Day 56- done!

Last night at around 9 pm, I arrived at the exact spot I began the trail in January. The last day was long, but on the beach, and a very beautiful hike. Here are some pictures- I may do one more post in a few days with some conclusions/reflections on the trip.
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   

Day 52

Today was a day off in the city of Haifa. I toured the beautiful Baha’i Gardens, and explored the city. 

Some highlights of the last few days have been Mt. Tabor, and the ancient ruins of Zippori. As always, there have been plenty of amazing views. In terms of animals, I have been seeing a lot of dead ones. I’ll spare you the photos dead cows, hogs, and dogs. But, on the other hand, I also met some baby goats just after they had been born, at a trail angel’s home. The circle of life, I guess?

Only a few more days left on the trail until I get back to Tel Aviv!

   
    
      

 
    
      

    
     

Day 48

This is my sixth day of hiking in the north, including a day off yesterday. I have been keeping a good pace and am definitely on track to finish the trail before my flight home to the US.
The north is obviously very different than the desert. Instead of rocks and sand, I’ve been seeing many more signs of life. There are cows everywhere, plenty of creeks to cross, and school groups all over the place blocking the trail. Other than the cows, I have been seeing fish, turtles, frogs, sheep, all sorts of birds, and several snakes as well. 

My day off yesterday was in Tiberias, which is right on the Sea of Galilee/ Kinneret. I spent the day swimming, exploring the city, and doing some phone interviews for internships. The area is also home to a bunch of holy sites in Christianity.

I have stayed with several trail angels so far, and they have all been great. One was a gymnast and personal trainer, so I got some tips on handstands. Another was the manager of the pub at a kibbutz, and I was there on his day off. He took me and a few other hikers staying there to a hot spring right next to the border with Jordan, and within a few miles of Syria as well. It was phenomenal- a sort of old stone building now full of naturally heated water. There was no roof so you could see the moon and stars, and it was overall a great experience. The trail angel I am with now is the owner of a canoe rental place on the Jordan River.

In less than two weeks I will be done with the trail and be back in the US. I have to say, despite how fun this has been, I am excited to get back to “real life.”

   
    

        
  

  
   

  

  
   

  

   

Day 40

Well, I survived the desert. So now I have done about 2/3 of the trail- everything south of Tel Aviv. Tomorrow I will bus to the northern tip of the trail, and will hike south to Tel Aviv to finish my trip here.
The last few days have been absolutely gorgeous. I went through two more craters- Makhtesh Gadol (large) and Makhtesh Katan (small). A lot of the hiking was steep but the views made it very worthwhile. The large crater had some of the most amazing views I have ever seen, and the small crater wowed me with its perfect shape.

I had a great time in the town of Yeruham, where I stayed with a trail angel. I ended up taking two days off there because of heavy rain and flash flooding in the desert. In fact, several hikers were rescued that night from Hava night camp, where I had just been a few days before the floods. One was the Israeli I had been hiking with before. I’m glad all of the hikers were safe- nature is great until it tries to drown you in a flash flood, I suppose. 

Of the many awesome people I met in Yeruham, a few happened to work at a virtual reality tech company, and I got a chance to come to their office and try Oculus Rift, which was great. I did several different scenarios, including horror scenes of a haunted house and carnival, a chicken survival game, and my favorite, a game where you are a cartoon elephant walking around and you move your head (in real life) to swing your trunk around and hit things. The horror ones had plenty of creepy things jumping out at you, and some pretty dark stuff like a zombie horse casually munching on a human arm in the haunted carnival. Overall it was amazing to get an opportunity to try out such new and powerful technology.

Some other notable occurrences have included waking up because a fox kept trying to rip my trash away from where I had tied it to my tent cord, my bag being opened and rifled through during the night (that was a human, fortunately I keep valuables in my tent and nothing was taken), and walking just a few kilometers away from the Negev Nuclear Research Center, where Israel allegedly develops nuclear weapons. Speaking of the nuclear site, for about two weeks I have been seeing a stationary white thing in the sky, and I finally got close enough to see it. It’s a sort of blimp, which an Israeli told me has a camera and stays above the nuclear research center to monitor it. I also think I saw it on the ground (for repairs?) at one point. It appears in a few of the pictures below.

