52 days, 700+ miles, 10 lessons

If you somehow evaded my daily Instagram & Facebook posts from the Israel National Trail, allow me to start by informing you that I finished the whole darn thing. Done! Finito. I’m still kinda pinching myself it’s over.

It took me 52 days to hike 700+ miles from Kibbutz Dan (northern Lebanese-Israeli border) to Eilat (southern tip of Israel). These metrics include a few rest/weather days and exclude an incalculable number of additional miles (the result of getting lost three times a day…minimum). They also exclude the unquantifiable and more memorable aspects of the trail: the boundless generosity of strangers, the vastness of changing landscapes, the challenges of terrain, the joys of friendship, and the lessons learned along the way. I feel so privileged.

I’ve spent the days since I finished the trail playing mental catch-up, slowly digesting an experience that was both radically simple and entirely overwhelming. In an effort to quantify the unquantifiable, I’ve managed to mold what feels like an ocean of thought into 10 semi-succinct takeaways. By sharing these lessons with you, I hope that you’ll more easily recognize them in your own lives (or perhaps re-recognize them, as you’re likely either more aware or more seasoned than I). After all, if the trail taught me anything, it is that when we watch closely, the world unfolds its wisdom around us.

Below, in a classic mix of vulnerability and astute self-deprecation, are 10 takeaways from the trail.

1 🌟 Humor and friendship make everything easier.

“How did you hike 15-20 miles day after day? How did you not get bored? How did you figure things out? How did you keep going?”

My first answer to nearly every “how” question I have been asked about the trail (or, quite honestly, any “how” question I asked myself while on the trail) has been humor and friendship.

Humor softened situations that were objectively sucky (wet shoes), sketchy (getting caught in flood zones past dark), confusing (trail markers pointing the wrong direction), painful (climbing steep sh*t), and disappointing (gas stations without my favorite popsicle!). Humor also softened my perception of myself and my own capabilities. Laughing at my ego and shortcomings kept my typical, semi-serious soul light, motivated, and consistently humbled.

On the trail, the power of humor went hand in hand with that of friendship. I could rave endlessly about the incredible people I met on this Israel go-around, but one friendship undoubtedly rises to the top: Eran, the 23-year-old Israeli who, with the exception of my first five days, I spent the entire trail with. Hiking, problem-solving, planning, cooking, eating, reading, resting, getting sick…day after day, 24/7, it was all done together. The result? Unmatched friendship. A respectful, playful, brilliant, platonically intimate friendship that truly made the hundreds of miles possible and absolutely everything easier.

So my first takeaway? We should laugh often (especially at ourselves) and value friendship above most other things.

2 🌟 Make plans and change plans.

For an avid planner like me, the first half of this lesson was easy to accept. Oh, we need to plan a food resupply? A water cache? Sleeping locations? Routes and reroutes? Transportation? Holiday schedules? Got it. Covered. Lemme make a list, look at a map, read a review, hop on WhatsApp and message a few people. Logistics are my jammmm.

The second half of this lesson was harder to accept, yet it became crystalline so quickly: the most memorable sections of the trail were those for which the plans we had made were changed. Examples? The night we planned on sleeping in a kibbutz field and instead were pulled *literally* off the trail into a family’s home for Shabbat dinner, showers, and a night’s rest. Or the day we planned on making it thru Nahal Tze’elim (a flash-flood prone riverbed) by dark but were slowed by unanticipated water crossings…and ended up sleeping on the side of the riverbed under an unparalleled sky of stars. Or the afternoon we planned on hiking through multiple canyons, only to find the waterholes too deep…requiring us to backtrack, reroute, filter muddy water to drink, and pitch camp early under a moon so magical and bright that headlamps were practically unnecessary. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Would the trail have been so epic without any planning? Nope, and planning did save our butts many times. But, would the trail have been so epic if each of our plans had actually gone according to plan? *Definitely* not. Good things came from changing plans.

3 🌟 We assign meaning.

The trail was awesome. The experience was transformative. (yes, I’m rolling my eyes at me too). I can’t rave enough about it. And yet, I know that this positivity is simply the meaning that I’m choosing to assign to an experience that many other people would find miserable.

