Back in central Tel Aviv, I meet Ohad Kohari—who with his shaven head and earring is the embodiment of Tel Aviv cool—in his cramped office. Numerous maps of the trail hang haphazardly on walls; others form mountains on his desk. A passionate hiker, he is the head of the geographic information systems for the INT.
It’s his job to make sure the trail is marked. The tell-tale sign: stripes in white, blue and orange, painted on rocks, trees, bushes or even the ground. If the mark has a white stripe on top you are going north towards Mount Hermon. If the top stripe is orange or brown you are heading south towards the desert.
Ideally, from each marking you should be able to see the next one and never get lost. But when I hiked the trail the markings were not always visible, and I got lost. A lot. When I tell this to Kohari, he nods ruefully. He tries to make sure every marker has a new coat of paint every two years but lacks the financial resources and the manpower to be everywhere at once. “Five people to mark all of Israel,” Kohari says with a sigh.
Housed within SPNI but not technically a part of it, INT is funded by the sale of trail maps and private donations. Fortunately, computer giant Hewlett-Packard recently signed on to adopt the trail and will help with upkeep, including refreshing the paint on trail markers. Other companies may follow in Hewlett-Packard’s footsteps.
For the most part, the trail is not particularly foreigner-friendly. There are no official maps in English, and most starting and stopping points are inaccessible by public transportation. The plan is to eventually set up hostels and water stations along the way, but for now tourists must rely on the generosity of so-called Trail Angels, who offer food and shelter to hikers. The Angels’ names and addresses are posted on trail discussion websites as well as on the Wikipedia entry devoted to the INT. There are also several guidebooks in Hebrew, and one in English, Hike the Land of Israel, complete with English maps, written by Israeli-born Jacob Saar.
The trail can be perilous when people disregard advice and hike the desert without enough water, or think they can hike up Ein Gedi at night, says Saar. “Every year we have one or two fatalities,” he says. “It’s always those who think they know better.” Perhaps taking into account the authority-bucking Israeli temperament, the Hebrew guidebook I am using repeats over and over again in large capital letters: “DO NOT GO OFF THE PATH, DO NOT TAKE SHORTCUTS!”
The meticulous European gardens and neatly laid-out trees and flowers in Ramat Hanadiv, a nature park in the southern part of Carmel near the town of Zichron Yaakov, stand in contrast to the unbridled beauty I have witnessed elsewhere on the trail. The park is the resting place of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, the famous French banker and philanthropist who financed Palestine’s first Jewish settlement, Rishon LeZion, in the 1880s.
For the early Zionists, many of whom Rothschild financed, a central ideological tenet was that “knowing the land” [yedi’at ha’aretz] would lead ineluctably to “love of the land” [ahavat ha’aretz]. A one-time resident of Rishon LeZion, A.D. Gordon, the 20th-century spiritual force behind the Labor Zionism movement wrote that “working the land binds a people to its soil and to its national culture.” This blood, toil, sweat and tears ethos was prevalent in the early years of the state, when the ideal Israeli was a strong muscular sabra.