dangers. The reason guided trips to Israel (a la Birthright) are accompanied by a local guide and armed guard, is because while they are not necessarily critical to getting around, there are always moments when you are much better off having them there.

Ben and I had never done a multi-day hike before. We hadn’t even spent a night camping unsupervised. But for some reason or another, Ben and I thought this was a good idea. Before we departed for the northern Israeli wild, we took a few well-intentioned steps at preparing provisions. When we got to the country, Ben borrowed a camping backpack from a friend and my suitcase doubled as a hiking pack. For food, we bought a few bags of pita, and I had brought a box of Cliff Bars and an assortment of snacks from home. We also carted a 24-pack of half-liter bottles. Add to that a first aid kit and some bug-spray and we had plenty of sundries for a 3 day trek, right? Regardless of the reality, our packs were now heavy, and it felt like enough. I printed out a hiking itinerary I found online, which suggested we start in Acre, a primarily Arab town on the coast of northern Israel. The trail started a couple kilometers north of the city, and was easily accessible by cab. And so with our printed instructions, we caught a train from Tel Aviv to Acre. We were on our way.

The author and Ben, bright-eyed at the start

We overnighted in Acre, a pristine ancient port town on the Mediterranean. The city was charming, but also exposed us to two variables that we didn’t account for: we were traveling in Israel during Shabbat, so most things, including much of the public transport were not in operation. We also were in a predominantly Arab city during Ramadan, Islam’s holy month during which followers fast during daylight hours, so most restaurants were closed. We had successfully managed to align our trip with the sacred rest periods of the two largest demographics of the country.

The next day, we cabbed to the start (at Achziv National Park), and after snapping a picture together in front of the Mediterranean we started heading east. The next big body of water we would see would be the Sea of Galilee.

A few hours into our great Israeli hike, Ben and I noticed something odd about our map. It was entirely in Hebrew, and neither Ben and I were fluent, but when we had purchased it, we reasoned we could make it work. While the map covered most of the Yam L’Yam hike, it was missing the first part of the trail. We would later learn that we had instead purchased the map for the Israel National Trail, which is radically different to Yam L’Yam — criss-crossing the country from north to south. Buying the wrong version of something is always a possibility when shopping in a foreign language. Fortunately, when purchasing a trail map, most people likely have the common sense to recognize a north-south hike from one that runs east-west. We however did not. After a couple hours of walking on the shoulder of a road, a white truck pulled over in front of us and the man inside spoke to us through the open window.

“You guys are doing Yam L’Yam?”

“Yeah, we just started today-”

“We’ll you’re way off the trail. You should be following the Kziv stream.”

“What’s the Kziv stream?”

“Don’t you kids have a map? Good luck and stay safe out here.”

He drove off.

I resorted to using Google Maps to locate a nearby village a few miles north of us. We were famished from walking all morning. Hoping to eat lunch and then ask some locals for directions back to the trail, we hiked to the village and followed signs to some place called Truffles (which in Google Maps appeared to be the only restaurant for miles). The sign on the door said it was open, but when we walked inside the building appeared deserted. A dimly-lit glass baker’s display sat empty, and no one was behind register.

“Oh, it’s still Shabbat,” I said to Ben.

A thick sheet hung in a doorway next to the glass display, as if blocking the entrance to another room. I lifted the corner and peered through — it was a comfortable living room. Two middle-aged, kippah clad men were chatting in Hebrew. They noticed us, and one cracked a smile. In Hebrew, he introduced himself as Avram. I stuttered through a broken Hebrew introduction and then switched to English to explain our predicament. Avram wrinkled his nose in confusion (his English was on par with my lousy Hebrew), but we managed to get the point across that we were hungry and lost. He nodded, and then vanished into another room. He emerged with an old road map, marking his village and the Kziv stream with a pen while mumbling softly in Hebrew. Ben (who spoke better Hebrew than I did) explained to me that they couldn’t open up for us because it was Shabbat. But then, the man held up his car keys and beckoned for us to come outside.

“I think he’s trying to drive us somewhere?” Ben guessed.