I am very proud to have finished the desert, and also really looking forward to the north. Let’s hope I can get back to Tel Aviv on time for my flight home!

   
    
 
   
     

  

    

   

 

  

 

Day 34

I am now about 2/3 done with the desert. Currently, I am at a trail angel’s house in the town of Midreshet Ben Gurion, and the Danes are here as well. However, one of them is having foot problems and therefore tomorrow I will continue alone. There are six more days of hiking until Arad, which I will do in seven to allow a rest day after what is supposed to be the hardest day of the entire trail.
The last week has been a tough but beautiful one. We had some amazing views, including some of Makhtesh Ramon (makhtesh=crater). My guidebook explained the crater history to me and it is pretty cool. A hard outer layer of rock covers softer rocks, which eventually are eroded away from under the harder layer. Eventually the harder layer collapses, forming a sort of crater. Wikipedia tells me this is unique to Israel/Egypt. There are seven, five of which are in Israel, and three of which are on the trail. 

We had a day off in Mitzpe Ramon, and stayed with an angel there. We were able to get some pizza (which we were all craving), relax, and rest our legs for a day before getting back on the trail.

Enjoy the pictures. Including the one of me holding one of the trail angel’s pet cockroaches..

   
    


   

  
   
  

Day 27

It has been a few more days of desert hiking, and some highlights have been meeting more hikers, joining a large group of 70ish year olds for Shabbat, and spending a day off at an incredibly unique place.
One morning we met two Danish guys, both 20 like me. They had just started the trail, and I stuck with them because Noam was taking a day off. We have hiked together since then, until I took a day off at Kibbutz Ne’ot Samadar. 

The first night with the Danes, we stayed in a large tent at Kibbutz Elifaz, and the only other people there were 30 or so Israelis, who looked to be 70 or so on average. It turned out they were a group of old friends who did hiking trips once a month around Israel. Most of them were all originally from the same town, but the group had changed a bit in the 25ish years it had existed, as new members were added. To join you need to be referred by a current member, so it isn’t completely open. It was Friday night and they were preparing a Shabbat dinner, and they gladly invited us. Since they traveled in a bus, there was no concern about how much or what food to bring, and they really didn’t skimp on anything. Almost everything was homemade and/or fresh- soup, challah bread, salad, rice, cake, and more. 

Two nights ago we arrived at another kibbutz, called Ne’ot Samadar. They host hikers for free, and you can eat with them and “camp” in the kindergarten building. It is also encouraged but not required to stay there and volunteer for a day or more. I decided to do this, while the Danes kept hiking. However they also enjoyed a unique dining experience, and a trip with me to the top of a really cool tower (picture below).