The trail had its shitty moments. My body hurt often. Hiking could be grueling and technical. Malfunctioning gear was disappointing. Being on my period sucked. Flies were annoying. Waking up to a dew-soaked sleeping bag was #hell. Logistics could be difficult. Plus, some days just felt plain poopy

And, while humor and friendship indeed made everything easier, consciously choosing to be undramatic about shittier moments became a true superpower (dare I say meditative practice). Sternly facing myself and assigning positive meaning to the way things were was damn effective. We even became accustomed to repeating “it’s fine, we’re fineeeee…!” semi-sarcastically and yet entirely seriously in response to the challenges of the trail. Because, yes, most of the time if we chose to be “fine” about a situation, then we were fine. Life is how you say it.

4 🌟 Everyone hikes their own trail.

Hitchhike boring sections or hike every single trail-mile, skip hard sections or add on detours, go fast or go slow, take breaks or hike straight through, walk with others or walk alone— everyone I met hiked the trail their own way. And, for the most part, there was the utmost respect between hikers that did things differently (of course, I still shook my head at people carrying only two liters of water per day in the desert or lugging packs weighing upwards of 50 lbs).

Some choices I (or we) decided to make specific to our trail experience: each day we took an ~2-hour midday break in the shade to beat the heat, eat lunch, nap, read, recaffinate, and mess around (tie knots, play with slingshot, look at maps); we opted to use the guide book and paper maps over phone apps (most of the time); we didn’t plan in rest days, instead we paused hiking when we needed something (new shoes) or weather prevented continuing (storms); and we chose to hike the sections of the trail that others often hitchhike (4X4 roads along highways).

Did our choices make our experience “better” or “worse” than anyone else’s experience? Nope. Everyone did their own thing, and that was what made it cool.

5 🌟 They give, you take. They kick, you run.

This nugget of wisdom comes across a bit harsher than it’s meant to (#lostintranslation). But the point is: if someone offers you something (unless they’re trying to “kick you”), you should take it…be it a bed to sleep in, a homecooked meal, a ride to the supermarket, a cup of coffee, an ice cream delivery via plane midway through the trail…say YES!

As an American, I often found this hard. In American culture, we are fairly good at giving (although we suck at being genuine– how many times have you said you’d love to catch up over coffee but never called? offered to do a favor out of politeness and never followed up? I’m guilty, too.) But we suck at taking. In our culture, it’s seen as polite to refuse favors, offers, and help. It’s polite to not “be a bother” or “take advantage of someone’s kindness.” In essence, we perpetuate a sort of one-sided disingenuine generosity (ironic, right?).

I’ve always noticed a stark difference with Israeli culture. Israelis don’t offer something unless they meant it. And if someone “gives” an Israeli something, they’ll usually take it. The result in the context of the trail? Giving and taking bred so much human connection. Without exception, every time we “took” something we were offered we got to know a fascinating person, had an incredible conversation, or learned something new.

Least we like to admit, we are transactional beings. So, note to self: while giving is important, we also must take for connection to occur.

6 🌟 Most strangers are mostly good.

Along with the whole give-and-take thing, my experience on the trail reminded me that most strangers who appear kind, trustworthy, and well-intentioned really are. People on the trail (trail angles, bus drivers, other hikers, etc.) were unbelievable, and yet it still took me some time to trust that most strangers were mostly good.

Why? Probably my own pessimism and America’s “stranger danger” paranoia. In America, we’re taught that strangers don’t want to help. Strangers are unpredictable. Strangers are weird and dangerous. Strangers are, well, strange?! And yet, every friend I made or person who helped me along the way was at first a stranger. One after the next, most people ended up being mostly good, if not downright fabulous. It made me think about how different America (and the world) would be if we assumed the best of everybody.

The takeaway? Be a good stranger. And assume everyone else is being a good stranger, too.

🌟 Simplicity is queen.

Anything in life that requires you to carry all your possessions on your back will make you a minimalist. And, I’m not talking about today’s trendy and privileged millennial “minimalism” movement (although I’m admittedly part of that, too).

The result of legit minimalism? An intimate and nerdy knowledge of my gear and possessions…beyond that of any trek I had done before. An odd sense of pride and protection over my favorite things. An ironic realization that some of the “gear MVPs” were simple and mundane: extra socks used for cooking cozies, plastic bottles fashioned into map holders, etc. And, above all, a dramatic reduction in the number of choices I had to make each day (only one outfit to hike in, one spoon to use, one hat to wear…might write a gear list blog post…y/n? idk!).

