Meter by Meter

Every spot on which your foot treads, I give to you, as I promised Moses.”  Joshua 1:3

In contrast to many modern countries, where the automobile is king, in Israel time is made for the foot journey. It is an interesting aspect of Israeli culture is that hiking is an educational and national priority.  Students, soldiers, and employees are taken on trips all over the country, not only to see the sites but to walk the land.  During holidays, a good percentage of  Israeli families will head, yes, for their cars, but only as a means to ultimately arrive at some sort of nature walk.

How did this national pastime develop?

gideon-ein-gediFirst, we can look to biblical sources.  G-d commands Abraham to walk the land in the following story.
Abraham enters the land, and travels along the spine route from Shchem (Nablus) to Beer Sheva (today’s Route 60).  It is then that a famine strikes the land and Abraham and his family move to Egypt. When the famine is over, they move back to Israel traveling along the same road and settle between Ai and Beit El, near Route 60 between Bitin and Deir Dibwan.  He needs to split up the grazing land with his nephew, Lot, in order to minimize conflict.

How to split the land with his only male relative – potentially the one who will inherit the message and continue what will become the Jewish people (Isaac has not yet been born)?  Abraham offers Lot a choice:  if Lot goes left, Abraham will go right; or if Lot prefers, Lot will take the right and Abraham the left.

Reading this today, we may think that “left” and “right” are arbitrary directions and are meant to be taken figuratively.  In ancient times, however, these directions were not ambiguous. Directions were oriented towards the orient or East.  It is reasonable, then, that Abraham and Lot were facing East and Abraham offered Lot either the northern half of the country (to the left) or the southern half (to the right).

Lot’s choice here is crucial and seals his fate.  He looks straight ahead and sees the plain of the Jordan.  It reminds him of Egypt in its fertility.  He chooses to go East, which was not an option given by Abraham!  Lot sets his tent in Sodom, away from Abraham and cuts himself off from Abraham’s future inheritance.

At this time, G-d tells Abraham that he will inherit the land (without Lot) and he should “walk about the land, through its length and its breadth”.   Why is it so important for Abraham to walk the land?  What does walking around the land add to G-d’s promise?

Firstly, walking the land shows some degree of ownership.  People are prevented from walking where they are not welcome and have no business being.  Posting “Keep Out” signs clearly tells one that this property is not mine but rather belongs to someone else.

Secondly, walking the land by foot provides familiarity with a place in a way that cannot be accomplished any other way.  Adam Zartal, an archaeologist who has worked on archaeological survey in Israel and identified Joshua’s altar on Mt. Eval,  when asked about modern survey methods stated, “There is no hi-tech substitute for walking the land, meter by meter, with your own two feet.”  The more we personally walk the land, not only do we discover more about it, but also we develop a close relationship with it.

Walking ties us to the land.  It is easier to give up on places that you have never seen with your own two eyes.  People fight for their homes not just because they own them, but because they have grown to love them through their investment of themselves and their very existence there.  So, too, for land that you have walked; you expend effort in order to be there and so you grow to love it.

It is exactly for these reasons that G-d commanded Abraham to walk the land which would become Israel.  Not just to own it, but more importantly to learn to love it.

In my next post, discover the roots of hiking in Israel in the modern period.  You may be surprised!

Advertisements

The Most Daring Thing

“My servant, Moses, is dead. Prepare to cross the Jordan, together with all this people, into the land that I am giving to Bnei Israel.”  Joshua 1:2

Over the past week, I embarked with 17 others on a classic Israeli journey called Yam L’Yam. The trip starts at the Mediterranean Sea and 85 or so kilometers later (about 55 miles) ends at the Sea of Galilee. Our goal – to have a great time, enjoying the beauty of Israel and the company of friends as we traveled across Israel. We planned for the last few months, some of our group went on practice hikes with packed bags on Fridays, we had planning meetings and google docs and yahoo groups. We made reservations, gathered up the gear we thought we needed, checked the maps, read blogs.

