When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have established, what is man that You remember him, and the son of man that You pay attention to him. -Psalm 8:4-5
Our children, who are not children any more, refuse to relinquish the concept that a family vacation is not a family vacation unless it involves camping. We have felt for several years now that it is time to change the concept, but we are consistently outvoted. And so it came to pass that during Sukkot we found ourselves sleeping in a tent on the rocky floor of the Makhtesh Ramon crater in the heart of the Negev, sharing the one campground in this vast expanse of breathtakingly beautiful wilderness with about 500 other people who had the same idea. Indeed there were so many Israeli vacationers out there in the middle of nowhere that all the official tent sites were packed, and people were camped all along the road, in the parking lot, and even around the toilet and shower buildings. Typically, Israeli family camping does not include roughing it, so the quiet of the desert was disturbed by the rumble of the generators that had been brought along to power lights and appliances. Many of our neighbors were traveling in jeep convoys either their own jeeps, or as part of organized tours. Jeep and ATV touring is extremely popular in Israel these days, allowing people to go off the beaten track without having to walk. Of course, it seems to me that there is something ironic about coming out to see and marvel at the beauty and tranquility of the desert while you are destroying it as you go; but to each his own, I guess.
We were pleasantly surprised to discover that whatever all those hundreds of people were doing all day, it apparently wasn't hiking the marked trails in the area, for we took two full day hikes out and back from the campground and for the great majority of the time found ourselves totally alone. Blessed by cool, sunny weather, we climbed two fairly challenging mountains (which left me, at least, sore for several days thereafter). The Makhtesh is a unique geological phenomenon, of which there are, I understand, only three in the world, all in the Negev. Created by sedimentation followed by folding followed by erosion, these huge craters contain a great variety of different kinds of rocks in close proximity weird and beautiful formations, striking contrasts of color and texture and height; fossils if you look down; pillars of frozen lava if you look up. Every bend in the trail reveals new vistas and every few minutes you find yourself walking over a different kind of terrain. Thus it is not only the desolation and sense of vastness that impress you, but the rich variety of colors and shapes and perspectives that constantly fills your field of vision. Whenever you walk on sand, you can't miss the variety of tracks of predators and prey who apparently passed by just before you. And at night in the desert, the heavens are all around you.
Trips to the desert have become for us, I guess, sort of an annual pilgrimage (documented over the past eight years of the Galilee Diary). Taking a few days off from the green and temperate Galilee and the routines and pressures of everyday life has become for us, unplanned really, a sort of therapeutic ritual. A pilgrimage to the desert is a kind of trip back in time to the Beginning, a glimpse of the world before we came along. The desert opens you up, cleans you out, and puts you in your place. It reminds you Who is in charge.