The day started at 5:30, when “morning meeting” happens. Everyone working that day heads to the dining room. You enter, and take a seat. No lights, no talking, no anything. There is coffee and tea, and you sit there for 20 minutes or so. Then someone in charge says “boker tov” (good morning) and the day begins. My first shift was agriculture, so for the next two hours I worked to spread compost around apple, pear, and lemon trees. Oh and guess who showed up- the German couple. You’ll have to read the last post to hear about them, but they finished the trail and had come back to volunteer. At 8:00 we stopped and went to breakfast. Everyone files in and you sit at the next empty seat. It doesn’t matter who you are or who you see or know. You just sit and start eating. Nobody talks, and as a result the meals go quite fast. If you need more of something brought to your area, you raise a hand and one of the people on kitchen duty comes to help. This style of dining was really strange to me because at college, I feel like it’s the opposite. Meals are a time to relax, talk to friends, and take a break from all the other tasks and responsibilities of the day. Anyways, after breakfast I was assigned to gardening. I pulled weeds, turned soil, and cut onions and cabbages out of the ground for the kitchen. 
During the agriculture and gardening work, I was mostly with people who were staying there to learn about agriculture and perhaps pursue a career in it. Before lunch, they had a discussion (they do every day) and they welcomed me and the Germans to join. The topic was faith. Not really in the standard religious sense (although of course the Germans brought Yeshua into it, earning a scolding from the leader, who asked for more “personal” points), but more about faith that you can accomplish a given task or goal. I didn’t end up talking, because by the time the guy translating for us had explained the latest point, the topic had slightly changed. It was still interesting to hear all the ideas going around though. Then we had lunch (silent obviously), and a meeting for everyone on the kibbutz, which was about 80-90 people. I didn’t understand any of it, except when the leader switched to English and asked me to introduce myself to the group and tell them something. I decided to thank the kibbutz for their hospitality toward hikers, and I told them how trail angels have been my favorite and most meaningful part of the trip. I explained how it blew my mind that in a world, a region, and a country where all you hear about on the news is violence and fear, suddenly I, as a total stranger, was being welcomed into homes and kibbutzes like a best friend. By the end of my one minute speech at least one woman was crying. 

I then had a break and finally, a three hour shift at the kibbutz’s store/restaurant a mile down the road. I helped clean the kitchen and bathrooms, as well as perform other jobs for the closing shift. Also, Noam, the hiker I had started the desert with, showed up. He is now staying at least a day to volunteer, while I keep hiking.The highlight of the restaurant shift was definitely getting the leftover cake. That, and for the first time ever I had goat milk soft serve ice cream. The kibbutz has plenty of goats but no cows, so all the dairy products are goat milk based. I thoroughly enjoyed the ice cream, and after the shift was over returned for a (silent) dinner. Afterwards I sat outside, made friends with a cat, and had a long discussion with a young man who was in the agriculture program but had hiked the trail a few years before.

I hope to catch up with the Danes within the next two days, and continue heading north at a good pace.

   
    
    
    
    
   

   
 

Day 20

This is the end of the third day in the Negev desert. It has been absolutely amazing so far- forget anything I called a “good view” in the previous two weeks. The desert is better. In case you didn’t read the last post, I took a bus to Eilat and am now hiking with an Israeli man, so I am doing the desert northbound.

Noam turned 35 on the first day out of Eilat, and we have been hiking and camping together. He is Israeli, and has done a decent amount of hiking in these parts before, which has been a great resource for me. I have learned so much from him already- about the desert, the animals we are seeing, Israel, types of Judaism, and so much more. It has also been good to have someone to talk to- I like being alone and in my own head at times but maybe not for several days in a row.
The most amazing part of the Negev so far has been the rocks. In other words, the entire landscape that I am seeing because there aren’t many plants. Not that I know much about the classifications or history of the rocks I am seeing, but even to an uneducated eye, the desert is a geological paradise. The colors are unbelievable. When I hear the word “desert” I immediately picture a sand dune of one color but I have seen so many different shades here. All sorts of purple, red, white, black, and yellow. Beyond the colors I have noticed other characteristics, even within similar looking rocks- some are crumbly while some are solid. And maybe the most interesting has been the sounds they make upon contact with my hiking boots or poles. Some sound like glass, or metal. Some sound hollow when I tap them.

As for animals, actually many of the ones I have seen are native to places more like New York City. There have been a bunch of pigeons, which Noam said is a sign of an unhealthy ecosystem in the area, which made a lot of sense to me. And at the first night camp we had a problem with mice. Since the place we were camping was a well established campground near the city of Eilat, all the groups before us (and their trash) had taken their toll and a small mouse colony was thriving near the best part of the campground. Unfortunately we discovered this after dark and after we had set up tents, but moving was well worth it- our bags (and the food inside) were untouched in the morning. The good news is that there have been several more interesting animals. My favorite have been the ibex, a sort of desert deer. Look carefully for it in the second to last picture below. In three days roughly 6-8 have crossed our path and they aren’t the least bit scared of humans. Other than that, a few lizards, one small scorpion, and several rock hyraxes, which are really cool and you should google.