The hike is generally done in 3, 4, or 5 days. (Although I have a friend who has a friend who said he did it in one, 22-hour day – if it sounds like a fish tale, it probably is one.) Since our group ranged in age from 13 to 60, and we wanted to do it in one week so we could be home for Shabbat, we decided to plan the 4 day option – Monday through Thursday. We would use Sunday as a travel day to get to the beginning of the trail, and hire a mini-bus to take us home on Thursday night. This expedition would take the place of our annual summer “Friends’ Vacation”, a time that we generally dedicate to hiking, touring and having a good time together. This trip would vary from our standard vacation – we would be sleeping outside most nights, carrying our gear, and relying on our wits and our feet to carry us along. No one brought a car.

 

yam l'yam train

It’s interesting traveling in a group with 18 people. Although we spend a decent amount of time together generally, being together 24 hours a day is a different experience. Moving 18 people, feeding 18 people, taking care that no one is left behind emotionally, physically, or mentally is sometimes a challenge and

 

requires a good amount of patience and empathy.

 

Building community is one of my life’s focuses. I came to Israel seeking to be a part of a community, and have found satisfaction for the last 19 years in helping to build community locally in Chashmonaim and nationally. I build webs of people who genuinely care about each other, wherever I go and with whomever I meet. Much of my work over the past 19 years, especially my work with Taglit/Birthright, focuses on the importance of community affiliation.

Why is community important? Numerous studies show that connection to community lengthens our lives by as much as 14 years! Despite this, and despite the flourishing of electronic communities, people today feel less connected than ever. Average Americans claim to have 1.5 friends on average despite what their Facebook account tells them. Sad.

According to Kurt Vonnegut, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

As we went through our trek, our group had to deal with many challenges – the heat, the lack of water, our crazily heavy packs, mosquitoes, wild boars, naked Nachmanites at 2:00 A.M. There were fears, anger, and disappointment. Through it all, though, we stuck together as a group, drawing on each other’s strengths to pull us through the challenges. We figured out which changes to our plans needed to be made in order to accomplish our goals – not just our individual goals, but our group goals.

People told us that attempting this hike with so many people was foolish and was sure to end in failure. And maybe for the ME generational outlook, the way our Sea to Sea trek ended would be considered a “failure”. Those of us on the trek understood it much differently. It was a most daring thing and ended in complete success.

The Israel Trail – It’s Epic!

Up there with trails in Nepal, the American Southwest, and Antarctica, the Israel Trail was recently named by National Geographic as one of the World’s Best Epic Trails.  How did National Geographic pick these routes?  They took as their criteria not only hikes which in themselves were exceptionally beautiful from a natural perspective and challenging from a hiking perspective, but also connect to the heritage of the area. 

It seems that Israel cannot get out of the headlines – even in the area of adventure.

The Israel Trail was inaugurated in 1994 by President Ezer Weitzman.  It was the initiative of Ori Dvir, who headed the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, in an effort to  make Israel accessible to Israelis and those who wanted to connect in a different way to the Heritage of the Land of  Israel.

I have hiked all over Israel and done sections of the Israel Trail both on foot and by jeep.  Israel offers a plethora of hiking which is available through maintained, marked trails.

Walking the land is a part of Israeli culture.  When I grew up, the few school trips we took were usually to government institutional buildings (the capitol or courthouse) or to museums.  In Israel, school kids are taken on many hikes as part of their  education – getting familiar with the country with your feet is seen as intrinsically important.

The truth is, this piece of land has been walked a lot.  Throughout the ages, not only has it served as a land bridge between Africa, Asia and Europe, but also in and of itself, has been a destination of pilgrims.  Early man moved up the current Dead Sea rift from Africa.  Once the Superpowers of Egypt and Mesopotamia were established, Israel was on the main highway – the “toll road rest stop” of the ancient world.

Abraham is the first one to make Israel his destination and not just a stop on the way to somewhere else. Jewish, Christian, and Arab pilgrims have arrived throughout the years.  Jewish pilgrims ascended on the 3 pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  (Incidentally, the Hebrew word for these holidays is linguistically linked to the pilgrims’ main mode of transportation – their feet.)  Crusaders arrived to make the roads and sites in Israel safe for their pilgrims.  Muslims built inns, bath houses, fountains, and markets to serve the incoming faithful.

So, next time you are looking for a good hiking adventure, think ISRAEL!  National Geographic did….  When you are planning your Israel hiking adventure, look me up and I would be happy to show you some of the gems offered by Israel’s epic hikes.

