Monday, May 18, 2009

Saul and Eyal: a Story

Saul and Eyal (שאול ואייל) knew each other since their diaper days in the Kibbutz nursery. They were both born and raised on the Kibbutz, and it was there where they learned to milk the cows with the new electric milker machinery, there where they learned the secular, Zionist ideologies of the Movement, and most importantly, it was there where their love of nature and hiking formed and was nurtured. Besides the weekly Saturday טיולים (hikes) the two boys took with their local youth group, Saul and Eyal were also known to go off on their own, exploring the local landscape--often liberating themselves from early afternoon classes so they could journey far enough to arrive at a choice מצפה (lookout point) for sunset. It was on these outings that and subsequent moonlit walks back home that led the youngsters to learn every rock, hill, and mountain like the back of their hands. The aging grandfathers of the Kibbutz often scolded Saul and Eyal for neglecting their communal duties, yet held a warm place for them in their hearts, admiring the children's fiery desire to explore.

Boys became men. After serving in the army, Saul as an officer in the Paratroopers and Eyal in the נ"חל (Nachal--a unit that combines combat service with Kibbutz volunteering), they both relocated to a neighboring kibbutz and began their careers in the agricultural field. Although they were no longer able to take daily hikes as they held steady jobs and even new families to attend to, there were still able to maintain their longstanding tradition by trekking every Friday on nearby trails and paths.

It was on one such Friday in February, 2007 that Saul and Eyal decided to drive up to one of their favorite trails, a full day hike on the mountainous ridges of "the Big Crater" (or המחתש הגדול). Armed with Camelbaks and apples, they set out. Now, they had not spend all of their lives hiking just to arrive at a point in their late 20's where they felt they needed to hike with professional boots and gear. Nay, open toed sandals and walking sticks were enough for them. The day was beautiful: sunny but not too hot as there were occasional clouds to provide sporadic, timely shade. The two men ascended the crater with relative ease, enjoying the sights and tackling the narrow and steep paths while barely breaking a sweat.

At around 1pm, they were walking along the top of the crater overlooking the vast canyon below them when they first saw coming the other way three hikers. They crossed paths and engaged in friendly conversation, soon finding out that the hikers were three 18/19 year old Americans doing the southern 40% of the national Israel trail (a trail that goes the length of the State of Israel, walkable in entirety by foot). The Americans, named Ari, Jonah, and Chachi (like Joanie Loves Chachi) were on the the third day of their respective trek and, although visibly sweaty and tired, seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.

They had enormous packs of their backs that seemed way too heavy on the Americans shoulders, the weight probably not spaced appropriately on their hips, but Saul and Eyal kept mum on these observations. Instead, they gave Jonah Eyal's cell phone number and offered to give the Americans a ride at the end of the day when they would inevitably meet up again at the end of the trails (after all, Saul pointed out, the trails were circular so they would surely cross paths gain) to Sde Boker, the kibbutz Ari, Jonah, and Chachi had planned on staying for the night. The boys were none too pleased to have secured this ride, as they were indeed exhausted. As they parted ways for their second half of the hike, Jonah remarked to his fellow hikers that the Israelis had the look of modern day prophets, if one could believe that such people still existed.

As the afternoon hours rolled on, the day became more cloudy. At first the Americans were happy, as it made for cooler hiking, but soon enough the clouds became darker and ominous. There was a unanimous decision to pick up the pace and make it out as soon as possible. They were descending the the mountain ridges out of the crater through a river bed on the trail when the first rain drops fell. Jonah froze in his tracks. Seeing that they were in a wadi, and it was still winter so there was still water in some places, he nearly flipped. Rain drops and water beds in the desert do not mix well together. If the rain quickened, there would most likely be a flash flood and any human caught in the middle would face a serious risk of drowning. Knowing from reading the news every day that Israeli hikers die from exactly this sort of thing a couple times a year, the three hikers tried to get to higher ground. Jonah promptly slipped on the smooth, wet stone. Ari, Chachi, and Jonah decided to just keep going, as there was no "high ground," anyway.

