Of Feet and the Man — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

photo by Marc Render

In the valley that runs west of the Omer ridge I wrestle with my angel. Noon is approaching and I’m munching a bagel-and-cheese sandwich under a tamarisk tree with my hiking buddies at our meeting point on the most boring section of the Israel National Trail. It’s a 21-kilometer stretch that is nearly all flat; the sky is cloudless and the sun blazes despite the mid-November date. Halfway through our hike, the five of us stink to high heaven from sweat and grit.

Since we have only one car, we’ve split up. Asher and I were dropped off at the northern end of the route, while Marc drove with Gary and Yitzhak to the southern end and started there. Here under the tamarisk Marc hands Asher the keys. When we get to the end, we’ll drive Marc’s car back to pick up the others. We estimate that we have three to four hours more to walk. It’s time to get up.

I shoulder my pack and rise slowly to my feet. I mutter a curse under my breath and take a step, then another. Each step sends pain shooting through my body. My right ankle is stiff and my foot twisted so that I can only walk on the distal, outward edge. This is no surprise—it happens every time I hike. At the age of 40, thirteen years ago, I contracted a serious illness that resulted, among other things, in the amputation of all my toes. Toelessness placed unnatural demands and pressures on muscles and joints, and one result was severe arthritis in my right ankle. The pain, which is most severe after a rest stop, is the price I know I will pay when I go on a hike. But, to add injury to insult, I’ve also developed a large blister on the ball of my left foot, so I can only walk on its outside edge as well.

I grit my teeth and hobble south like a cowboy with rickets. The purpose of this hike is to test out the route planned for next March’s seventh Hike for Hope, a project which raises money for Tsad Kadima (A Step Forward) with help from Montem. Tsad Kadima is an organization that provides help and training for children with cerebral palsy, and Marc is one of its founders—and his oldest daughter, Miriam, is one of the program’s first graduates. I consider that, right now, I’m walking less well than some of the Tsad Kadima kids I’ve met.

Asher, who works, when he’s not hiking, as a senior computer whiz for a high-tech company, is already 300 meters ahead of me. I deliberately chose him as my partner today because Asher, unlike the rest of us, had hiked the previous day as well. Toward the end of that ambitious 35-kilometer trek from Mitzpeh Ramon in the central Negev to Sapir in the Arava, he’d been so exhausted that he actually fainted. We had wondered whether he’d emerge from his tent in the morning so sore that he’d opt out of today’s walk, but we weren’t surprised when his hiker’s sense of honor trumped the demands of his middle-aged muscles and bones. But I figured that he’d be a little slower than usual.

In fact, for the first four hours, before our lunch break under the tamarisk, we keep up a very good pace. Monotonously, the trail this morning offers none of the challenges I like—steep ascents and descents, boulders to be clambered over, cliffs to ascend, or pools to swim across. The signs call it the “Springs Trail,” but the only water we see is in a plastic-lined pit behind Moshav Tzofar’s turkey runs. Still, there is stark beauty in the undulating wind and flood-carved contours of the low limestone escarpments on either side of us. And the flood beds and channels we crossed each offer a different population of stones—in one grayish chalk and dolomite, in another conglomerate, in a third reddish jasper smoothed and polished by millennia of rushing winter waters. After we circle Tzofar, the trail heads away from the two-lane Arava road that has so far provided the sound of civilization. We are alone. We see donkey tracks and the marks of a bicycle’s wheels, both of which seem to have gone our way this morning, but we see no other human beings.

“Now I understand,” I tell Asher, “why the Bible skips decades in the lives of the patriarchs. Those were the years they spent on trails like this one, where there was nothing worth mentioning.”

Since the landscape isn’t providing us with either a challenge or conversation topics, we take up subjects appropriate for guys our age. Asher tells me about his gall bladder operation, I tell him about my colonoscopy, and we compare blood pressure medications.

Then we fall silent for a while.

“I’ve always wondered,” I say, “how the pain threshold works. For example, suddenly you feel that your throat is sore. A minute ago you didn’t feel it and now you do. Whatever bacterium or virus that is causing it has been at work for hours or days, but there’s one specific moment when it suddenly enters your consciousness.”

