essays

Wild Birds: A Photo Essay

The Israel National Trail starts in a small village called Dan.

“On some level, I wanted to see this as a serendipitous sign, an indication that I’d made the right choice to travel to the other side of the world to embark upon a starry-eyed dream of hiking solo across a politically tumultuous land. Perhaps it was just a charming semantic coincidence.”

 

“In Dan, as instructed by my guidebook, Hike the Land of Israel, I located the nature museum. Around the back of the museum, beside a parking lot, was a campfire area with an Israel National Trail sign and a mud archway indicating the INT trailhead. Decorated with blue, orange, and white tiled flowers, the archway was like a small Arc de Triomphe built by hobbits.”

 

“Walking the trail quickly became a scavenger hunt, each marker was an Easter egg but instead of a chocolate surprise I was granted the intrinsic pleasure of knowing that I was not lost. Despite the gloomy weather, despite the tightness in my throat, despite the heaviness of the backpack, and despite the barrage of questions, I became giddy. This is what I’d travelled halfway around the world to do: walk the trail. And now I was doing it.”

 

To hike across Israel and Palestine, I was prepared to face many obstacles. I wasn’t, however, prepared for the mud. 

“The hiking over the next two days was a mix of mud and sunshine, despair and bliss. Oftentimes my boots were so caked in mud that I felt like I was walking in platform shoes. At specific sections, the INT was framed with shoulder-high thistles, which required opting for one of two evils: navigating through prickles or trudging directly through the muck.”

 

The view looking back across the Hula Valley. 

“Ornithologists estimate that approximately 500 million migrating birds pass through the valley each year, moving between southern and northern hemispheres, along the Great Rift Valley from Africa to Asia or Europe. The valley once contained an expansive shallow lake where rice grew and water buffalo roamed, but the lake was drained in the 1950s with the intention to decrease malaria and increase economic productivity. This was bad news for birds.”

 

I was proud of myself for my little hiker’s hack. Instead of walking around with the guidebook in my hand, I cut out the day’s itinerary and maps, and then placed them inside a hefty ziplock bag. 

 

“The light switch didn’t work, but the last dregs of daylight provided enough illumination to see the main room was mostly empty, except for a pile of foam mattresses and an upright piano beside a window. The floor creaked as I limped to the piano, which had a manufacture’s name that I didn’t recognize: Daniel. I dropped my index finger on middle C; the tone was tinny and out of tune and echoed through the silent room.”

 

“The air on Mount Meron smelled of oak trees and snow—that singular type of cold, damp humidity that indicates impending snowfall. I was moving slowly along muddy switchbacks framed by pine trees, walking to the top of the mountain. Patches of snow began to appear. Eventually there was more snow than visible ground, and the INT became a white, slushy mess. Above, thick, grey clouds had rolled in. As I walked higher, I stepped into the clouds.”

 

Sometimes the trail was simply beautiful.

 

“Tentatively, I approached another stone structure, this one with a grass roof and a cave-like arched entrance. The cave floor was smooth, almost like polished concrete, and it was void of garbage. This was the best I was going to find, I told myself. So, I dropped my backpack and started setting up my gear, lacing the poles through my bivy sack, slipping in the self-inflating air pad and then pulling my sleeping bag out of its compression sack. With everything in place, I stood back. In the bivy sack, it was alarming how convenient I was for burial.”

 

“The landscape transformed into a valley with spring shrubs taller than my shoulders. The density of the foliage, while handsome, provided two problems. First, like the overgrown goat pasture on my second day of hiking, finding trail markers was a constant challenge. Second, with the combination of rain and morning dew, the plants were dripping wet. Whenever I bumped into a plant stalk, which was every step, water fell off the leaves. The result was like walking into a car wash.”

 

“By mid-afternoon, we reached the south end of the Sea of Galilee and the region’s attraction that I was most curious about: the Jordan River Baptism site. When entering the site, the first thing visitors see is a wall lined with photos of the celebrities—such as Whitney Houston—that have been dipped into the sacred water. A set of change rooms, a cafeteria, and a gift shop were built along the curve of the slow brownish-green river.”

 

“One night, I slept on the edge of a field. By the morning, the dew crept inside the walls of my bivy sack and dripped all over my sleeping bag. I awoke soaked and shivering. But it wasn’t all hardship. The new propane tank fit my camping stove, and this meant I started eating hot meals. At the end of the day, with my gear set up and a steaming bowl of tomato soup with pasta, I felt competent and proud, like I was marginally skilled enough to justify being on the trail. A not-totally-pathetic hiker.”

 

Traffic jam in the Galilee. 

 

“Pink light slowly poured into the stone room at the Mount Tabor monastery. The night had been cold, but the insulation of my sleeping bag kept me warm enough, and my sheer exhaustion had ensured a sound sleep. Before packing my bag, I drained almond-size blisters that had bubbled on the backs of my ankles and the lentil-like ones across the tops of my toes, letting the liquid squirt into a square of toilet paper.”

 

“Despite its tent-like status, the yurt had running water and electricity. I showered and then slipped into a pair of well-worn blue jeans and a faded hoodie. After wearing quick-dry hiking gear for two weeks, the soft cotton fabrics felt luxurious against my skin. In the kitchen, Neta squeezed oranges into a glass and handed the juice to me. Then she pan-fried leftover mujaddara— lentils and caramelized onions served with rice—and pushed a steaming plate in my direction.”

 

“The trail became my walking partner and the trail markers—those placards spray-painted blue-white-orange on flat-faced rocks, attached to the top of fence posts, nailed to trees—were the language we spoke to each other. Spotting a trail marker was like receiving a check mark for finding the right answer, each released a small dose of dopamine.”

 

“The final days of the first leg of my journey, walking parallel to the Mediterranean Sea, were among the most pleasurable of my entire experience hiking in the Holy Land. The water was therapeutic for my blistered toes and the salty air and the stretching ocean views served to stimulate my determination. The final night of this first leg of the journey, I camped on a cliff overlooking the ocean, just south of a city called Netanya.”

 

Don’t judge my fashion choices. 

 


Photos from Palestine will be posted on Monday, January 17.

Photos from the desert will be posted on Monday, January 25.

 

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