You might be wondering how I am getting enough water to survive. The first night, a taxi from Eilat brought us water and most of our food, which we had given him in advance to lighten our load. The second day I was carrying quite a bit (about 9 liters) and at the end of the day we had a cache (6 liters each) waiting for us. A cache is a stash of water, food, etc that has been set up in advance of the hike. There are several ways to handle this, and in fact as part of my agreement with the Dartmouth Outing Club to get funding for this trip, upon return to campus I will be doing a trip report presentation with a special focus on how people handle water in the Negev. I will discuss the pros and cons of each method, based on talking to people involved with it (like jeep drivers), interviewing other hikers, and experiencing it myself. One method is to rent a car and cache yourself. Another is to hire a jeep driver who knows where you should cache (usually by night camps) and bring everything you want to stash away on a day trip with the driver. You can also pay, in advance, one of a few people who maintain water caches throughout the desert (this is what I am doing). It is also possible to hike with no caches, which requires going off the trail sometimes to refill in towns, and sometimes carrying two days worth of water. I originally planned to do it that way, but after two non-desert weeks I realized my daily water consumption is far above that of a normal human, and that it would be worthwhile to spend the money on caches. Finally (and this is a good transition to my next topic), today I learned about yet another method. Late in the afternoon, we crossed paths with southbound thru hikers, and of course for my report (and interest) I asked them how they were handling water, how they chose that way, and what worked and didn’t work. Their answer was largely based on Jesus. They were a very young couple from Germany who had started the trail in September and had been hiking at a very slow pace. They had chosen not to do caching because Jesus had told the guy that the way forward was with no caching, and they were confident that in any time of need, they would be protected. I guess I can’t really argue with that because they seemed quite happy and had plenty of water since starting the desert. They would often carry a lot of extra water after opportunities to fill up, and apparently had found bottles / been given water by other hikers at night camps. I have a strange feeling that in some cases they had stumbled upon hired caches and taken water without paying, but not sure.

Anyway, that leads my to next and final topic of this post, which is religion. I have encountered, in connection with the trail, a lot of Christianity, and Messianic Judaism, which is a Jewish sect (note: some don’t consider it authentic Judaism) of people who consider themselves Jewish but also see Jesus as their savior. First there was the Californian woman who was deeply Christian. Next, the night before starting north from Eilat, Noam and I stayed in a hostel that was free for thru hikers (because the owners had done the trail) and was a hub of Messianic Judaism. Most of the people staying there were part of it, we were given complimentary books published by the “Bible Society in Israel” upon checking in, and invited to bible study at night. The next morning, while starting the trail around 7:00 am on the beach, we met a French man carrying (and talking/listening to) a Virgin Mary statue. We chatted with him for a bit, and he wished us luck in the most religious way possible. And finally, today there was the German couple.

Well, that will be all for now. Enjoy the pictures below but please know that they don’t do justice to the stunning beauty of the Negev desert. You really have to be here.








 








 

 

Day 14

I am now in Arad, which is significant to most tourists because it’s a good jumping off point for the Dead Sea and Massada, but for the trail it is the last stop before the desert. One of my pictures below is a screenshot of google maps with the locations I stopped hiking every night
starred. The last few days have been dominated by rain, and a lot of it. It also briefly hailed on one of the days. Unfortunately all the rain made for slow hiking, as the trail was flooded or muddy almost everywhere.Other than all the mud, a couple moderately interesting things have happened while hiking the last few days.

First, while stopping at a gas station one of the off-duty clerks bought me a bunch of candy. The generosity I have experienced has been incredible. As soon as people see my big backpack they take pity on me and want to help. Or something like that. Speaking of the backpack, I finally got a chance to weigh it. With everything and food, but no water, it’s 20 pounds. I usually fill up 4-5 liters in the morning so while hiking it fluctuates between 20-30 pounds.