Fire Charging?

Saw this neat gadget. Here in Israel, almost the entire country has cell phone coverage (except in caves and deep crevasses) so every responsible hiker carries a cell phone. Charging it on a multi-day hike such as the Israel Trail can be a challenge. Cook dinner and charge cell phone without having to shlep fuel – great idea!

Mike Apsey

Mikie likes it and so may you. I also like what this company is doing.

View original post

Zevitan Hike

This week school will start for Gideon and Hill.  We spent last week squeezing the last bits out of summer while trying to prepare for the upcoming year.  As part of that effort, we went hiking in the Golan – something that was missing from our summer until last week. In previous summers and vacations throughout the years, we have hiked most of the more popular hikes in the area, and last week we repeated one of the good hikes – Upper Nahal Zevitan.

What makes it a good hike?

First of all, it needs water, preferably enough water in which to swim.  Nahal Zevitan and its continuation in Nahal Meshushim have pools surrounded by the black hexagons which characterize this stream system.  The pools are cool and deep – I could not stand up even at the edge of the pool at which we stopped to swim.  The stepped hexagonal prisms provide a “diving board” up to 12 feet above the surface of the pool.  Everyone had a chance to jump into the cool water, and most did.  About 4 million years ago, Golan volcanoes covered the limestone crust with igneous basalt.  This basalt cracked due mostly to tectonic activity as the Golan lies on the upper end of the active Dead Sea Fault System.  The Zevitan Stream lies on a major surface fault and so the canyons are very steep.  Water erosion carves narrow canyons through the basalt.  When these canyons fill with water, very deep, narrow pools form.

Secondly, a good hike requires a bit of nature.  Our first foray into the Zevitan system a few years ago led to our first experience with Sabra (Prickly Pear) fruit.  Boaz convinced us that we could safely pick, peel and eat a sabra right from the cactus with only a pocket knife and a bandana.  Anyone who has tried this knows that this is almost impossible.  But the fruit looks so alluring, so juicy, so wonderfully edible that you can’t help but try.  After picking prickers out of peoples hands, arms, lips, tongues, we realized that we should leave the sabra-picking to trained professionals (or at least those with leather gloves).  The Golan is also populated by rock hyraxes which you can often see along this trail.  And the views.  The views through the crevasses toward the Sea of Galilee were exquisite.  The winding stream bed, which gives Nahal Zevitan its name, covered in low trees and bushes and yellow grasses framed the blue water in the distance from the sea – just beautiful.

The third factor in a good hike is a bit of history.  We walked for a bit in an aqueduct.  The issue of water has been a major factor in the development of history in Israel.  Here, in the Golan, the control of water is key.  In 1964, the National Water Carrier opened, pumping water from the Sea of Galilee as far south as the Northern Negev.  As a response,  Syria and Lebanon started plans for a Diversionary Canal which would take water from the headwaters of the Jordan and carry them to the Yarmuk Stream bypassing Israel. The tensions which resulted, and the tank and artillery exchanges which took place between 1964 and 1966 provide a backdrop for one of the causes of the Six Day War in 1967.  Even in ancient times, control of the water meant that you could water your fields and your animals.  In this part of the world, water is connected to survival and prosperity.  It appeared to us that the aqueduct in which we walked was modern, being lined with cement, possibly to bring water to a nearby Syrian farm, whose remains we came across later in the hike.

The last major factor in a good hike is a bit of challenge.  The beginning was filled with climbing over rocks and through pricker bushes.  My feet got totally bruised and reinforced that it really was time for new hiking boots.  Next time we do this one, we will dedicate more time to it and climb down to the base of the waterfall and continue on to the Sea of Galilee.  I like that – the plan for “next time” and how we can improve our experience and push just a little farther.  It is one of the things I like most about hiking with this group of friends.  We will be there for each other and there will be a “next time”.  The walk from the overlook of the waterfall back to the Yehudiya parking lot was, quite honestly, a bit boring, with the biggest challenge being how long it would take to hitchhike from the parking lot back to the car.  My hitchhiking karma bank must be doing o.k. – it only took Gavi and I five minutes to get a hitch.  After another 15 minutes of walking on the road, we were back to the car.