I used to roll my eyes at Mark Zuckerberg and his grey t-shirts, but he has a point…minimalism frees up a lot of mental energy. On the trail, it provided me with the time and space to think about big life questions, to learn from other people, and to absorb the all-enveloping experience. Once again, I was taught that less really is enough.

8 🌟 Sometimes we just need someone to remind us to be brave.

I had some odd anxiety pop up on the trail. I was *petrified* of falling (residual PTSD from a severe 2015 ski fall/accident), even if the surface I was walking on was flat. This fear might sound normal…after all, who likes falling?! But the amount of emotional energy and focus required to navigate unstable surfaces (e.g., mud, shale, slippery rocks) was definitely not normal.

Admittedly, I was surprised by the extent of the whole thing and felt stupid at first. Weren’t there other things I should be (rationally) more worried about? Never the less, I couldn’t shake the anxiety. Eran’s patience with this (whether it was conscious or unconscious) was incredible. I never felt rushed, demeaned, or judged. He was usually silent, yet present and supportive. It was a quiet reminder that I was capable and I could be brave.

I thought a lot about this after I finished the trail… How 1) we have opportunities every day, all the time, to remind people that they can do things that might be scaring the shit out of them, and how 2) we must respect ourselves enough to surround ourselves with people who are emotionally safe. People who won’t coddle us or minimize us, but who will witness our vulnerabilities and anxieties without judgment. People who will gently remind us that we can be brave.

9 🌟 Take time to make time. 

While I covered a lot of ground in 52 days, one of the best lessons I learned was to slow down. I credit the Israelis for this, because it’s sure not part of the American hiking culture I’m used to (which is so go-go-go and mile/summit oriented). But on the trail, I quickly shed my American-ness and came to love the frequent coffee breaks, midday hour-long naps, delays at natural springs, and long stops at gorgeous views. It made everything, just better.

While Israel/Israelis can be intense (!!!), this relaxed philosophy (especially for the 20-30-year-old age group) extends beyond the trail and deep into Israeli culture. Spending so much time with young Israelis on the trail reminded me that the early 20s hysteria my friends and I have over career, prestige, and upward growth is so American (also, so tied to privilege). The real bummer? Our preoccupation with these things often means we miss the horizontal growth— the experiences and opportunities (like this one) that might not help us “climb the ladder,” but can make us kinder and wiser humans *before* we rise.

10 🌟 The trail provides.

It sounds cliche, and yet it rings so true.

The trail provided us with what we needed when we needed it— extra water when we were low, a cave when we were desperate for shade, a stranger with directions when we were lost, a lending library when we needed a new book, a hitch when we needed a ride, etc. Time after time, with a little patience, a little privilege, and a lot of luck, the dots always connected. 

The trail also provided us with things that we could have done without, but we’re so glad we didn’t have to— peaceful sunrises and sunsets, clear night skies freckled with stars, strangers that became friends, water in the desert, gas stations with popsicles, fresh fruit on trees, good weather on challenging days, visits from friends and family…this list is endless and cherished.

Finally, of course, the trail provided many lessons. And as I sit here processing it all, I must insist that normal life isn’t much unlike life on the trail (despite the obvious differences). It sounds woo-woo, but the world really does provide us what we need, when we need it. The things that are meant for us in life don’t pass us by. The world unfolds its wisdom around us. And, if we pay attention, what it provides might just make us a bit better than we were before.

4 comments

  1. Rebecca Kieler · November 25, 2019

    Again, welcome home Cass! Lucky are those who have 2 places to call home, especially at your age! 😉 I love your writing, marvel (envy) at your journey and most of all am always delighted by your insight. Thanks for them! I pass them on always and your mirror of American views are always enlightening! Hugs to you and your family please, for the weekend of Thanksgiving🦃. Thankful for your family and your writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mgcraford · November 25, 2019

    Hi Cassidy This is an excellent post. You have an unusual talent as a writer. I expect it will serve you well if you exhibit similar tenacity and courage in your career and life as you had on the hike. The hike was a milestone achievement, especially for a young American woman alone, that most people definitely including me would have not considered or would have opted out of somewhere along the way. You get a long mark(that is what my mother would say to her students or to others who did something she felt was exceptional). I do not know what a long mark is exactly and she did not say it often. Enjoy your long mark! Love George

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: INT [belated] gear review | earth to cass

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s