Rekindling the Fires of Life; in Canyons, Dessert and the Red Sea

March 11, 2009

By: Shane Levine, NWL Staff

I had long been pondering the possibility of taking a year off from school. When CG called to offer me a job working post season at NWL, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so I submitted my leave of absence forms to school, relegated my books to a dusty shelf, and headed up to NWL for three and half months.

Soon I was waste deep in moose muck with a group of mischievous Vikings. Later I paddled the Dumoine with an outstanding group of young adults, and managed to swamp on the first torrential wave train (or was it a gigantic hole?) of Big Steel with Forest Jarvis. During post season I Zenned out while staining the dining hall at Northwaters, and had a jolly good time tripping with a number of school groups. But all too soon it was time to leave NWL and head back to Seattle.

When I got home, the question inevitably arose, “What should I do now?” For a few days I felt bored and discouraged; maybe I shouldn’t have taken a year off after all. Luckily, I received an E-mail from my best friend Michael in Israel. His plans to join the Israeli military were delayed, so he had some extra time on his hands. He suggested that we hike the Shvil Yisrael: a trail stretching from the northern to the southern tip of Israel. “Let’s do it!” I proclaimed, and before I could say “peace out” I was on a flight to Israel.

Twenty hours and eleven time zones later I arrived at the Tel Aviv airport with boots on my feet and an enormous Arc’Teryx pack on my back. Michael and I didn’t waste time; we went shopping, divided up the gear, and hopped on a bus heading to the northern tip of Israel. As I stepped down from the air-conditioned bus and into the blazing hot sun, I felt the need to evoke Lao Tzu’s immortal aphorism: The journey of a thousand miles (in our case, six hundred) begins with a single step. And with that, I took my first step.

Sadly, my lofty feelings of inspiration began to wane as bulbous blisters broke out on my feet and severe soreness set in. At the end of the first day, I unclipped my pack and collapsed onto the ground like a rickety house of cards. I then realized that the trail was going to be much harder than I had anticipated. But each day we grew a little bit stronger.

On day six, we started off hiking through a picturesque canyon filled with thick vegetation. For a while we cheerfully herded a group of cows (later dubbed “the cow brigade”) through the canyon. But then it started to rain and the trail led us into an extremely muddy stream. After about two hours of slogging through ankle-deep mud, we encountered a quivering bush, at which point we stopped and waited for a big friendly cow to emerge. But, to our horror, out came a monstrous beast-pig with menacing tusks and rippling muscles!

“Dude! It’s a hog!” Michael whispered frantically. I froze, and my heart started thumping wildly in my chest. The boar also froze, but then started thundering right towards us. It charged into a patch of bushes and continued to blaze its warpath in our direction. I thought that the rampaging hog was about to slaughter us both. But the beast just ran past us and disappeared. Apparently, it was more scared of us than we were of it!

After the hog incident, the rain started to dissipate and we came to the end of the canyon. There stood a mighty pillar of rock, which humbled us both. Deep down I knew that it had been standing eons before I came into existence, and that it would continue to stand long after I was gone—regardless of whether the hog had taken me out or not. I realized this, of course, when there were no ferocious oinkers in sight. If another beast had appeared, I’m sure that my delicate existential insight would have been promptly replaced by brute fear.

But the realization lost its oomph anyways as we trekked 20 grueling miles that day. The sweat and tears were well worth it though, for in the end we arrived at a beautiful town called Tiberius, where we rested the following day. In the morning I awoke to a box of pastries that Michael, in all his sainthood, had taken the liberty to purchase while I dozed. I bit into a chocolaty, frittery delight and was instantly transported into another dimension. The rainstorms, the mud, and long days on the trail magnified the pleasure I derived from a simple pastry into a near religious experience.

About three weeks and a million burnt calories later, we arrived at the Negev Desert, which is one of the most physically empty, but spiritually full places I have ever had the privilege of traveling through. In the beginning we had to carry two days worth of water (about ten Nalgenes each) and six days worth of food. We climbed into, and out of, enormous craters, and did a fair amount of “carbolet”—walking along the narrow tops of giant fins of rock that usually constitute the perimeter of a crater. We averaged around twenty miles a day in the desert, thanks to the previous four hundred miles that pounded us into shape.

Needless to say, the Negev was extremely demanding. But underneath the toil was deep beauty; everyday was filled with countless panoramic views and immense skies. And just as the terrain itself was essentially empty, at the end of the day, my mind was similarly quite empty. Most people treat the idea of losing one’s mind as a bad thing, but I’ve found that when I lose mine I don’t miss it very much.

After about ten days, we popped out of the harsh mountainous landscape and onto the shores of the Red Sea; the hike was over. We gave a hoot and holler, jumped into the sea, and basked in a few moments of unpolluted pride. “Well, that was cool. What next?” I said in jest.

The most fitting synopsis of my adventure as a whole—and perhaps of the adventure in general—comes from the great nature writer Colin Fletcher:

There is nothing like a wilderness journey for rekindling the fires of life. Simplicity is part of it. Cutting the cackle. Transportation reduced to leg- or arm-power, eating irons to one spoon. Such simplicity, together with sweat and silence, amplify the rhythms of any long journey, especially through unknown, untattered territory. And in the end such a journey can restore an understanding of how insignificant you are—and thereby set you free.

 

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