September 25 – November 3, 2019
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness.”
Boom. A deep and thunderous thud echoes throughout the openness of the desert and momentarily fills its void. “This is a big tanking practice area for the military. See out there? There are the targets,” explains my friend Yuval as we pedal our way through the Negev Desert in southern Israel along the Jordanian border. The blast makes me stop in my tracks as I swipe away the the few drops of sweat beading up beneath the rim of my helmet. It is almost too hot and dry here to even sweat, the perspiration seemingly evaporating even before it crests my skin. I have never spent much time in the desert, because, well, I don’t like it. In fact, I have gone on record with most of my friends as stating that…not quite that I hate the desert, but rather, I prefer the mountains. The idea of carrying 7 liters of water, the dryness, and the heat…my god man, the heat! And don’t even get me started with all that goddamn sand. So what was I doing in Negev?
I met Yuval almost exactly 3 years ago in the fall of 2016. I was in Nepal and had just finished bike packing the grueling Annapurna Circuit, a chore that required me to push my 70 pound bike for 7 hours through a slope of fist sized marbles, up and over Thorang La, a mountain pass in the Himalayas at over 17,000 feet. I arrived back in Pokhara and was taking out cash from the ATM. Yuval approached me from behind which already introduced some apprehension, having felt the societal barrier of not talking to someone at the ATM having already been breached. “Hey, is that your bike over there?” Yuval inquired in his Israeli bathed English. Ugh…I could feel the regular barrage of stale questions queuing up. Where are you from? Where are you going? Are you alone? I knew this routine and had entertained it daily for 3 months, but today I just wanted to take out some cash, get something to eat, and head back to my hotel room to crash. I was shattered. Yuval is a gregarious fella and in my experience, a classic Israeli. In that I mean it to be that he is very direct and forthcoming without much ambiguity or finesse. He stands about my height with an athletic build and greying brown, wavy hair. He didn’t back down from my attempts to elude his pressing interaction, but yet persisted to the point that I eventually sat down with him for a tea and a chat. I think ultimately it was his comedic Israeli Indian impersonation that cracked me, and I liked him immediately. Yuval was in Nepal working for an NGO (Non Governmental Organization) helping with recovery work after the 2015 earthquake. I let down my guard and we shared stories and laughs about both of our experiences thus far in Nepal. After 30 minutes, we parted ways, and in the process he told me that if I ever wanted to check out Israel, I would have a place to stay. In April 2018, I took him up on that offer. It was an eye opening cultural experience that required me to put away all of the fear I felt regarding visiting Israel, and as a result of that trip, we became good friends.
At the end of the summer in 2019, Yuval was tip toeing with trepidation towards his 50th birthday. My phone rang. “Hey dude, my birthday is coming up this fall. I’m turning 50. I can’t believe it. I want to do a trip. Do you want to join me? Since he asked me in his comedic Indian accent, I couldn’t say no. He went on to tell me that he had had some health scares but was feeling better, however I could hear it in his voice that he was still in a place, and thus could use an adventure, and a friend. I was flattered that he thought of me.
The Negev desert is over 4,600 square miles and although it encompasses more than 55% of Israel’s total land area it holds only 8% of the country’s population. It is bordered by Jordan to the east and Egypt to the west. I removed my helmet and sat down on a rock for a snack and chuckled at how crazy it felt knowing that 2 weeks prior, I had woken up with frozen water bottles on top of a mountain pass in the Cresta Bivouac, a 100 square foot, post WWII metal box perched precariously at the top of a ridge in the Vallais region of Switzerland. It had no electricity or running water, but had sleeping for 12, a table for eating, and a propane stove for melting snow and cooking. Anything nicer would have seemed misplaced and wasted for my Swiss friends and I. We had trekked up a mountain pass for 6 hours during the day in shorts and short sleeves only be to rattled awake as 90 mph winds shook the tiny sardine can throughout the night, a feeling that we might actually get jettisoned off the ridge. Temperatures plummeted, blanketing the entire valley with the first 5” of snow of the season.