Second, I hiked very close to the West Bank border fence. So this is what Donald Trump wants to imitate, eh? I’ve included some pictures below (look carefully for the barbed wire) but was reluctant to get extremely close just for a picture- maybe not the best idea to be a young, dirty guy with a large dark object on his back poking around a highly guarded and disputed border fence. I also passed by (but didn’t have to go through) one of the vehicle checkpoints.

Third, today I hiked on an ancient Roman road that was used to send soldiers to and from Jerusalem, and stopped in a small Arab town called Drejat for lunch. I was referred there by one of the trail angels and had an incredible lunch in a cave. The town has an interesting history- unlike many of the Arabs in the near area who are wandering Bedouins, the villagers are “Falakhim,” Arabic for peasant. A man in the 1800s settled here, and until the 1970s the inhabitants, all of whom are descended from that man, lived in caves.

I have stayed each night at a trail angel. On night 10 I stayed at Phillips Farm, where I camped under a roof by the farm’s restaurant/store. The farm owner was very fond of fish and there were several tanks in the restaurant, and more in his home, where he invited me for hot cocoa and cake. I also was near a pen of assorted birds including geese, chickens, and even an emu. On night 11 I was in a room for hikers at Kibbutz Lahav. Yet another anecdote of the amazing kindness I have experienced: while walking out of the kibbutz grocery store a man saw me in my shorts and sandals (my pants and boots were drying), and asked me if I needed shoes. I politely declined, but was still pretty amazed that this man was offering to lend a complete stranger (and a very grimy one) a pair of shoes. On night 12 I stayed at Kibbutz Kramim, where I was again with the pre-military gap year people. I finally learned a bit more about this program, known as “mechina.” The students there did a mixture of classes, leadership training, travel, and kibbutz work. That mechina group was much bigger than the first one I was at- this one had about 50 people. I stayed in one of the male cabins, and had some great talks with them. After a hummus-dominated dinner, I found out that I was there at the halfway point of their year, and they were having a prom-themed party that night to celebrate. It turned out that none of the guys in the cabin knew how to tie a tie, and suddenly my skills were in high demand. I was happy to help- tying 6-7 ties in exchange for free food and lodging seems like great deal to me! On night 13 I was in a hiker’s room at Kibbutz Amasa, and tonight I am in a family’s backyard “Bedouin tent.”

I also have had a change of plans about the desert, and will be doing neither of the two options I previously wrote about. The German couple decided that hiking three weeks with me as a third wheel wouldn’t be a good idea, and told me that in the most polite way possible. I really don’t blame them. And fortunately, one of the water cachers/ jeep drivers I had asked connected me to a young Israeli man starting north from Eilat on Tuesday. So now that I am in Arad I will bus to Eilat, and do the Negev portion (which takes ~3 weeks) in the northbound direction. Then I can do the northern third of the trail, Dan to Tel Aviv, last (and with the best weather). Despite the hassle of lots of phone calls and emails to different people, I don’t really mind the change of plan. I already wasn’t doing a “true” end to end thru hike. But my goal remains to do the entire trail regardless of order or direction, and based on my hiking pace that shouldn’t be a problem.

One complication; tomorrow is Saturday and busses in Israel don’t run. So I will find something to do in Arad for the day, which may involve checking out the “Artist’s Quarter” and/or taking a taxi to the Dead Sea for a rejuvenating swim. However, the salt content in the water is ridiculously high and my open blisters might not appreciate the reality of the phrase “salt in the wound.” Anyways, within the next few days I will bus to Eilat and start hiking north from there.
 
     

   

    
   

 
   

  
 

Day 9

I took today off, in part because of heavy rain in the area. I stayed last night with a trail angel and am staying again tonight before hiking tomorrow. There is another thru hiker here, the first one I have met, and he took the day off as well. He is from Switzerland, and unfortunately is going the opposite direction, so we can’t hike together. 

