From Jerusalem we pass through a long tunnel as we head toward the Dead Sea. Our driver says he calls it the time tunnel and once we exit we understand why. While the Jerusalem side is beautifully vegetated and dotted with vibrant blooms, we emerge into a barren landscape. After passing the first checkpoint entering the West Bank we reach sea level. The beige hills ahead are stark pale desert.
We are headed to Masada, known as one the the most arid places on earth and the most famous archaeological excavation of the century after the discovery of Tut-Ankh-Amun's tomb. Masada was originally constructed in 34 BC and is the site of a very controversial siege in 74 CE that ended with the Romans as victors and the overthrown Sicarii residents committing suicide rather than be enslaved to the Romans.
When we arrive the driver explains there are cable cars to the top of Masada and that although we can climb up, its more difficult than anyone ever expects with no shade and no place to rest. "Take the cable car," he says, "the temperature today is expected to be over 40 degrees." As we exit the bus and head up the hill toward the visitor center I see a few people near the top of the snake path. The sun is intense, the land harsh and I think they must be crazy to attempt such a trek. Once inside the A/C'd visitor center I buy a one way ticket thinking I will cable up and walk down. The young woman in front of me in line and I begin talking. She says after walking down from Mt Zion, a much shorter walk, she could barely move the next day and reminds me that walking downhill can be more challenging than up. Hmm, she's right I think. I am cool now to the point of being chilled in the A/C and think "I'm a walker, I can do this." Out I go toward the arrow pointing to the snake path that zigs and zags to the summit. The narrow path heads downhill for a turn or two before beginning to ascend. Who knows why. It is incredibly hot. The sun blazes down on the dust, but I feel fine as I begin the trudge upward. This will be a fun challenge. After several zigs back and forth I come to a bench with a sort of wooden trellis overhead creating some semi shade. Great, I think these rest stops along the way will save me. I sit for a bit, drink from my water bottle, take a few pictures of the ascent ahead. I don't feel greatly revived, but I go forward. If only it wasn't so incredibly hot!
After many more zags of the snake path I reach the first series of steps. Climbing the steep path is difficult, but lifting my legs for each step is much harder. I welcome the steep inclined path when the steps end, but see another step series just ahead. I already know there are 700 steps built into the inclined path which is the greater part of the trek. I'm getting really tired now, but the summit doesn't seem any closer. I know this path is only two and a half miles long and I will ascend 1,148 ft. It didn't sound like much in the visitor center. Three people approach me from behind. It's a guide and a young couple who also decided to hike. The guide looks at me and asks, "Are you alright" I'm not sure what he's seeing, but I know I am completely pooped by now and hotter than I've ever been. "Oh yes" I say as chirpily as possible. "I'm fine. I just hope my water holds out" By now I have consumed most of my supply. "Here," he says, " let me fill your bottle." "Oh no," I say, "I'll be fine." "No really," he insists, "I'm a camel," and he takes my bottle away and fills it from his own. "Thanks," I murmur, "How much farther is it?" "Oh you're close now," he assures me. "Just go slow. Don't think about it. Go slow. Drink. You'll be there soon."
I'm pretty sure this man saved my life with his water and his assurances. They go on ahead a much hardier threesome. I go slowly up one step at a time. One step one sip. One step one sip. My legs are logs.
I resist looking up since the cable car station above seems to stay at the same inaccessible distance each time I glance up. I am now existing in a world of paleness. White hot sun. The dusty path beneath my feet a pale beige. The rock wall along one side the same and although heights are a challenge for me the steep drop off to one side of the narrow path is a non issue. Its not even on my check list right now. My complete focus is on putting one foot in front of the other and heaving my weight up another step.
Thoughts of the holocaust victims last march come to mind and I take strength from their success. At least they marched in the cold I think and then hope I'll not be struck down for such an unworthy thought. And I chose to put myself in this position!! There is no one in front of me or behind me. I think if I pass out I will simply fold up on the path and become a husk of myself in minutes. Baked. Who would even see me or know I was here. One foot in front of the other, sip and step, sip and step. I am aware I am breathing through my mouth and immediately close my lips to conserve moisture. Moments later I discover them open again. My water is almost completely gone and I am parched. I'm feeling incoherent. Finally a cable car creaks up over my head and I am at the summit. Thank god! But wait, I see I still have a zig and zag ahead before I am really at the end of the snake path and the point of escape. By now the term snake path is term full of deadly fangs.
I enter the stone cave-like pass through to the fortress and flop down in the shade on the stone bench carved into the wall. The stone is cool on my skin. I am alive. An elderly couple sit on the stone opposite me. The man bent over with age looks at me anxiously and says "Can I fill your water bottle?" I have not a whit of interest in seeing the fortress I came here to see. I don't ever want to be in the sun again. Ever! I just want to lie here in the shade on this cool stone for the rest of the day.
I could list excuses for my near disaster: I was already tired from the previous 18 days of non-stop walking. We left before the kitchen opened so no chance of breakfast. The area was experiencing a heatwave. All this is true, but in fact other people, albeit decades younger, did walk the trail that morning without such dire effects. No truth be told I am no longer able to trek up desert mountains in the heat of the desert day. Maybe I never was. I did cross the Sahara for almost two hours once a few years ago, but a camel carried me then.
So without even seeing the wonders of the famous fortress itself, Masada was the peak of my education on this trip. If you believe as I do that "One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things," then Israel taught me new ways of seeing many things. Masadas lesson to me is a profound one.
Think before doing.
“What one does is what counts. Not what one had the intention of doing.”
― Pablo Picasso
Its taken days to assimilate my Masada experience, but I believe it's time to reassess my definition of myself and welcome a new stage in life. Maybe I can't do everything. I heard a new expression the other day, " A lady of time" I would hope that includes much wisdom. I am beginning to think of myself in this way. I like it. I am filled with a little nostalgia and an even greater excitement to embrace this new phase. Thanks Masada.