It was a fitting hike for the end of summer, with all the factors of a “good hike”.

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

Last week I took a group to hike in Lower Nahal Og.  I had done the hike about 4-5 years ago when I started hiking with Yossie.  The hike is in one of the dry (or mostly dry) stream beds which leads from the Judean desert to the Dead Sea and, as such, descends for its entire length.  Along the path, as the chalk gives way to dolomite and the canyon becomes narrow and steep, and in order to continue to descend, you must navigate a series of three ladders.

“Ladders” in hikes in Israel are not what you may think of as ladders in other parts of the world.  “Ladders” here consist of metal u’s,  the width of 2 fists, which are stuck in the sides of rocks allowing you to descend/climb otherwise sheer rock faces.  The three ladders on the Lower Nahal Og hike are 4, 7, and 10 meters high (10 meters is higher than my house!).  You ease yourself over the cliff and carefully climb from rung to rung, often coached by those who have descended before you.  At points it sounds like a Twister game as shouts of “move your left foot a little to the right!” guide descent of one hiker after the next.

The hike starts in the Central Judean desert on the Plain of Hyrcania.  This is the driest part of the Judean desert – there is no residual moisture from the Judean hills to the west and are no springs of the Eastern Judean desert/Dead Sea valley.  It is a great hike for noticing the changing geology and plant life.

But besides nature, there is a historical human footprint in the area.  Despite the existence of a more heavily traveled road to the north in the area of Nahal Prat connecting Jericho to Jerusalem, there was also a secondary road which went along Nahal Og.

Why were there two parallel roads so close to each other?  The answer lies in a product which has fueled world politics and science, exploration and cuisine.  SUGAR!

In today’s world, we take sugar for granted, but it wasn’t always so.  Sugar domestication started about 10,000 years ago in the South Pacific – at approximately the same time as wheat was domesticated here in Israel.  The first sugar addicts chewed the sugar cane stalks to achieve their sugar high.  Later, the stalks were ground and soaked with the resultant liquid left to dry, leaving the sugary residue behind.

Meanwhile, in Israel, sweetness in food was obtained by adding honey (dvash) to foods.  “Dvash” in the Bible almost always (with the exception of the story of Shimshon’s riddle to the people of Timna) refers to sweetener derived from fruits such as dates.  When the Bible is speaking of Israel as a “Land Flowing with Milk and Honey”, it is speaking about fruit honey and not honey from bees or other plants. This meaning is preserved in Arabic where “Dibis” refers to sweetener made from any fruit.

Back to Sugar Cane….  Sugar (from sugar cane) became the main sweetener in India, finally making its way to the Arab world.  With the Moslem conquest of the Land of Israel, came also the taste for sugar from canes.  The Moslem conquerors soon discovered that the reeds around what is today Einot Tzukim were suitable for the production of cane sugar.  The plant requires both lots of water and lots of sunlight – both  available in abundance in the Dead Sea area.  It also can tolerate a relatively high level of salinity in its water source, leading it to take over areas closer to the Dead Sea where other plants could not survive.  The Moslem conquerors brought their engineering know-how and made the extraction of cane sugar more efficient and profitable.  They needed to bring their crop to the closest large market (Jerusalem) and also to service the Byzantine monks in the Judean desertand both Muslim and Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.  This is the famed Sugar Route which passes through Nahal Og, joins the monastery of St. Euthymius, to El Azaria and into Jerusalem.  With the coming of the Crusaders, sugar was introduced to the West.  The Europeans were crazy about the sweetener and from the beginning of the Crusader era, sugar refineries were present in Israel, not only for local consumption but for exporting to the markets of Europe.  These industrial installations required a mill, an aqueduct, hearths, and many ceramic pots for storing the resultant sugar powder and the molasses byproduct.   (These installations have been found by archaeologists around areas where sugar cane is grown, including along the Sugar Route.)  At the time of the Crusaders, sugar was just as expensive in the European markets as the spices which were brought from Yemen, such as cinnamon and cardamon.