Avram — our hero

We hopped in the car outside and Avram drove out of the village. He pointed to where Yam L’Yam picked up as the car hummed down the rural road. We turned off the paved road and into a neighboring Arab village. Avram stopped the car in front of a building and motioned for us to get out. It looked like another restaurant, but this one was open! We learned that it was run by Arabic Christians (this circumvented both Shabbat and Ramadan restrictions). After Avram saw us off, Ben and I contemplated our circumstances over a small Lebanese feast. I’d never heard of a religious Jew violating the Sabbath by offering someone a car ride. Ben joked that, this man had refused to take our money and instead drove us to the competition? We remembered back to Hebrew school, how our teachers would repeat, “the Torah says, ‘you can break any rule to save a life’”. Though I’d like to believe our lives weren’t actually in danger, I can’t deny that Avram majorly saved our asses.

We rejoined the trail, pausing at a well-populated park area to take off our bags and rest our shoulders. Three hikers hurriedly brushed past us, each carrying a huge pack, as if prepared for a lengthy trip. I wondered if they were fellow Yam L’Yamers…After all, befriending hikers who actually knew what they could be the best idea I had today. Before the group was too far in front of us, I loudly shouted, “are you guys doing Yam L’Yam?!”, hoping they understood English.

“Yeah we are! And you?” replied a short man with a thick, Israeli accent. I think he could tell we were overwhelmed.

“We are too!” I blurted out.

Without missing a beat, he replied, “do you guys want to hike together?” We eagerly obliged.

We learned our new companions were all 16 years old, on their school’s summer vacation. Hailing from a Moshav in Northern Israel, their hometown carried a reputation for extreme sports; Indeed, Eitam, the youngest, was a BMX biker; Yiftah ran marathons, and Ori, the group’s de facto leader, participated in many unconventional extracurricular activities, including working as a freelance photojournalist. Speaking with the cool confidence of an army commander, Ori described his job, including his travels to contentious areas — sites of recent rocket strikes or check-points in the West Bank — to take pictures for Israeli media. With accented, but near-perfect English, Ori claimed he’d “seen the true face of the conflict”.

“Dude, Ori is a little intense,” Ben whispered to me.

We hiked with them throughout the day until it was time to make camp, and we settled in a nearby field.

Ben and I let our bags fall to the ground and sat rubbing our sore feet and inspecting blisters. I made a mental note to buy some real hiking boots. Meanwhile, these young teenagers launched their dinner operation. They unpacked rice, beans, onion, olive oil in a tupperware container, and a portable gas stove. Ben and I considered our supper: a meager pile of pita and cliff bars, and our stomach’s grumbled in protest.

Our hiking crew. From left: Yiftah, Eitam, Ori, the author, and Ben

“Guys, would you like to join us for dinner?” Yiftah said, noting our measly provisions. Without waiting for my answer, he handed me an onion, instructing me to dice it. Meanwhile, from our stash, Ben grabbed a package of pita bread to contribute to the communal feast. While the sun slowly crept towards the horizon, we chatted away between bites. After having our fill, Ori began discussing our collective sleeping arrangements. He explained that we were situated in a “bad area”, with recent tensions occurring between neighboring Jewish and Arab villages. To stay safe, we’d have to keep shmira, guard duty. We divvied up the night into five equally long shifts, randomly assigned. Since I received the first shift, Ori handed me a small sack. Inside, I found a flashlight, bottle of pepper spray, and a knife. I fixated on the cold steel blade and shuttered. With a nervous smile, I thanked Ori and pocketed the bag.

Within minutes, everyone, except me, had fallen fast asleep. Using the flashlight from Ori’s bag, I began reading to pass the time. Suddenly, I heard nearby snorting noises, seemingly coming from right next to our campsite. I shined my light to illuminate the surrounding trees and adjacent road. Nothing

I thought back to my ‘training’, right before dozing off in his sleeping bag, Yiftah had told me that, “If you hear anything…anything… wake us all up.” Heart in my throat, I crept over to Ben’s unconscious body. But, the snorting sounds just grew louder and louder… then Ben rolled over and let out a loud rumbling snore; I realized we were safe. My next hour of guard duty passed uneventfully, and immediately after waking Yiftah for his watch, I quickly fell asleep, resting soundly until the early morning’s emerging sunlight.

Already fully awake, Ori was staring intensely at a map, every so often glancing at his watch. “We needed to get up earlier today,” he said. Climbing quickly out of my sleeping bag, I joined Ori and looked at the map.

