About the Hiker

The author ascending Mt. Tabor, Oct. 2011

Photo by Graham Lean

My personal site, with further photography and other interesting things

Five years ago, I had no interest in backpacking and only a pretty whimsical interest in the Middle East. During my undergraduate years at Eastern Mennonite University, I was required to do a semester-long "cross-cultural." This is sort of a much more involved and intense study-abroad program (a friend and fellow alumnus summed up the difference this way: "It's unusual if the whole direction of your life is not changed by your cross-cultural.").

There were a couple of programs that appealed to me, but I knew from the moment the options were presented that my first choice was the Middle East semester. This wasn't really for any other reason than that I thought it would be a fun, exotic adventure. After an application process and a tense wait to find out who was admitted, I ended up being one of the lucky 30 to fly to Cairo in January 2008, beginning a three-month roller-coaster ride of education, excitement, and occasional brushes with death, led by the illustrious Linford and Janet Stutzman.

Soon after returning from my three months there, I knew I wanted to go back and spend more time in the region - mainly in Israel and Palestine, where the majority of the semester was spent. After graduation and some lazily-spent months of underemployment, I began doing temp work and whatever odd jobs I could pick up to piece together some savings for an open-ended trip, beginning with some volunteer work and ending, at the time, I knew not where.

I spent a year there between April 2010 and May 2011, volunteering for the Jesus Trail and the Fauzi Azar Inn among other places, traveling, learning about languages and cultures, and discovering that I loved backpacking. My initial attraction to Middle Eastern hiking had come from my cross-cultural group's one day spent on the then-newly-routed Jesus Trail, developed in part by fellow EMU alumni. During the time between my first and second trips to the region, I often daydreamed about walking through Biblical landscapes and history-filled hills and valleys - all green and covered in wildflowers, as they had been in spring, during my cross-cultural.

While in Nazareth volunteering in 2010, I started out hiking near Nazareth using the Jesus Trail guidebook, then got my hands on a few topographical maps and began planning and improvising my own treks around the backcountry. For the last couple months I spent in Nazareth, I was scouting out new routes to expand the Jesus Trail network of hikes in the Lower Galilee, which is basically the most enjoyable thing I've ever been compensated for (in this case, it was in the form of free housing). I eventually decided there was no better way to end the year than to take off on my first real long-distance trek. A few months of laborious planning later, I was hiking up the first of many mountains from the shore of the Red Sea, with a thousand kilometers ahead of me.

People who have met me recently have said they can't imagine me not being obsessed with the outdoors, backpacking, camping and the like. People who met me before my second Middle East trip often are surprised that I'm like that now. I can't promise that everyone who goes to that part of the world, or hikes the Israel Trail, will be profoundly changed in such a way, but it's an experience I would recommend to anyone. As long as you have an open mind, a hardy constitution, and a tolerance for strangeness and disorder, you'll most likely love it, and you will certainly be challenged and strengthened in many ways.

I hope this journal is enjoyable to friends and family who may have wondered what exactly I was doing over there on the other side of the planet, and helpful to anyone reading it who might be considering hiking, or inspired to hike, the Israel Trail. The Trail had a huge impact on my life, so I hope it can have at least a small ripple effect, via me, on others.

Some gratitude is in order for all the experiences I had. Thanks to Linford and Janet and everybody at Eastern Mennonite University for the cross-cultural and everything else, to Dave and Anna, Maoz, Linda and all the other Fauzi volunteers and staff, and all the Israelis and Palestinians whose names and faces I've forgotten who picked me up hitchhiking, took me in as trail angels, or befriended me and showed me around their cities during my travels. Thanks to friends whose photos I've used, as credited here. And thanks to you for reading!

Table of Contents | © 2012 Julian Bender