I am thinking, of course, about the pain in my right ankle, which is starting to demand my attention, and the blister on my left sole, which has gotten more assertive in the hiatus in our dialogue.

Asher, considering a scratch on his glasses, offers no enlightenment, so I try another subject to keep my mind off the pain.

“A parallel question. What’s the threshold of a person’s moral consciousness?” I ask. “What is it that makes one person suddenly start to think differently from the other people around him?”

“Have you seen a trail marker recently?” he interrupts me as we reach a fork in the path.

We look around and, not seeing one, we split. Asher goes to the left, I to the right. I soon spot the trio of orange-blue-white stripes that compose the Israel Trail symbol. I call Asher over and we proceed.

“I’m translating a book about the German officers who plotted to kill Hitler,” I muse. “It’s called Valkyrie and it’s by a historian named Danny Orbach. What is it that made something click among these officers so that they started to think differently from nearly everyone else around them?”

“What does he say?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t gotten to the end yet.”

“Are you ok?” he asks, as my limp reaches the threshold of his attention.

I ignore the question. “But from his telling of the story, it sounds like soldierly honor was one of the major factors. Which surprised me, because we tend to think of Prussian machoism as brutal and arrogant. But these guys seem to have felt that the persecution and slaughter of Jews and Poles was an insult to their manhood. And they were willing to risk their lives, even commit suicide, to take revenge on the man who questioned their masculinity—Hitler.”

“So, are you arguing that the way to make soldiers more moral is to make them more macho?” Asher asks.

“No, of course, that’s not enough,” I say. “But maybe you need to make protection of civilians a matter of pride for them, just like the number of chin-ups they do.”

And we walk for another nondescript hour until we reach the tamarisk tree. Just as we settle into the tree’s welcome shade we hear the voices of our companions coming from the other direction.

“Anything worth seeing along the rest of the route?” Asher asks them.

“No,” they answer in chorus. By consensus, we agree that this trail will definitely not be included in the Hike for Hope. Asher and I set out for the second half. Asher moves ahead.

A couple hours later, a convoy of eight jeeps appears on the top of a ridge. The lead jeep stops by Asher. The driver leans out of his window.

“Know anything about the burned-out car at the end of the trail?” he asks Asher as I shuffle up. Then he breaks into a smile. He, and his companions in the other jeeps, are more or less our age and sport pot bellies and kings-of-the road looks on their faces.

“Very funny,” Asher says.

As they leave us in their dust, I say to him: “I never understood jeep trips. What’s the point of spending a whole day sitting in a metal contraption when you could be out walking?”

But half an hour later, with the final five kilometers still to go, the path heads up steeply to a low pass between two spurs. The ascent is covered with powdery sand that offers no footholds. As I hit the rocks under the powder they force my ankle every which way and I mutter to myself that I will never do this again.

“What did you say?”

“I was just thinking about the weekly Torah portion,” I snap cynically.

“That’s very appropriate,” he notes, “given that it’s the only portion in which a man limps through the Land of Israel.”

I stare at him. “I didn’t even think of that.”

The length of my paces has halved. I can’t, at this point, do more than bring my right foot equal to my left in each stride.

“Jacob’s in flight from Laban,” I muse, “and heading straight for his previous enemy, his brother Esau. He’s got four wives and eleven sons, but he’s unmanned. He doesn’t know if he can protect them. He doesn’t know whether any of them will be alive a day hence. So what does he do?”

“He has a wrestling match with an angel,” Asher recalls.

“And he wins. And what’s the sign of his victory?”

“He limps.”

“He limps, and he calls the place where he got the limp Paniel, that is, the face of God, because there he saw God face to face and lived.”

“And limped.”

“I think,” says Asher, “that I’ll go ahead at my own pace and get the car and drive it in to pick you up.”

I hesitate. My first reaction is that my manhood might be compromised if I don’t walk the final, twenty-first kilometer. But then I put my foot down, and my ankle tells me that I’ve reached my threshold. And I think to myself that, as much as the hike, it’s the limp that makes the man.

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