Tracing his finger along the paper’s marked trail, Ori explained, “Today we’re hiking over Mount Meron, Israel’s second tallest mountain. But, by the time we reach the mountain’s other side it will be dark; we’ll have to set up camp in the black of night — this is not ideal.” He continued, “If we want to make up the time, we will need to hitchhike.”

The thought of hitchhiking in the Middle East was a bit unnerving — I remembered my Birthright tour guide had told us hitchhiking in Israel is common, especially in more rural areas like the North. Yet, the dangers that arise here carry a unique Israeli flavor. One year prior, three boys hitchhiking home from a yeshiva in the West Bank were kidnapped and murdered, sparking the 2014 war in Gaza (Operation Protective Edge). Seeing as I really didn’t want us or our new friends to become the posthumous faces of another politically-charged social media campaign, we trusted Ori and followed his lead. The process would work as such: first, Ori would first flag us down a truck driver who would deposit a few of us at the trailhead. Meanwhile, we’d wait — sometimes as long as 30 minutes — until the rest of the group arrived. Eventually, we reached the trail again, headed for Mount Meron.

Continuing east, we stopped to rest on Druze-owned land (an Israeli religious minority). While we began snacking on pitas, the other boys pulled out a large jar of peanut butter. I asked Yiftah why we didn’t bring any hummus. “Because hummus makes you need to go poop” he giggled. Peanut butter and pita became our “bread and butter” for all future snack breaks.

We began cleaning up and Ori instructed us on how to use dirt to clean the peanut butter off the spoon we used. “You take a pinch and rub it together with the spoon in your hands” he advised. “The dirt will combine with the peanut butter and can be rubbed off easily.”

“Holy shit,” said Ben. “I’ve never seen anything so disgusting and so sanitary.”

Always maintaining a calculated confidence, the boys’ extensive hiking experience was clearly obvious. To keep us motivated, Ori would entice us with small rewards; if the group’s pace began to drag, Ori would enforce 3 minute breaks. After more strenuous stretches, we celebrated with snacks or making tea.

Revealing his methodology for maintaining our trip pace, Ori explained: “In one hour, we can expect to go 5 kilometers on flat ground,”

“Ah okay. But why is pacing so important?” I asked.

“It’s important to keep track of our distance. We don’t want to get stuck on the trail at night.” Ori responded matter-of-factly.

Eventually, we arrived at the topmost point of Mount Meron, though my recollections of our climb are a total blur. Drenched in sweat, my body struggled to adequately carry enough blood to my brain… my peripheral vision sometimes fading in and out. Meanwhile, the Israeli boys seemed to float upwards, just barely within view. When Ben and I reached our breaking point, Ori would unrelentingly encourage us to push onward. When we finally reached the mountain’s peak, Ben and I simply crumpled into the ground, barely managing to throw off our bags.

“We just finished a long climb, make sure you drink enough water,” commanded Ori. We responded immediately guzzling down large gulps of water.

The author admiring the view from the top of Mount Meron

Meanwhile, Eitam brewed a pot of mint tea, passing us cups of steaming liquid, which I sipped while running my tongue against the mint leaves. We lean back and take in the view, rolling hills illuminated by the beams of sunlight peaking through the clouds. I can see the city of Sefat in the distance, itself only a cool 5 km from the Sea of Galilee — our final destination. Eventually, we began descending down the summit, following the winding trail downwards, back towards flat land. While Ben and I breathlessly grunt words to each other, both of us struggling not to stumble and fall forward, the Israeli boys are effortlessly skipping forward. Though the sun is starting to set, Ben and I desperately ask for another break, causing Ori to stare sharply at his watch. Though he obliges, Ori doesn’t beat around the bush, “we need to pick up our place guys”.

“Shit”, Ben sighed. For another hour, we plodded slowly along; eventually reaching our campsite, spoiling us by providing real bathrooms as well as the company of other guests. Adjusting to the sudden civilization after days of total isolation, both Ben and I feel overwhelmed; we sit, trying to massage our sore bodies… Muscles I didn’t know existed are aching. Everything hurts.

While I’m attempting to manage the pain, Yifah hands me an onion. “Good job with the onion yesterday, would you like to cut this one up for dinner?”

“I’d love to,” I deadpanned, my exhaustion obvious.

“You are a terrible liar.” Yiftah smirked, and gives me the knife anyway.

