Hiking the Israel Trail

Below lies the sweeping Negev desert. Above, a line of camels saunter across a stretch of land dotted with yellow-flowered tumble thistle and tiny pink sun roses. In the distance, the lights of Arad twinkle as the soft slopes of the Yatir forest melt into the darkness. It's dusk on the 600-mile Israel National Trail, a footpath that ambles from the country's southern border with Egypt all the way north to the edge of Lebanon. It was modeled on the Appalachian Trail, designed as a peaceful retreat from the world. But this is Israel. No oasis of calm can keep out the heat and tension of everyday life completely.

The Israel Trail was first marked in 1995, and it was carefully constructed to sidestep areas of territorial dispute, such as the Golan Heights, West Bank settlements, and even Jerusalem. From one end of the country to the other, it passes ancient ruins and biblical sites, beaches, expansive forests, a desert, and cities. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel says that thousands walk the Israel Trail, or sections of it, every month. Nimrod Barkan, 22, says that while he was completing his mandatory tour in the Israeli military, he would dream of hiking there. "The thought that I would do this trail, that there was an alternative to the constant pressure, kept me going."

But when the land is this sacred—in so many ways and to so many people—it becomes nearly impossible to divorce the shifting political landscape from the one surrounding the trail itself. For some Israelis, hiking the trail is a form of patriotism, of celebrating their land by never leaving it, even for a vacation. "It's not Zionism in its traditional form," says Moti Ben-Chitrit, who's in charge of the trail. "It's more like ahavat haaretz, a love of the country." It's also hard to ignore the fact that less than half a mile away is the green line marking Israel's pre-1967 border. Jewish settlements, such as Sussiya or the hard-core Maon Farm, are just a few miles north into the West Bank, and on a clear day you can see Hebron, the site of decades of animosity between Palestinians and -Israelis. Israeli writer David Grossman spent five weeks hiking the trail to research his latest novel, Until the End of the Land. "I'd started to feel detached from the government, the occupation, the vulgarity, but also I'd become detached from things I loved deeply as a child," he says. "I did it to renew the bond between me and this land, a bond that had been violated."

The politics are at their most subtle in the way some hikers strive to keep those politics at bay. The trail has become a place for Israelis to meet, far removed from the internal dichotomies of their country's existence. "Suddenly the code of behavior is not the usual Israeli code of aggression, of suspicion," Grossman says of Israelis he's met on the trail, including right-wing settlers. "If I had met these people in any other context, we would have immediately begun quarreling, but meeting in nature allows you some generosity again."

Part of the charm of the trail is the evening stopovers, sleeping under the stars. You can also stay as a guest of "trail angels," whose homes dot the country in both Jewish and Arab villages. I stayed at the home of a family in the Bedouin village of Durijat, and as I sat down to eat dinner with them, I asked about the source of their hospitality. "It's simple," said Yitzhak Abu Hemad, passing around a plate of dates. "My door is always open to hikers, no matter who they are and what they believe in. They love the land, and that is enough for me." The trail may not offer a solution for regional peace, but for many Israelis, it does bring a little peace of mind.