It’s a bizarre headache. Not so much a migraine, but the kind where it feels like your brain is trying to climb out of your head. The kind that says, “hey, body, what the *fuck* are you doing?” And my body doesn’t answer. It doesn’t even shrug. That’s because my chest has taken over. With an iron grip on my legs, it drags me forward at a pace I would not refer to as leisurely.
The desert valley is already getting dark and I keep glancing at the clock. “Okay, by 4:15 pm, if I don’t reach the halfway mark, I’ll turn around.” The thought is not a comforting one.
So I planned this day off. This is something I don’t do. I really don’t. I plan trips to the beach and wonder whether I should bring some of those readings I’ve been ignoring. Of course then I feel guilty because I don’t end up doing the work I brought along. All in all, it’s pretty unhealthy. This is me trying to change. To take a break from the city, the public buses, the election campaign, from the asylum seekers, from Israelis, from family, from my girlfriend, from life. A present to myself.
I set aside an entire day with no purpose other than to drive two hours south in a little rental car and find a wadi to hike in the Negev. That’s Israel’s largely empty southern desert, which makes up about half the country’s land area.
In a country where every scrap of land is contested, and drips with blood and history, the wide expanses in the Negev give you some room to breathe. Even the weather is different. Sheets of heavy rain are gradually replaced with drizzle and eventually sunshine as I drive south. Farmland gives way to rocky desert; green orderly Israeli villages to Bedouin shanty towns of corrugated metal, dirt paths and trash. Toyotas from the ’90s suddenly veer off the main road and follow some previously unseen dirt track at the kind of speed that says, “this is my land.” The army uses a lot of the rest of the empty space. There are long stretches where every turn-off is blocked off with the ominous sign, “danger, firing zone.”
I had gotten a late start that morning. It took longer to rent the car than I’d anticipated. My plan was to hike Ein Avdat, a narrow desert canyon half an hour south of Be’er Sheva. After a two hour drive south, in a typically impatient and impulsive move, I saw the line to get into the Ein Avdat national park and turned around. Then I continued driving south.
I picked out another trail from the Lonely Planet guide. It was in Machtesh Ramon, a crater so vast I couldn’t make out the other end. To get to the hike, all I had to do was descend into the canyon on route 40 and then look for the signs to the Be’orot camping ground.
This takes longer than expected and it was close to 3 pm by the time I make the left off route 40.
It turns out the “road” to Be’orot is a dirt path no more than a few meters wide, marked by little rocks on either side. I can hear the constant ‘ting, ting, ting’ of little rocks bouncing off the undercarriage. Route 40 quickly disappears behind me, leaving a darkening green-less desert lanscape on every side. The road is frequently crossed by stretches of sand stained dark, as if water had gushed through the area not that long ago.
This is when my head first started its revolt.
It’s already past 3 pm. I am alone in the desert, driving through rocky terrain in a little Hyundai designed for squeezing into tight urban parking spaces. And the sun is going down in a little over two hours. Twenty kilometers an hour turns out to generate the maximum pinging on the undercarriage I can handle. I pray not to get a flat.
This continues for 20 minutes. I find the Be’orot camping ground, a group of stone structures, with canvas roofing and rugs for carpeting. Here a group of 40 or so middle-aged tourists barbecue and laugh. The Bedouin owner informs me that my trail is another 15 minute drive away and that the road to get there is “okay for small cars.”
Half an hour later, alone on the trail, watching my phone service toggle between one bar and “no service,” I follow white-and-green markers into a darkening canyon. The markers are hard to make-out in the shadows.
I keep up a pace just short of a jog, trying to avoid twisting my ankle on the uneven terrain.
My head is a foggy mess of anxiety, and, by now, hunger. All of which is faced by a steely rationale that says, “this is an acceptable risk.” Unable to really resolve the dilemma in my head, my legs just take over.
It’s a strange place to be. Calm and anxious.
The environment is both enchanting and cold. Warm and uncaring.
The shadows grow as I trot through the rocks. My brain runs one way as I run the other. I am having fun and I might die.
Exiting the half-crescent canyon, I finish a brutal climb up a 4×4 path that carries me back to my little Hyundai rental. It’s 4:30 pm, still 45 minutes to complete dark.
On my bumpy trip back down the rocky path, I pick up a group of tourist stragglers on their way back to their car. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, my European guests learn that I’m a journalist covering the African asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv. And that I’m on vacation for a day to get away from it all.
And then one woman asks what I think the most important problem is when it comes to the Africans. I explain that it’s complicated but that the lack of a resolved status for the asylum-seekers is probably top of the list. That causes a litany of other social and political problems downstream. But she wants to know have I heard of the rape of an elderly woman in South Tel Aviv by an Eritrean? She forcefully proceeds to tell me that the most important problem is violence against women. And that it is ignored by media.
I drop them off at their car and continue on my way. The last flicker of sun passes below the horizon as I follow the path of rocks back home.