LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE GIRLS WHO RESCUED ME FROM A HARROWING HIKE IN ISRAEL
BY SARA LIEBERMAN
The sign for the Sa’ar Waterfall says that it’s a twenty minute “loop” hike. Without hesitation, I flip-flop down a set of stone steps in my inappropriate-for-hiking sandals and equally inappropriate-for-hiking denim skirt, intent on returning to my car after a quick walkabout. According to my phone, I have 63 minutes until sunset when I start the hike that will bring me, nearly two hours later, to where you found me: flailing my arms on the side of the no-shoulder, winding road outside the town of Majdal Shams in Israel’s Golan Heights.
The sky is the color of sand and the sun casts an ethereal glow on the wild terrain.
I hear running water, so I cross a wooden bridge and climb over some rocks while shooing away flies. I arrive at a moss-covered creek with slippery looking stepping stones. Rather than risk falling, and because I don’t think this wee walkabout should include such a balancing act, I turn around and return to where I started.
This time, I take a different set of stone steps and am immediately charmed by the wildness around me: the chirping birds, the pink flowers, the cactus, and the camouflaged lizard sunning himself on a rock. Most importantly, there are trail markers, so despite the fact that I’ve been walking for more than the expected twenty minutes, I continue on. But I do wonder: Maybe the hike is twenty kilometers?
The landscape starts to change drastically with each step I take. One minute I’m wading through tall, dry bushes that scratch my bare legs; the next I’m carefully stepping one foot in front of the other on a narrow dirt path littered with animal excrement. Occasionally, I have to hold onto branches and hoist myself up a steep, narrow section of the trail. Sometimes I sit on my bum to descend in order to avoid tumbling.
The sky turns orange and pink as the sun begins to disappear behind the horizon. I am now certain I’d gone the wrong way and was lost. The sound of my heart beating begins to drown out the chorus of crickets.
Suddenly, my phone rings. Two mutual friends are together and want to FaceTime from France. I deny the call since I am about to leap over a boulder. Once I land, I send them a sweaty, smiling selfie—even though I am starting to panic: “Hiking solo in Israel and trying to make it out alive!!! Miss you guys!!! X”
Since, shockingly, my phone has service, I send them my location, adding: “If you don’t hear from me in twenty!”
Forty minutes into the hike, I realize that I have gone too far to turn back. To reverse my direction seems daunting considering the vast and varied ground I’ve already endured: the thorny bushes, the big boulders, the steep rises, the slopes, the dicey descents. As I huff and puff, I keep believing the path will loop around to where I had parked my car.
I look at my torn-up legs and sandaled feet and then turn to the Great Someone in the fuchsia sky to whom I don’t often speak—but hey, when in Israel!—and say aloud:
“If you’re there, please help me find my way.”
Then I hear some rustling in the bushes.
God? Is that you?
No. It’s something furry and four-legged.
I make a few calls—all of which go unanswered.
“Will call in thirty,” texts back an Israeli woman I’d been in contact with about parts of my trip.
“I’m lost,” I type back. “In the woods, somewhere in the Golan. I’m scared! So sorry. I’m embarrassed. But worried as it’s nearly sunset.”
I send her a pin-drop of my location.
My limbs are shaky so I stumble and bang my shin. My mind begins to race with thoughts like whether a helicopter can land nearby. As I look around and imagine my rescue scenario, I fail to notice that I’m bleeding.
Then, I see what looks like a shed. I imagine being kidnapped and locked in there by mountain men who seek out unsuspecting tourists idiotically wearing skirts for hiking. Beyond it, though, I see lights. I feel certain that it must be Majdal Shams, the small town I drove through earlier—miles and what felt like hours ago.
You must’ve thought I was a lunatic; scrambling to my feet from the side of the road, waving my arms in the air as if I were on a roller coaster. You slow down, then keep going, but pull over after I bellow, “Wait! Come back! Help!” You roll down your window. I am thankful to see you are female. And young. But you don’t understand the English I yammer or the Hebrew I butcher.
You and your two girl friends seem unsure of letting me in. I breathlessly explain that I had been looking for a waterfall on a hike that was supposed to be easy and especially nice around sunset, but it turned out to be hard and not nice around sunset. Somehow, despite the tears welling up in my eyes, I make a joke about T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli chasing waterfalls, which you definitely don’t get. I show you my phone where I had starred my car’s location. You nod at your friend with the curly hair in the back, who opens her door and motions for me to scootch in. One of you makes a call and begins speaking fast in Arabic then hands it to me.
“Hello? Hello? What has happened?” a guy asks in English.
After we speak, I hand the phone back and he translates my situation to you. Within a minute you have one hand on the wheel and another hand zooming onto the star on my phone. Normally, I’d be worried about speeding on a dark road with one hand on a digital device, but you seem in control. I trust you.
Ten minutes to eternity later, you pull into the lot where my lone car is parked. I offer you money for the ride, for the kindness, but you refuse it.
Once back inside my rental Hyundai, I put the key in the ignition and Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” comes on. The lyrics feel appropriate: “Threatened by shadows at night and exposed in the light…” Yup, sounds about right. That was me out there. I start to laugh-cry and wait for my body to stop trembling before letting my foot off the break.
I did not find the loop hike. I did not find the waterfall. But I did find my way back thanks to you. And I learned to never, under any circumstances, hike in a skirt and sandals into unknown territory so close to sunset again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sara Lieberman is a New York-born, Paris-based travel and lifestyle journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, Hemispheres, AFAR and more. When she’s not writing, traveling or practicing yoga, she’s eating, thinking about eating, or helping others eat via her street food pop-up Cup o’ Cockles. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter
Header image by Boomsbeat.com