Hiking up, down, and through history

I cannot but stand in awe at the "Israel Trail" and the brave men, women and, yes, children who hike it regularly.

israeltrail image
Jogging along the Israel Trail.

I am not a jogger. I am not a runner, either. In fact, those who know me will tell you that the only sport I do is jumping to conclusions.

I know it's not the healthiest of lifestyles, but the truth of the matter is that walking and running tire and bore me. And yet, I cannot but stand in awe at the "Israel Trail" and the brave men, women and, yes, children who hike it regularly. For me, it's very much a spectator sport, but one which I hope one day to have the energy to actually participate in. One day. Maybe. I promise to sleep on it.

The Israel Trail starts in the northernmost tip of Israel, at Kibbutz Dan, and extends along the country all the way to Eilat in the South, through 643 miles of varying terrains and landscapes. The Israel Trail was opened in 1995, inspired by the Appalachian Trail (but about half as long). It is designed to offer hikers a view of every existing terrain and a chance to visit all of Israel's minorities and religions. National Geographic magazine designated it as one of the 20 top trails globally.

Most hikers, and there are hundreds of them every year, divide the trail into segments which they walk either consecutively (it takes 30 to 60 days) or sometimes on a weekly basis. The record holder completed the trail in 12 days and 13 hours.

The trail enables hikers to enjoy every part of Israel from North to South and to see its mountains, valleys, plains, beaches, and desert-as well as sites that are holy to no less than five religions.

Yet, the truly impressive aspect of the Israel Trail is how it brings people together and the connections it fosters among Israelis of all walks of life, all ages, and all faiths. The most obvious feature is the people that one meets along the trail. Those who hiked it tell of fascinating encounters with different people who all have one thing in common: a love of Israel and its incomparable beauty. On the Trail, they tell me, you meet people you would never otherwise meet and make connections you would not have imagined possible.

And then there are the "Trail Angels." They are ordinary citizens who happen to be living near the trail and who open their homes to trail walkers for refreshments, a place to sleep, or a yard where they can pitch a tent overnight. Some Angels will place bottles of water along the trail upon request, well hidden in the shade, to be picked up along the way by weary walkers. Most Angels will provide those services for free, some for a nominal fee. In this way, trail walkers meet many fellow Israelis along the way, making new friends across different segments of society.

Given the growing popularity of biking and especially all-terrain biking in Israel (there's another sport I shall not take up), parts of the Israel Trail have now been adapted to bicycles as well. Today, many of the trail's segments are shared by bikers and hikers.

The trail does more than just let people meet new friends and see the country's spectacular landscapes. It is a way to connect to our heritage, to our history, and to our ancestral land. Much like the settlers of old, who came in the late 19 th Century and early 20 th Century to work the land as a means to connect to our history, so the Israel Trail provides hikers with a physical connection to the Upper Galilee, the Sharon plains, the Judean Mountains, the Negev, and the Arava Desert. Those who have walked it report that they once again fell in love with their own country.

Members of our Chicago community are invited to hike (or bike) the Israel Trail-all of it or just part of it, at all times of the year. Please send me your pictures. Just don't expect me to join you. Sorry.

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel office.

"Those who know me will tell you that the only sport I do is jumping to conclusions. "

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