When the Crusaders were kicked out of the Levant by the Mamelukes, the supply of sugar was now in the hands of the not-so-friendly Arabs who jacked up the prices.  As always, these market pressures forced people to become creative.  Sugar from beets, which are readily grown in Northern European climates replaced cane sugar.  This inferior product, however, was soon supplemented by sugar cane introduced, grown and processed in the New World.

As in Ramle with the development and export of the Gothic arch, in the Judean desert, we walk in the footsteps of history.  A fortuitous confluence of Eastern foods, the development of engineering which allowed for production on a mass scale and the opening of European markets led to the introduction of one of the staples of the modern Western diet.    And no matter what you think of sugar, it definitely  has clutched the stomachs of most of the people on the planet.

Montfort Castle

Last week took me to Nahal Kziv with a group of friends.  We parked near Moshav Hila, home to the returned soldier, Gilad Shalit and descended to the stream bed.  After playing in the clear, cool waters, we walked along the nahal for a long bit enjoying the shade.  We came across a confluence of paths – this was our sign to leave the stream bed and start the ascent to the Montfort castle (and the cars waiting beyond it).

As we crossed the nahal to leave it behind, we were met by a large wall.  Certain elements seemed Crusader, but I did not remember learning anything about the structure beforehand.  Turns out that my intuition was correct – Crusader period.

But let’s take a step back.  The Crusaders arrived in Israel in 1099.  As part of their compensation for taking part in these campaigns, territory in the Levant was granted to and purchased by Christian European Crusader families.  These landholdings were used as residences and farms, and usually made their owners very rich.  Once there was wealth, castles were built to store and protect that wealth.

Salahadin, a Moslem Ayubbid emperor, retook the countryside and captured the castles in 1187 in one massive campaign, lasting only a few months.

But the Crusaders were nothing if not tenacious.  They came back only 4 years later and were successful in recovering most of their territory (with the notable exception of Jerusalem).  The landholders, however, never recovered their former glory and became strapped for cash.  At around the same time, the Military Orders were established and were looking for centers for their operations and for their pilgrims.  The Hospetallers, the Templars, and the Teutons began purchasing lands that had previously been owned by individual families.

Each order had their own specialty; but all strove to combine a monastic lifestyle with defense of Christian sites and pilgrims.   An earlier castle existed in the current-day town of Me’iliya called Castellum Regis.  This castle was seat of the Galilean Crusader kingdom dominated by the Franks.  It was in the territory of the De Milly family until the
knight, Joscelin III of Courtenay, married into the family and inherited the castle and the surrounding countryside.
In 1220 the entire area was sold to the Teutons who began construction on the Montfort castle in 1226 – leading to the decline of Castellum Regis.  The Teutons, who had started in Akko, decided to build in the surrounding countryside a spur castle.  It is not known exactly why the location of Montfort, on a mountain spur, not on a major road, not near lush farmland, was chosen for the main castle of the order.  It could be that the knights wished to distance themselves from the competing (and sometimes hostile)
Templars and Hospitallers.  It could be that they wanted to have a remote location for their archives and treasury.  It could be that it was simply built as a lavish retreat for the Grand Master, who, it seems was a permanent resident, much in the sense that Masada was built as a refuge for Herod.

The castle was built with all the normal elements, donjon, moat, watch tower, 3 surrounding walls, and also with some creature comforts such as a waste chute.

The structure below in the Nahal which I happened upon last week is thought to be a guest house and a mill.  The streambed of Nahal Kziv forms part of the Sea-to-Sea hiking trail of today.  (I hope to hike this trail next summer with some friends/kids.)  Most likely, the path also served Crusader pilgrims trying to get from the coastline to the Christian sites in the interior.  They would not have wanted to make the arduous climb up to the castle (as my companions and I did last week – all 1200 steps up!).  It would have been much more comfortable for them to seek shelter close to the stream.

The fate of Montfort was similar to that of all the other Crusader castles of the Second Crusader kingdom.  On the 8th of June, 1271, Baybars lay siege on the outpost.  Ten days later after Baybars breached the outermost wall, the parties signed a truce which allowed the Teutonic knights free passage to Akko in exchange for the fortress.  The Mamelukes destroyed the castle and pushed remnants into Nahal Kziv.  It is thought that approximately two-thirds of the stones from the complex are now in the Mediterranean.

