The Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River which drains it, The Dead Sea and The Red Sea – all lay at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley. Defined by an immense fault line, the Rift Valley continues three thousand mile south into Central East Africa, Just ahead of us the fault has split the earth so deeply that we were soon below sea level. Signs along the way mark the descent in 200 meter intervals. The highway twists back and forth in the rocky canyon and occasional flat spot opens to one side or the other. On one of these small deltas a ragged Bedouin tent flapped in the dry wind. A beat up old truck with a water tank mounted on its bed sat in the sun. I could see why they wanted my rental car. Herds of multicolored sheep and goats grazed optimistically in the flinty dirt. Words of a song came to mind, “If you can make it here you can make it anywhere!” Ya, Frank… ever tried it here?
We didn’t have far to go. It’s about thirty miles From Jerusalem to where the road flattens out and intersects a highway which runs North, to Tiberius and South to Eilat at the southern tip of Israel. Straight ahead, for those not turning, is a border crossing and the country of Jordan beyond it. We turn right toward an expanse of water, the lowest point on the surface of the planet, The Dead Sea. Contrary to the picture the name conjures, there is life here. Up ahead palm trees shade a modern day oasis, a gas station and restaurant. Swarms of flies and travelers are already gathered. Stopping, we open the car doors and are hit by the heat and sub-sea level air pressure. Sounds travels faster because of the increased air density. Everything is oddly vivid and for a moment I feel like I’m walking underwater. Probably just my imagination, the feeling passes as my attention is drawn to the noise of refrigeration compressors, cash registers and a radio playing Arabic music. Beth buys a liter of water that we can share. I bough us two ice cream bars that the chocolate coating slides off of almost before we can get them unwrapped. The race is on – eating ice cream before it melts. Here… the odds are stacked against you.
The car provides shade and air conditioning and we are soon on our way again. Following the shoreline we make a sweeping turn to the south where the highway runs between the water and mountains that stick straight up like the serrated edge of a knife. An abandoned military installation sits in quiet decay off toward the water. Though now on the Israeli side of the border, it could have been Jordanian from the pre-1967 period. Either way it stands as a reminder of past wars and present day tensions. There are groves of date palms and tracks of land furrowed for planting. Wells and springs supply fresh water even in this harsh environment. We drove halfway down the lake to Ein Boqeq, stopping occasionally to look at the cliffs and mountain tops arranged above us. An odd site, two people standing at the side of the road staring intently up into the air, Beth looking very grandmotherly except for her habit of praying with one hand held to her forehead and the other stuck out in front. With her eyes closed and her left arm pointing at one hill top after another she would stand for long minutes, waiting for, or caught away by impulses of the spirit. No matter the strange looks we were getting from passing cars since I was the only one noticing. Beth was oblivious. This was the neighborhood where Lot and his family ran for cover when the two angels did a job on Sodom and Gomorrah. And there stood Beth, transfixed like a pillar of salt. What did it matter. I decided to just enjoy the sun, thinking of how interesting the day had already been.
Back in the car and reversing our course, we were seeing the same mountains but from a different angle. Still nothing looked right. I resisted the temptation to “pose”or stage my activities at one of the famous sites like Masada. It didn’t look right anyway. What I had seen was a high prominence dropping in a cliff edge to the valley and water below, but with a sort of flat expanse stretching out behind. Masada is an oblong pillar with sheer cliffs all the way around, which is what made it so difficult for the Roman army to attack. It was late afternoon before we got back to the north end. Ahead we could see Qumran, and the hill underneath it with cave openings where the famous scrolls were supposedly found. The mountains above looked familiar. Turning off the Highway we drove to the visitors center. Out of the car, standing in the parking lot with a clearer view of the mountain tops I was sure of it – but Beth spoke first,
“Those mountains, the one to the left, that’s what I saw when you first told me”
Ever faithful to my names sake, Thomas the Doubter, I was sure she was making it up. We’d driven around all afternoon looking at mountains and the first claim of identification she made perfectly matched my unspoken knowledge. Never the less, she had to be making it up.
There, high above us, it stood With a jagged canyon dividing the cliff edge, the rock rose to a ragged peak on the left. It looked like the right place. This was perfect. I could leave the car right here in the parking lot. Planning to come back and make the climb the next day, we returned to Jerusalem, I dropped Beth off with a promise to stop by again as soon as I had finished.
I would take water, something to eat, couple of large oranges, and a bible because I had not tried to memorize the verses I was supposed to recite. At the last minute I thought about Ray’s words, that I might end up staying there over night. That was not my plan, but with his words coming to mind I began to think about a sleeping bag. Anywhere else it might have been easy to find one. But I didn’t know many people here. None that I could call up and ask to borrow their sleeping bags. There was an extra blanket at the foot of the bed in my room at the hostel. It was red and made of thick wool. Really too nice to take on a camping trip. But it would only be used in case of an emergency. Rolling it tightly I crammed to make it fit into the day pack, not planning to tell the Hostel staff I’d taken it.
