Hiking the Holy Land

By | Oct 27, 2011

There is no better way to feel the connection to
Eretz Yisrael than to walk its length and breadth.
—Zev Vilnay, the late Israeli geographer

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.

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.

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.

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