After hiking for 7 hours, we returned to our cars, tired, sweaty and hungry, with a bit more of Eretz Yisrael under our feet and in our souls.

Dragons

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a princess named Emily.  She would happily go on walks in the forest with her friends, not considered a dangerous thing to do, but not for the tame of heart.  One day, a ferocious dragon spied her as he flew overhead.  The dragon swooped down unexpectedly and caught Emily in his talons.  As he lifted her higher and higher, her friend, Fred, took out his bow and arrow and shot the dragon.  The princess fell through the canopy and arrived on the forest floor a bit out of sorts.  Emily’s bright pink dress was torn, her beautiful blond hair was all mussy, and she was a bit bruised.  The dragon flew off back to his lair to lick his wounds.

Fred said, “Emily, maybe you shouldn’t take walks in the forest.  Maybe none of us should.  The dragon can come back at any time.  And it doesn’t really matter what you do.  He can come back and get you and carry you away for good.”

Emily replied, “I appreciate your concern, Fred.  But I have walked in the woods before without incident.  I love walking in the forest.  I love feeling the cool shade of the trees, exploring the moss growing, picking wild mushrooms with you, my friends.  I will be more careful from the threat of the dragon, but I intend to continue walking in the woods.”

Emily went out and bought pepper spray in case the dragon got close to her.  She learned archery and bought herself the latest, state-of-the-art bow and arrow set, she changed her clothing to blend in more with the trees.  But still in the back of her mind, she remembered the dragon.  If I could just best the dragon, I will be free of him.

And so one day, she decided that this time when she was out in the woods with her friends, if she spied the dragon, she would slay him.

I love hiking, and being outdoors.  When I was in fourth grade, I decided to become a naturalist when I grew up, so I could work outside.  The naturalist plan went the way of so many other little girl career plans, but the love of the outdoors has stayed with me my whole life.

In Israel, hiking is a way of life. G-d told Abraham to walk the land, the width and breadth, North, South, East, West, and that commandment has embedded itself into the Israeli psyche.  Israel offers so many wonderful, beautiful interesting trails and I was excited to find friends who liked to explore these trails.  Also, my kids like to hike, they like the challenge, and  they like going new places; they like the map reading, the discovery of hidden pools, identifying flowers, encountering wildlife.  And they grew up with me – someone who believes that a day is not complete unless you GO somewhere.

When I started hiking for real, on the invitation of my friends Rochel and Yossie, I was an amateur.  I didn’t have the right gear.  I didn’t have the right experience.   One of the first real hikes I went on with them was to Tamror Cliffs and Nahal Bokek in the Dead Sea area.  It is a 5.5 hour hike, the first 2.5-3 hours of which you are hiking in the desert totally exposed to the elements.  The second section is descending 350 m. down (vertical distance) the cliff on a rocky, winding path.  The views of the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert throughout the walk are spectacular.  Chalk slopes, fins, “castles” for birds.  Volcanic blast-out remnants from a long, lost time, remains from fortresses.  All that stuff I really like.

When I went for the first time on this hike, 4.5 years ago, I did it without enough water, in sandals, and without any real hiking experience.  About 1/3 of the way down the cliff face, I tripped on a simple rock.  Nothing so out of the ordinary.  Not a particularly difficult section of the hike.  I tripped with enough force to topple head over heels, spraining my ankle, deeply cutting my elbow and passing out.  Getting me the other 2/3 of the way down was only accomplished through the diligence of my sons Boaz and Asaf who literally helped me every step of the way.  Many really bad things could have happened to me that day, but, thank G-d, they didn’t.  Elliot calmed me down and drove home, Yossie gave me water and sugar.  Friends help friends.

And I made a few decisions about hiking.

1.  Have the right gear.  I bought the hiking boots, the walking stick, the good camelback water system, clothing that was appropriate for hiking.  I bought the entire collection of topographical maps and always hike with a first aid kit.
2.  Hike a lot.  That’s right.  Hike as often as you can.  Learn what works well for you.  I worked myself up to carrying 6 liters of water on even the hottest days and the steepest ascents.  I know that the food I need is protein, nuts, and a few sugary candies.  I know how to pace myself and others who are hiking with me so we don’t run out of water or daylight.