Meanwhile, Ori gathers the five of us for a group announcement. “Tomorrow”, he begins, “will be the longest day yet. We will leave before there’s light out.”

Tonight, the boys arranged to split up and coordinate shifts with the campsite’s other (Israeli) hikers. As such, Ben and I weren’t needed to pick up any guard shifts… Considering I barely had the energy to stand upright, having a full night’s sleep was a blessing.

Unfurling my sleeping bag onto the ground, I noticed the floor was composed of small, hard, pointy rocks — a very inhospitable mattress. But, I was so entirely exhausted, I didn’t have the energy to care… within seconds of laying down, the edges of my peripheral vision blurred into black. Before I knew it, Ori was nudging me awake, pointing to his watch, whispering matter-of-factly, “It is time to get up”. Within 15 minutes, everyone was awake, packed, and ready to hit the road back again.

Ben sidled up next to me. “How are you doing man?” I asked.

“I’m alright dude…. my feet hurt,” he muttered.

“Mine too man! You should see the blister on my pinky toe. It looks a bit like ET” I said. Ben mustered a chuckle.

The scenery unfurled in front of us as we walked. A thin dirt trail stretching out for miles and straddled by mountains on either side — I half-expected a Lord of the Rings character to jump out…We eventually met one of these mountains and saw to see the path run up it. My eyes followed the trail, which now went directly upwards, between boulders. This vertical section was punctuated by metal handles bored into the rock. It looked to be 15 feet up to the top. The boys walked to the wall and started to climb upwards in a fluid motion. Ben and I looked at each other exasperated, and then collected ourselves and followed. We arrived at the top to see the boys sitting and chatting. Ori instructed us to drink more water, and then we continued onward. After a few hours we had passed through the mountainous area, and now walked on a soft dirt road. It was much kinder to our throbbing, blistered feet.

The road followed gentle hills up and down and eventually led us to a new section — a giant dark concrete pipe, some sort of storm drain. Wet, greenish stuff covered the bottom, illuminated faintly by a white halo of sunlight from the other end.

“I wonder what this pipe is draining into,” I said to Ben.

“I guess we’ll find out soon,” he said.

The drainage pipe

We walked in the pipe, and I noticed a distinct buzzing sound. I felt little bugs bumping up against my legs and strained to see them swarming by my feet. They looked like flies, but I wasn’t sure. I tried to avoid them regardless. When we got to the other side I followed the green water sludge with my eyes as it continued out of the pipe, draining into a swampy area in front of us covered with tall grasses. The trail dove straight into it.

I heard a familiar sound, and squinted towards the base of the grassline. Wasps were swarming above the mud. I froze — I am allergic to wasps, and swell up like a balloon when stung. I had gotten stung as a child and my hand swelled to nearly twice it’s size for over a week! At our next doctor’s visit, I remembered our family physician made me promise to be more careful around wasps. If I got stung today, in the wrong place, like my throat… I could…I shuttered. I turned to Ben. All the blood had left his face.

“I’m allergic to wasps man. If I get stung, it’s really going to mess me up.” Ben blurted, his voice noticeably cracking. He desperately looked to Ori. “I can’t do this man, I’m scared,” Ben said shakily, his eyes were watering now. The 16 year-old approached, put a gentle, reassuring hand on Ben’s shoulder, and craned his neck to look Ben straight in the eye.

“Every man has his challenges.” Ori began. “We have come so far. We only need to make it through this last little bit to be at the Galilee. You are a strong man Ben, stronger than you think. You can make it.” Without pause, Ori turned towards the swamp, disappearing into the tall grass, while the other two boys followed. If we hoped to reach the Sea of Galilee, we had no other choice than to follow behind.

I consoled myself by considering that if we died now, we may become famous for being the first American tourists in Israeli history to die from insectoid terrorism. You gotta look on the bright side with these things.

I creeped towards the swamp, while Ben followed close behind, with a bit more confidence after Ori’s pep talk. The stalks held tension as I pushed in. Without thinking, I let go of a cluster of stalks while walking forward, causing them to violently whip back, hitting Ben with an audible “thwack”!

He flinched, “Watch it dude!”

Rushing forwards, we eventually caught up with the boys. Together, we walked briskly, attempting to avoid angry insects dive-bombing our feet. Soon the grass let up over a murky puddle of greenish-water a couple meters in width. Above it buzzed another swarm. Ben and I looked on as the boys glided over the puddle.

