Last year I signed on to join a group of hikers walking the Israel Trail. The route stretches from the Red Sea, the southern-most tip of the country, to the farthest point in the mountainous north. Our journey would be divided over the course of two years. We would meet on weekends, sometimes sleeping out in the open, other times in rustic guest houses along the way.
My cover for traveling alone was that I am a writer. My novel is set in the desert and Daniel, our guide, has chosen our route to begin with Mount Solomon, one of the most challenging parts of the trail. Once on the bus, I find an empty seat and spread myself across both chairs. Slowly the bus fills up with a few couples, some single girls, single guys, a brother and sister duo, a family with two kids in their twenties, a triathlete and three retired men.
Arriving in Eilat, it is already plenty hot by 11:00AM. I learn that in order to reach Mount Solomon we must first climb the mountain in our way. Daniel strides ahead, forgetting that some of us have not had boot camp training.
Mount Zefahot, named after its metamorphic rock, is only 278 meters above sea level, but standing on its peak reveals a panoramic view of the entire Red Sea area. Four countries can be seen from this point: Israel, of course, but also Jordan, Egypt, and the tip of Saudi Arabia. The sea, they say, glistens blue all year round.
I like to walk close to the front of the line, believing that if I can see where I’m going it will be easier to reach my destination. My strides, at first, are long and confident.
Where Mount Zefahot reaches the foot of Mount Solomon, we stop to admire the plaque which says that we are standing on the oldest type of rock known to man, solid and resistant to time and whatever nature decides to throw at it. The geology and landscape in Eilat’s area are varied: igneous and metamorphic rocks, sandstone and limestone; mountains, expansive valleys such as the Arava, and the tantalizing seashore on the Gulf of Aqaba.
I look out over the Eilat Mountains, see part of the Sinai desert, Eilat’s bay, the city of Aqaba and the Edom mountain range. The view is simply breathtaking.
Daniel says that the desert holds the cure for the broken heart. With my feet on the stony ground, I stand, waiting, hoping that if I stay here long enough, I will divine the secret.
Everyone I know seems to be suffering from a plethora of ailments on the registry of chronic diseases. For years now, I have been holding hands, massaging backs, encouraging spirits… giving love. It feels selfish to acknowledge that caring for the people I love – watching them struggle to take a step, to pull words from their minds and knead them into thoughts, to find the courage to pretend that things are just a bit better today than they were the day before – has taken a toll on me.
The ascent up Mount Solomon is steep and we proceed in single file. The sun beats down. We stop to drink, and when we resume, I slip back to join the walkers in the middle of the pack. Even if someone were to begin a conversation with me, I feel a need to conserve my strength and focus.
The group’s progress slows, but even the retirees skirt past me. My skin prickles and I feel my heart racing as I slip to the end of the line. I have been warned that a low iron count depletes my energy quickly. Perhaps that explains the feeling I have been carrying with me.
Emptiness can be so heavy.
Parched, my pace up the desolate mountainside drags to a slow slog in the rocky terrain, not a single tree to offer shade. Life in this desert is unforgiving.
Losing sight of the last walker in front of me, I imagine the group has conquered the mountain and reached the bus. When Daniel does the body count, only then he’ll realize there is one missing.
“Where’s that girl? You know, the writer, the loner?”
Having no choice, I press on. Finally, I make it up to the top and sink down beside the other exhausted climbers. I have just enough energy to raise my eyes and glimpse the cool waters of Eilat far below
That night we are to sleep on a kibbutz where an old friend of mine lives. I’d sent him an email out of the blue saying that I might be passing through. The bus pulls in, and there he is waiting to greet me with a handful of dates, freshly picked from their orchards. A hug, and he hands me a thermos of coffee. I’d forgotten what it is like to have someone anticipate my needs. I can barely control the tears.
My roommate for the night is a woman from Tel Aviv. She is a divorced professor of linguistics. I teach English as a second language. We talk about prepositions. I tell her that my Israeli students find prepositions the hardest to figure out because the words in themselves have no meaning. They are dull.
“Prepositions,” she says, while arranging her clothes for the next day, “are about relationships. And relationships are never dull.” With a striking realization, I think of how you can run with someone, run to, run from and – run away.
Totally sapped that night, I am not sure whether I fall asleep or pass out. I awaken the following morning rested and refreshed. Some of the sadness has drained. I gather the supplies I need, preparing to leave the desolation behind. Today’s trek is less steep and I am able to keep near the front of the line. I step up and look around. I am taken aback at the beauty of this piece of the world.
On the way home, Daniel starts discussing the next trip. “You’re coming back, aren’t you?” he asks, and I hear the silence as the others wait for me to answer. I realize that in true Israeli fashion once you are in a group, you become part of the group. I am not like them but having shared an experience with them, I have become one of them. For a moment the weight of my loneliness lifts. I realize that it takes looking up to see what is around one, and I should not be afraid to head towards.
My life back home will have mountains that need to be scaled down, and there will be times when I feel I can’t go on, but in those moments, I must remember that sometimes all it takes is a prepositional shift to change one’s perspective, to turn what is down, and raise it up.
וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף, אֶת-אֶחָיו (Genesis 42:7)
From the Jewish Book Council More All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor. This book follows the further adventures of the five sisters and one little brother of the All-of-a-Kind family, and their extended family and friends. This time, the plots include a romance between Uncle Hyman and “greenhorn” Lena and another romance between oldest daughter, Ella, and Jules. There’s the polio epidemic that sweeps through New York City and ends up touching one of the book’s central characters in a major way. There’s the move from the Lower East Side up to the Bronx, which ends the book. And throughout, there are all the Jewish customs to savor and the holidays to celebrate together. Mostly the story is a quiet one, comprised of a series of small, intimate, and lovely moments—the book is old-fashioned in the best sense. Overall, it’s awfully hard to resist the charm of this early twentieth-century family. Highly recommended for ages 8-12. (Reviewer, Leslie A. Kimmelman)