Yesterday I went back to “slay the dragon” of Tamror Cliffs and Nahal Bokek.  I went with Yossie, Rochel, Asaf and a lot of other friends who love being in Israel’s great outdoors as much as I do.   It’s a tough hike, rated “medium” in the book.  But I finished it. That dragon is dead.  I am in a better place now than I was the first time I faced him.

Maybe I am showing my age, but John Denver said it best:

Reach for the heavens
and hope for the future,
all that we can be,
not what we are.

Beautiful Be’eri Badlands

Maybe because I grew up some years in South Dakota, I am attracted to places which call themselves “Badlands”.  A few weeks ago on a Friday when my kids didn’t have school, I convinced my 13 year old, my 17 year old and a 13 year old friend to come with me to see flowers in the Badlands of Be’eri.  As I was preparing for the trip, I had to try to think what would make a flower hike interesting to a bunch of teenage boys.  Of course, every trip with me is fun, and my kids love being on the trail and joking around, but they also like a bit of challenge.  Often this challenge comes in map reading, climbing down dry waterfalls, reaching the top of some peak, or following wild boar tracks.  If the day is not challenging enough, I get it from them – they make fun of me and say that they will make sure to remember this hike for when I am “more mature”.  So flowers, teenage boys, badlands.  Hmm.

I have been trying to go to see the flowers in the area of Be’eri for a few years.  Because Be’eri is located in the Western Negev, the area comes within firing range for rockets fired from Gaza.  Unfortunately, for the past several years, rockets have been fired during the one month each year when the flowers are blooming in this section of almost desert – making a visit there unwise.  This year, the coast was clear (at least until the afternoon of the day we were there) and so I made the trip.

For every new flower we could identify from the flower books, either Tal, Gideon or Avi wrote the name of the flower on a whiteboard I had brought, and then took a picture.  They liked the whiteboard and soon took to drawing funny pictures about things they saw.  They took turns taking pictures, drawing pictures, holding the book.  Since the hike was not so challenging, they were able to draw and walk with ease, and looking up the flowers in a book was like an exercise in the “Where’s Waldo” sense.

We left early, to get there before the crowds, and parked the car.  I told them that despite the fact that we seemed to be on the edge of a random wheat field,  by the time we returned to the car several hours later, there would be many cars parked by mine.  They, of course, didn’t believe me.  Who believes their mother?  We started on the path which took us straight into the badlands of Be’eri.

What exactly gives a place the description “badlands”?  Here, in the Western Negev, winds blew sand particles in from the Sahara.  When these particles hit the damp air along the Mediterranean coast, they became heavy and deposited in the Western Negev.  There they mixed with clay to form loess.  Because of the clay content in the soil, rain that falls does not absorb into it, but rather rushes into the nehalim (streams) and creates flash floods.  The sudden surge of water causes erosion of the loess in low lying areas.  It is these flash floods which form the uneven terrain called “badlands”.  (Besides Be’eri, badlands can be found in Israel in the area of Ruchama.)

Because of the nature of  loess soil, it is the ideal environment for burrowing.  Animals, from single-cell organisms to voles, make their homes in the loess.  Over time, the death of these animals in the soil adds to the organic content of loess.  This, combined with the clay content,  makes loess great for growing grains – and we saw wheat and barley growing in plenty on our trip.  When we took time to examine the soil and I explained how it was formed and how important loess is to world nutrition (25% of the world’s caloric intake is from grains), they realized that “loess is more”.

As we took the long, somewhat boring route back to the car, we passed (and were passed by) tens of people riding bikes.  The terrain there, except the area within the badlands, is relatively flat; and on a beautiful spring day, it must have been a joy to bike.  As we got closer to the car, we decided to make a bet on how many cars would be parked near mine.  The kids all wanted to bet zero.  Who would have parked near us on the edge of the wheat field?  I bet four.  As we rounded the final bend, we saw not zero, not four, but nine cars with mine!  It was a popular spot and we were happy that we came early before the crowds.

A stop on the way home for ice cream (every trip ends with ice cream) made for 3 very happy teenage boys, and one happy mother!  I finally made it to the Be’eri badlands to see the flowers!