It was early October and the landscape in Interlaken where my Swiss friends live was exploding with the onset of fall. The lush green hillsides were being delicately splashed with color, the way Bob Ross would adorn one of his canvases. “Colorado has hills. There are no mountains like in Switzerland,” chided my friend Ivo. I had heard this playful, yet disparaging jab for the better part of 3 years since I met he and his wife Brigitte, also in Nepal in the fall of 2016. Ivo and Brigitte were bike packing their way through India and Nepal, the same route that I had taken. I met them through a Czech couple that we mutually knew. They were both 36 at the time, about 5’8”, lean, with glasses and short hair, and spoke with the formality and precision that was just so…Swiss, (the way I’m sure I look and act American). They told stories of grandeur about their travels over the past 4 years and their plans for continuing on through east Asia. I too was in a place in my life and the fantasy of their tales was intoxicating. “What are you doing next week?” Ivo inquired. “Probably heading back to Colorado. I have completed the route that I had planned,” I replied with a directionless pride. “Do you have a job that you are going back to?” Ivo prodded subtly. “If not, you should join us into eastern Nepal, India, and eastern Tibet.” Unlike Yuval, I didn’t initially click with “the Swiss” (as I have always called them), but we all shared an unquenchable lust for mountains and as a result, we developed an unshakeable bond and ended up spending almost every day together for the next 6 months, not including several other trips throughout the subsequent years. In aggregate, we calculated that we have spent nearly 1 full year traveling together.
I last saw the Swiss in Morocco in April 2019 for a quick adventure through the High Atlas Mountains. It’s amazing how close I have gotten with them, like family. When Ivo messaged me, telling me that he and Brigitte had 3 weeks off from work in September and October and that I should come to Switzerland to see what real mountains look like, I took the bait.
I woke up my first morning in Switzerland, groggy with a jetlag hangover, but with enough mental clarity to know that I had been had. Ivo was right. Switzerland looks like a comic book for audacious mountains that seemingly explode straight up from the valley floor. Sixty percent of the country is covered in mountains and behind every jagged, shark tooth, sinister mountain range, laid another even more imposing and villainous one, with legitimate “no fall zones” lurking around every corner. I just wish I wasn’t so afraid of heights.
Ivo and Brigitte spent the next 2 weeks giving me the locals tour on bikes and on foot (WTF? Hiking?), including bike packing through the Zermatt region and camping beneath the daunting and dubious eye of the Matterhorn, and finally punctuated by the overnight backpacking trip to the Cresta Bivouac. We spent countless hours reliving details of our previous trips together, and laughing until tears streamed down our cheeks. As with every time the Swiss and I part ways, I choked back a stray tear, knowing (hoping) that I would see them again, tucked away in some other remote mountain range, as I boarded a flight to Israel to meet Yuval.
On all of my previous international trips, I had always brought my own bicycle to tour around each country. I have found that cycling is the best way to go slow, and see the beauty and uniqueness of each place, something that is clearly lost when blurred by the expediency of traveling by bus or train. With only short, 1 week trips in each country, I instead opted to not lug my bike with me, and intent to borrow one in each place. In Switzerland, I borrowed Ivo’s bike, however in Israel, Yuval did not have an extra to loan me.
I met Moy through the Bike Packing Israel Facebook page. It is a closed group that I joined in 2018 prior to my first trip to Israel. The network provides information, ideas, and support to locals and tourists coming to Israel looking to travel by bicycle. I put out a plea on the homepage asking if anyone had a lead on where to rent a bike for a week for my odyssey through the desert. Moy replied back almost immediately with an offer to borrow, not rent, his bike.
This Israeli gesture of kindness and generosity has been a consistent baseline and was matched only by the person who offered his home to me in April 2018 when I was near the Lebanon border. I had been cycling all day in the heat of the Israeli spring. I got off my bike and walked into a café to get some water and a snack in the border village of Metula. “Are you Jerry?” the man behind the counter asked with eagerness. “Uh…yes?” I replied back hesitantly. “You need a place to sleep?” “I do. Is there some place for me to camp?” “Hold on,” as the clerk reached into his pocket to pull out his cell phone and then handed it to me. “Hello Jerry! I heard you are looking for a place to sleep? I’m out of town, but I will drop a pin on your phone. Follow it to my home. You will meet my neighbor out front and he will let you in. Stay as long as you need. I’ll be home in a week. If you are there when I return, great. If not, safe travels!” And this time, I was humbled to be able to use Moy’s bike for my desert trip with Yuval.