This move proved to be important. As the panicked trio warily continued their descent out of the crater (death clouds still looming large), they realized a new, equally huge problem. They were quickly running out of daylight. At this point, it was sometime past 4 in the afternoon. The crew had been hiking since 8am. Again, this was the third day of their hike. And although for Saul and Eyal it was a casual, day stroll, for the Americans it had been an extremely long day of hellish, intense, steep, up and down, hiking. They had survived but not quite escaped a rain scare. They had roughly and hour and a half more of daylight. They were unsure of how much more they had to hike, because hiking through the wadi proved slow as they had to avoid pools of winter water. And they were simply exhausted. The thought of being stuck in the wadi over night was enough, however, to push them onward. Indeed, they remembered the words of Saul and Eyal, and they wanted now desperately to get that ride to Sde Boker.

Jonah and Eyal had previously agreed on the zenith to meet up at 4pm and hitch the ride then. It was now 4:30pm, and the end was still not in sight. Jonah was checking his phone every other minute, waiting and waiting and waiting for service, so that he could call Saul and Eyal and make sure they did not leave without them. The Americans' water was low. They needed that ride. Meanwhile, Chachi had taken a different route, straying off the path for several meters, and found himself facing a pool who-knew-how-deep. He had gone down a steep decline to get there so retracing his steps was impossible. Ari and Jonah were waiting for him on the other side of the pool. Time was running out. Ari and Jonah had a quick conference and decided a new plan of action. Knowing that Ari was the biggest, strongest, and fasted hiker of the three, Jonah gave Ari his cell phone and told him to go on ahead--to finish the trail and find a place with service so they could ensure a ride would still be there. Ari agreed and was off. Chachi, hiking with a backpack with broken straps, brand new boots and the conjoining blisters, and a body that quite cigarettes two days earlier, was near a breaking point. But he did not break. Calmly, he took off his boots and socks, rolled up his inappropriate-for-hiking dungarees, and began wading through the water, with Jonah watching with impatience and nervousness. It went as high as his waist, but for the most part his pack was spared. Quickly, Chach put his gear back on, and the two continued, every so often seeing Ari's small figure making headway in the distance.

How they did it, none of the hikers are quite sure. But they were out of the mountain wadi by dusk and back on low ground by the time the last remaining glimpses of light were extinguished by the starry Negev desert night. They found Ari once more and waited for no more than 2 minutes when they saw distant headlights getting closer and closer to their resting spot. It was Saul and Eyal in their jeep. Smiling, they got out of their car and said, "Hey boys, sorry we're late, the hike took us longer than we thought! No matter, though. Who wants a ride to Sde Boker? Also, we have lot's of water in the back of the truck, you look real thirsty!" The three hikers were so tired they could barely speak. So they smiled and drank the water. The ride passed mostly in silence, each one deep in his own thoughts of the day's events and occurrences.

Saul and Eyal dropped the trio at Sde Boker, smiled, and with a wave and a "Shabbat Shalom," were off on their way. Later that night, Ari, Jonah, and Chachi were talking about their day: how many hours they actually spent hiking, how challenging and rewarding it was, how they had experienced what they felt as a legitimate near death experience with the rain in the river bed, and how grateful they were that they just happened to meet Saul and Eyal on the mountain that day. Jonah couldn't help but think about his comment earlier in the afternoon, that he thought the two men were surely modern day prophets. Well, now he wanted to make a slight adjustment. These men, according to Jonah, were surely not prophets. Rather, they were guardian angels, sent down to protect the hikers that day. That is if of course, if one could believe such beings still existed. That night, the hikers most definitely believed.

Saul and Eyal--best friends from birth, Kibbutzniks, prophets, and angels, were never seen by the American hikers ever again.

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