With a haphazard confidence, Ben announced to me, “let’s do this man!” He sprinted, jumped and sailed through the air. But, he landed too short, landing into the water on the far side with a loud splash, causing the bees to explode outwards, barreling violently in every direction.

“Go!” I hollered at Ben, who ran straight ahead without once looking behind.

Now it was my turn… Adrenaline coursed in my veins, causing spikes of intensity throughout my body, as I flew through the air. Landing firmly on the other side, I furtively dodged grass stalks and stinging insects, eventually catching up to Ben; we both began sprinting. My lungs were on fire, but I didn’t stop running…Eventually the buzzing sound faded out, the mud vanished, even the grass became less “thwack-y”.

We had made it out.

In a shady clearing nearby, the boys lounged, patiently waiting for us to catch up. A sliver of blue had creeped up on the horizon: the Sea of Galilee. Furtively calculating map distances, Ori announced a plan to shorten the distance by cutting across a nearby farm, where we’d emerge less than a mile away from the Sea of Galilee.

The farm’s perimeter was surrounded by shoulder-high fence, made of metal rods and dangerous-looking barbed wire. While Ben and I exchanged matching exasperated “What the hell” glances at each other, the boys, naturally, quickly made easy work jumping over. My attempt to cross was less graceful, the barbs jabbing me plenty, leaving me with rough — but not bleeding — scrapes all along my legs. Ben followed behind with a dull groan; both our bodies shaking uncontrollably from the physical exertion.

We caught up to the boys, who were walking briskly alongside avocado and orange groves, and together we closed in on a cluster of buildings ahead. Eventually, we reached a greenhouse, with shadowy figures moving within. Craning my head, I could clearly see people working inside, but Ori slowly lifted a finger to his lips, “keep quiet” he whispered slowly.

Tiptoeing silently and invisibly, we crept past the greenhouse. Eventually we spotted our exit, as well as the large, white dog blocking it. The animal glared at us, growling quietly with teeth-bared. We froze.

“Do not run, but continue slowly.” Ori calmly instructed.

We slipped out of from the dog’s eyeshot, and sprinted straight for the exit. Our run turned into a skip as we saw the Sea approaching. We gripped each other shoulder-to-shoulder, unable to contain our excitement and jumping joyfully.

Yiftah began singing, and we all joined in — it just felt right to sing. The Sea grew closer, eventually filling my entire field of vision; soon, we were sprinting for the lush line of trees surrounding the water. At the shore, I collapsed to my knees, gently touching the cool, murky water. Shielding my eyes with my hand, I looked out into the distance across the body of water, to the sparkling city on the other side: Tiberias. We had made it.

The Sea of Galilee (Tiberias is to the right, out of frame)

Yiftah called his parents, who were waiting nearby to meet us with two hard plastic ice coolers in the trunk of their car. To each of us, they handed us ice-cold water, before giving us a lift to a nearby park on the shoreline. Upon arrival, we all clambered out of the car. Ben and I gingerly removed our shoes, cautiously tip-toeing on sore feet into the cool water. Meanwhile, Yiftah splashed around in the Sea, playing with his little sister and dad. Though Yiftah’s father must’ve been well over 40 years old, he still boasted chiseled 6-pack abs and well-defined musculature. A group of Haredi men, many of them overweight, plopped into the area behind us.

Ben turned to me, amused. “It’s like I see two roads to my future Jewish body in front of me. I could be like those guys,” he said, gesturing towards the Haredi men behind us, “or like Yiftah’s dad. What does my future hold?” We both fell into fits of laughter; I chuckled so hard that my eyes began to water.

Yiftah’s parents opened the coolers again to reveal several smaller containers inside: strawberry ice cream! Sitting next to Ben, both of us spooning strawberry sweetness out of plastic cups… it was the best ice cream had ever tasted in my life. Soon we’d be scrambling to find a shuttle returning us back to Tel Aviv… but right then, all that I could think about was how amazingly delicious my strawberry ice cream was.

With a few messy smudges of ice cream around his mouth, Ben turned to give me a strawberry pink half-smile. “Dude, what would we have done if we didn’t run into these guys?”

“I don’t know.” I said. “But I’m damn glad we did.”