“Yes, I’m leaving for the day – may not be back till tomorrow, and by the way, I thought I’d borrow this expensive blanket and scrub it around in the dirt. Okay with you?” No, better to just bring it back when I was done, cleaned if necessary.
By mid morning I was driving back the down the canyon again, arriving at Qumran a little before noon. An Israel Defense Force patrol Jeep greeted me as I reached the top of the approach road at the Qumran visitors center. The soldiers were all looking at me as I parked and got out of the car. With the feeling that they were going to say something to me whether I had anything to say to them or not, I walked over to where they sat in the Jeep. Without smiling, they waited for me to speak. I’d been hoping to be up the mountain and back in a few hours, but already my thinking had shifted. Looking at their height and judging the distance and time it could take to reach the top, I had to think more realistically about the possibility of this being an ‘all nighter’. Still, I thought – never tell officials anything they don’t need to know.
“I’m going to park here for a few hours while I hike up those cliffs” I said.
“You can’t stay here after the park closes.” The soldiers spoke in accented English. “After dark, this comes under military control. We don’t allow any vehicles up here after five o’clock.” This was a blow. It had never occurred to me that I’d run into the army.
“How about if you inspect my car before I go.” I offered, already sensing defeat.
“No, you can’t do it.” He replied, pronouncing the “I” of “it” like an “e” drawing the word out to a final snapping “t” sound. “Any cars we find, even buss’s, we find here after that, we tow them away.” He said.
What could I say to change the minds of three guys with riffles and a deck mounted machine gun?
Now what was I going to do? With no plan in mind, I got back behind the wheel and drove out of the parking lot. But before reaching the main road I had an idea. At the bottom of the hill, where the access road met the highway, a gravel road intersected from the left. Before we’d left Qumran, yesterday afternoon, Beth and I had joined a conversation with five younger people who looked like students and a man about my age who spoke as thought he was a teacher.
“These aren’t the actual caves” we’d heard him say. “The authorities try to keep the location a secret. They still dig there from time to time.”
Realizing he must be talking about the Scrolls we turned to look while he spoke, making it obvious that we were listening.
“Where’s the real spot” asked one of the students.
“About a mile up the road to the north” he said. They were Americans. Beth and I introduced ourselves and managed an invitation to tag along with them to see the caves he claimed had actually been the hiding place of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. The caves the professor was talking about were uninteresting. I saw nothing to suggest that they had been the focus of any professional interest. Just shallow caves filled with rubble and some very modern looking trash. The professors alternate cave story had not been convincing but now I was glad we had gone along. Up that same road, we had passed a small, Israeli village. Maybe there would be a safe place to leave a car around here after all.
There were a lot more buildings than I’d noticed the day before. Kalya was one of the may kibitzes organized by Israel’s early Jewish settlers. A block house with concertina wire and armed guards greeted me at the entrance to the kibbutz – the result of an unhappy fact of life in Israel, their mortal enemies live in Jericho and other nearby Arab villages. The economy of Kalya is centered around a large dairy operation and they also rented cottages to travelers who come to soak in the heat and salty Dead Sea waters.
The young guards were friendly enough, but then I didn’t look very dangerous. Passing through the gate the entrance was lined with purple flowering bougainvillea, and another large, flat faced, muti-petaled flower that I didn’t recognize. The driveway led to a parking area. Stepping out of the car, I could hear children’s voices in the distance but no one else was around. Following signs that pointed to the reception office, I was soon inside a small, cool room very much like any motel lobby. Smiling at the woman behind the counter I said,
“Hi, I’ve just come down for the day to do a little hiking.” She remained friendly when I asked if I could leave the car while I went for a walk.
“Sure” she said, ” No problem with that. Just fill out this card with the license number so we know which one is yours.” That was all she asked. After the army encounter and the armed guards out front, I expected that she’d at least want someone to look in my trunk or something. I wrote name and numbers on the card, but kept my surprise to myself.
“Which way are you going” she asked with friendly interest.
“Straight up over there” I said pointing in a general westerly direction. I thought I’d go to the top here and then traverse around to the higher peak. I’m not really sure how long I’ll be.” I said to by extra time.
“Doesn’t matter” she said. “Your car will be here when you get back.”
“That’s what I was hoping.” I confessed, telling her what Ray had said about Bedouins.
“Things do have a way of disappearing around here if they’re not locked up or nailed down.” She agreed. “Well, wish I could take the day off too” she said, “Keep some water with you” she advised. I assured her that I had it covered and said a final thanks before going back out the door.
I felt exhilarated to be over the last hurdle. As simple as this had seemed, between here and Singapore there were a dozen things that could have stopped me. In spite of all, here I was, off for a walk in the hills. Taking only the day pack, I put the rest of my stuff in the trunk out of sight and walked back up the path leading to the gate, this time noticing that the vines of the bougainvillea hid more razor wire, softening the view but not the sharp edges.
“Boker Tov,” I said, as I passed the guards again, feeling good enough to attempt, ‘good morning’ in Hebrew. Responding in English one of them said something I did not quite catch. It sounded sort of like, “Don’t let the desert eat you . . .”
To Be Continued.