Last night we had a huge dinner, including the best avocado I have ever had. The trail angel said the avocados were from her father’s tree. I also had the best raisins of my life. Obviously I am quite happy at this trail angel’s home! It is part of a moshav, which is slightly different than a kibbutz but is also a sort of communal settlement. I am no expert; I am only learning about this now, so I won’t try to explain. Google has all the information you want if you so desire.

Today we have not been too active (our legs could use a break) but after an amazing brunch including shakshouka, we went on a quick trip to a nearby grocery store. It turned out there was a microbrewery right next door, so the other hiker and I got some samples to taste and bought some to go with dinner. 

While it has been great to finally meet another hiker and talk about the trail, he also was carrying some bad news. He has not passed any southbound hikers for weeks. I had also left a note on the trail three days ago, and have not received any phone calls, so this means there is nobody close to me going the same direction. Since my original partner quit, I had hoped to meet another southbound hiker before getting to Arad, where the Negev Desert begins. My only lead is that I have been in contact with a young German couple who wants to start south from Arad in mid February. They hiked most of the trail last year and now want to finish it. They also plan on doing a water caching trip before starting, which I would join them on and split the cost. However, I should be in Arad in 4-5 days and they want to start in three weeks, so I have some decisions to make.

Option 1: get to Arad and bus to the northern tip of the trail, and hike south to Tel Aviv. This would take about two weeks, although the guidebook author thinks I could do it in 10 if I hustle. Then once I get to Tel Aviv, I would bus to Arad and join this couple and complete the trail. However, the north is still pretty cold and rainy, and I wouldn’t be there for the springtime bloom like I would if I continued alone and did the north at the end.

Option 2: get to Arad and continue alone. I am really considering it, and the author thinks I would do fine, but I have my doubts. A lot can go wrong in the desert- flash floods, lack of water, twisting an ankle, lack of cell service, reptiles, etc. My concern is if a combination of some of these hazards kicked in at once, I would be pretty screwed.

I will mull it over for the next few days and figure out what I want to do.

   
  
     

Day 7

Today has been a fantastic day, maybe my favorite one so far. Beautiful hiking (I saw a gazelle), meeting another special hiker, and staying with the ultimate trail angel.
They say you meet Dartmouth alums when and where you’d least expect, and today that couldn’t be more true. I saw a hiker with a big backpack coming the opposite direction, and asked him if he was a thru hiker. He said no, but that he was training to hike a portion of the AT. He saw my Mount Moosilauke shirt and asked my connection to it, and I told him I went to Dartmouth and everyone went there on freshman orientation Trips. He replied “they have a lodge too, don’t they. How do you think I know that?” He was a class of 1981, back when it was 2/3 male, freshmen could legally get pitchers of beer in town for 75 cents, and SigEps would climb on their roof and launch water balloons at President Kemeny’s house. To top it off, I had taken my earphones out while talking to him, but halfway through our conversation, Happy by Pharrell, a song I will forever associate with Dartmouth, came on. Wow.

Last night I stayed at Kibbutz Tzova, and they had a room just for hikers, and a guestbook dating back to 2008. The room was on the outskirts of the kibbutz and there were several other rooms, full of other people roughly my age. Most of them were on a sort of gap year; apparently there is the option to defer the mandatory military service, and spend a year working on a kibbutz and volunteering in the area. I had a delicious dinner in the dining hall, for the equivalent of about $3-4. Take that DDS! 

I’m now staying at the home of the author of the English guidebook. He’s obviously an expert about the trail and has given me a lot of very useful advice. We had a great dinner of rice, chicken, liver, and veggies. I even got a Heineken. Tomorrow he will drop me off on the trail again and I will start hiking towards Beit Guvrin. It is supposed to rain so unclear how fast I will go, but I called ahead to another trail angel.