The Israel National Trail is a near 900 mile multi-use ribbon that connects the north to the south, from the Golan Heights along the Syrian border to the Red Sea along the Jordanian border. Yuval and I set off into the desert, at best, a place where I am a fish out of water (or a mountain goat out of the mountains). The arid, wind swept and cratered landscape is painted red and brown, a visual reminder that I’m no longer in the lushness of the Swiss Alps. The cloudless, crystal clear blue sky is seemingly the only common thread between both worlds.
Every day must be planned and that plan adhered to. This is not a place to get lost or make bad decisions. I carry 7 liters of water on my bike and getting caught too far out without water can be fatal. It is a far cry from Switzerland where I rarely even carried water since it seemed to seep from every nook and crevasse. Each day we stopped from noon – 2pm to take shelter from the oppressive and debilitating heat of the day where temperatures can still rise into the 90’s, even in October. In the summer, this place is a death zone with temperatures easily exceeding 100F. People say that it’s cold in the desert at night, however I laid in my tent on top of my sleeping bag and tossed restlessly from the heat throughout the night, calmed only by gazing at the dazzling stars through the netting of the roof of my tent. This is the best time of the year to be here I’m told.
Initially and throughout the entire trip, I had no intentions of writing about this trip. I have been fortunate to travel to so many distant and remote countries, an insatiable quest for experience and meaning, and this trip to 2 dichotomous, yet familiar countries, didn’t seem to fit the blueprint of a culturally unique endeavor. To most people, the chance to visit either Switzerland or Israel would be a dream, and to visit both, well, that’s just magical. To me, this was simply a trip to visit some of my favorite people that I have met over the years, in my mind not wholly different than a road trip to Michigan to see some old high school buddies, and thus, I struggled to find inspiration to write about it. I’m spoiled in my thinking and embarrassed by it. But then I realized that travel for me has never been about momentous achievements, the mountains I climbed or the deserts I crossed, but rather the experience, the connections, and the journey along the way.
I tread lightly with my emotions because I know that I live an entitled and privileged life style for countless reasons, but specifically because I am able to travel like this for 2-3 months out of the year. In America, and many other places in the world, for this I’m an anomaly. I want to tell myself that it’s all about choices but I know that would not be entirely correct. Plenty of people make good choices but I have had a disproportionate helping of good fortune heaped upon my plate that put me in this position…along with those good choices. I know that nothing is guaranteed in life and there are no “do overs” so I savor all of these opportunities. Even the lousiest of days are gifts. Regardless of how miserable I might be, whether its fumbling my way down a snowy ice field in Switzerland for 6 hours in ill-equipped trail running shoes, my toes sopping wet and frozen so bad they hurt, to digging out 5 days of desert grime and funk from between the toes of my reeking feet, I remind myself: “This is a gift. You’ll miss it when its gone.”
So, what do Switzerland and Israel have in common? On the surface, almost nothing, but to me, a lot. There is no arguing the topographical dichotomy between the Swiss Alps and the Negev desert. They are as different as… mountains and desert, but yet to me represent the opportunities, perspectives, and connections that I’ve been given. There is a familiar commonality in the incomprehensible stillness of each place, whereby if you stop for just a moment, you can literally hear your own heart beating. I don’t think as a culture we spend enough time to create space in our lives to allow for the opportunity to do this.
Each time I travel, I slow down. I soften. I speak less and listen more. I gain new understandings and perspectives of not only the world around me but also myself. And I make new connections and sometimes, like the case with this trip, renew and strengthen old ones. As humans, we’re hard wired for connection and I’ve been fortunate through all of my travels to have made some incredible connections that will last a lifetime.
Why do I write about these experiences? I suppose it’s just a way to remind me to stop and listen to my own heartbeat. To see the beauty in the mundane. To savor the moments and catalog the intricate details of each day, because it’s the experiences and the connections, not the stuff, that matters. Slow down, I tell myself. Time goes fast enough already. These opportunities are finite and rare and once they’re gone, they’re gone. I share these musings because maybe it will inspire others to do stop and listen to their own heartbeat, if only for a moment, and find their passion in whatever desert or mountain that may be.
I knew there was something I loved about you…there was something inside waiting to bloom forth, a passion-that restlessness in your soul. It is so encouraging to watch you. I am so happy for you -you were so kind to me Jerry, blesses me to see where you are ! Barb (Family Hospice)
Wow Barb…I am truly flattered and humbled by that comment. Thank you so much for the kind words of support and encouragement. I hope you’re doing well