January 30, 2017

What makes the desert beautiful?

"What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well."
Antoine de Saint Exupery

School vacationing in Israel corresponds with family time. For those who stay home, the go-to place is the mall where parents stuff their kids with fast food and sugar then invite them to watch mall puppet shows and concerts.  

The over-sugared kids then cannot sit down and concentrate so they basically rush around the mall as if it were an oversized playground.

If it is Chanukah, the outing always includes lining up forever to buy boxes of jelly donuts (Why do Israelis love munching in food courts and hanging out in malls?) 

And for those who can afford a family vacation, come December, the airports are packed with foreign tourists arriving and Israelis rushing out to Europe’s ski slopes and other exotic places.

This past Chanukah, my daughter’s friend was on a Mediterranean cruise with her family, my son’s girlfriend went to a resort in Eilat and our neighbor was so busy posting Facebook pics from the Swiss Alps, she probably had little time to hit the powder.

Our unusual family tends towards the adventure version of the so-called vacation. We stay away from malls and donuts and resorts. Instead, we pack up our tents, sleeping bags, food, pots and pans, tie wooden pallets to the top of our car (perfect for a bonfire) and head south to the desert. For Chanukah, we bring marshmallows, skewers and chocolate gelt for some Chanukah-themed ‘Smores.

This past December, we drove south to Midreshet Ben Gurion and set up camp at the foot of the Serpentine Road in Nahal Zin. The sun set behind the mountains, casting a purple glow across the rocks. As soon as the stars were twinkling, our fire was crackling and the marshmallows toasting. We were happy campers.

That is, until I tried to fall sleep. Sleep is elusive when I am camping. Every creaking twig becomes a vicious preying animal and every footstep a violent psychopath.

But that night I did not need my imagination to keep me awake. We had human neighbours blasting trance music and screaming right outside our tent.

As soon as they were tired out, I heard a pitter patter. This was no stalking wolf or coyote. It was real rain in the middle of the desert. Our snazzy tent was designed for stargazing and was not compatible with desert rain.

And so the drops fell right into our tent and pooled atop the sleeping bags, filling our hiking boots and drenching our already smelly, shivery dog.   

Did we consider rain in the desert? No.
Did we think to pack a tent fly for our desert adventure? No.

We had marshmallows, gelt and skewers – and a tent open to the skies. The soft drops became larger until puddles formed inside the tent. In response, I just lay there too tired to do anything about it.

Rain in a barren, bone-dry desert is magical, nourishing, rare. It is the hidden well that makes the desert beautiful. I tried my best to reframe and imagine the plants welcoming these life-sustaining drops. 

I must have been too cold or wet to be poetic. When our alarm went off at 5 am, it was pouring outside and inside. I was wet, shivery and because of the pouring rain, I could not even make a coffee on our portable gas stove. This was akin to disaster. After a sleepless night, I had no hope of evolving from my zombie state.

We shoved the sopping sleeping bags and our wet, shivery dog into the car.

After being fully awake all night, here I was, tired and soaking and about to start a long day of jeeping and hiking.

My last hope was that the hot desert sun would dry me out and warm me up.

We drove off into the dawn light of a cold, cloudy, drizzly day.  It looked more like the Scottish Highlands than the dunes of the desert. 

Hot revitalization was not meant to be. Maybe it was for those sunning in Eilat or cuddling under a feather duvet in a Swiss cottage. It was not happening here.

This was the start of our family vacation and I already dreamed of being back home. 

The real advantage to going on a rainy camping trip and having a flooded tent is that it really makes me appreciate the simple things in life: a roof over my head, a cozy duvet, a good night's sleep and a steaming coffee in the morning. 

I will return in sunshine to see the desert blooms that these rains bring. 

January 11, 2017

This is the place

“This is the place. Time to get out.”

I looked out the window of the jeep. Craggy rocks, red, towering mountains. I opened the door and hopped out. 

Rocks crackled as the car pulled away, disappearing in a cloud of dust.

And here I was. Alone. Utterly alone in a vast, silent desert. My only connection to the outside world was my cell phone, tucked into my pocket. I checked the phone to make sure I had connection. One thin bar flashed across my screen, a weak line out if I needed it.

Hands free. No heavy backpack this time. And no water. I felt as if I had been dropped onto Mars without oxygen. Or perhaps like a heli skier does when the helicopter drops him on a mountaintop into a world of pure, untouched nature. 

Unlike a skier, I was not forging a new trail. I had the comforting yellow, blue and white stripes of the Israel Trail markers to follow.

I cradled the phone one more time, my lifeline to help if I needed it, and started to run the trail. 

The sky was a deep blue, the air wintry fresh, the silence so strong, it felt as if it were a roar.  I breathed deeply and skipped along the path, the only sound being the crunch of rock beneath my feet.

I love to run and I love running unencumbered, freestyle. Without headphones in my ears and blasting music, it has become my form of meditation.

I was on this particular path to do a missing section of the Israel National Trail.  Having completed 900 km of the 1,000 km trail over the past three years, I am intent on doing it all. Running the trail all alone was a new variation as we usually hike slowly in a group laden with backpacks. 

So today I felt free, exhilarated and a tiny bit scared. This helped propel me forward through a barren wilderness reigned by rocks.

Life offers few opportunities to be utterly alone, to be surrounded by an empty silent expanse.  I wanted to breathe in the moment, to surrender to it and to heal from our modern world’s overload, tragedies and mess.

I know that if I do not make space for this, I will be swept up by it.  

And so I run. Because this is the place.