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The Road to Eilat

Reflections from The Israel Ride 2007 / Dedicated to my Father

Nearly two hundred bike riders reached Eilat together during the 2007 Israel Ride. But in a way, each rider took a different road to get there, paving their own experience onto those 300 miles of asphalt. This account is about my road to Eilat, which began  in the summer of 1968 riding in the back of my father’s Jeep.

My father had just gotten a new job at the Timna mines and we decided to move from the relative comforts of the north to the wilds of the Negev desert. I can only recall fragments of this trip; the harsh sun, lonely outposts and camels wandering among the acacia trees. The memories are still sweltering hot.

The following years in Eilat were some of my best. My father took us exploring along the wild shores of the Sinai. Life was full of adventure, reefs and endless desert stars. It was totally wild. I loved it. I became part of Eilat and Eilat a part of me. A year later my father traded that paradise for the promise of another and we moved to the States.

In 1990, I returned to Israel to find a wife. I met Elizabeth in Jerusalem and we trekked to Eilat on camels from just north of Kibbutz Ketura. I guess I will always want to share Eilat with those that I love. A ritual that is now seared onto the fabric of my life. We followed the migration of the birds to Eilat keeping to the Arava Valley and the red Adom Mountains of Jordan. There we traded the mountains for reefs. My Eilat was now filled with underwater canyons, dry heat and Elizabeth’s love. It was also the last time my father and I were together in Eilat. He passed away in 1991.

Now seventeen years later, I find myself once again with the opportunity to take the road back to Eilat. Over the years I tried to come back to Israel, but there was always something in the way like money, war, family or work. I tried raising the money for the Israel Ride twice and failed. Something was blocking me, but what?

Looking back, my commitment to getting back to Israel was not total. The key word that held me back was IF. If fundraising went well, if time allowed, if Elizabeth would come with me then I’ll go. The If paradigm was keeping me grounded

Somewhere along the way I discovered that the magic of turning a possibility into reality is a two-way road. On one hand it’s my mission to inspire those around me, to make a commitment to them and to keep my word. And in return, they’ll help me realize my dreams.

On Yom Kippur 2006, I declared to my family and friends that I would raise the money, train and complete the Israel Ride in the upcoming spring. A feeling of calm descended. My trip was complete. The rest would just be details. I was no longer wishing, praying, or wanting. I was being and my word became the desert.

I trained three times a week for six months. Every time I got on my bike I was on the Arava road heading south melding gears and muscle into an aligned trajectory so powerful that I could smell the sand. I also decided that if I received no support, I would fund the trip myself. My commitment was so complete that the fundraising was no longer an issue. I wrote simple individualized letters to friends and business contacts. For the first time, the energy I was putting out was clear and inspiring. People responded. And lo and behold $4000 rolled in within two months. Alignment at last.

I decided to pack my trusty old bicycle “Bambina” for the trip. She weighs 30 pounds and most of her components are older than the bike mechanics who work on her. But she took me across Canada on a 7,000 mile odyssey some 25 years ago and I would trust no other steed for this journey.

It took 3 years to get there, but it’s sunrise over Jerusalem and it’s time to ride. I snatched a view of the walled city and headed down to the Dead sea for a 30 mile downhill that had me humming a stanza from “Jerusalem of Gold” over and over like a mantra: “And in the caves in the mountain thousands of suns shine – we will once again descend to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho!.” This simple Hebrew phrase took me back to when Jerusalem was liberated. And now 40 years later I was about to ride thru those words by the way of Jericho.

It was only when we came alongside the Dead Sea that I needed to apply muscle to pedal and test my body for the first time. The magic in cycling happens somewhere between acceleration, power and inspiring landscape. As the red cliffs of Qumran unfolded against the azure blue of the dead sea, I started to find my legs. It was very hot, but I was strong and those towering cliffs were drawing me in faster and faster.

Every so often I’d reach the top of a hill, take in the stunning view, shift into high gear and fly. I felt a unity between the landscape and my spirit. Sometimes that road seemed like one long yoga mat with a yellow line running thru it. If I could have taken “warrior one” on the bike I would have. This was vinyasa (flowing form of yoga) with gears.

The section south of the Dead Sea crossed remnants of the old Arava road. Seeing that road flooded me with memories. My father and I had traveled that very same road. Our two trips intersected for a brief moment and I remembered how my dad used to let me ride on the top tube of his bike between his hands. It felt so secure there. I had nearly forgotten my father introduced me to biking.

Although I wasn’t the fastest rider and my bike was more interested in taking in the scenery than racing – every so often I would get inspired and break out of the pack with surprising speed and power. These moments of pure acceleration would happen on the flats, on long up hills or in particularly inspiring sections of the ride. I think moments of pure alignment can produce extraordinary physical power. I remember such an occasion when I passed a slower rider heading to Kibbutz Ketura. The grade was just the right slope and I started to build steam humming some old Arava song. I was about to pass the rider when I sensed that he was hoping to catch a break and slip into my draft.

When you draft closely behind another rider you can be lifted along for miles with minimum effort. I slowed down and asked him if he needed a lift. He nodded and I motioned to him to roll into my slipstream. Surprisingly, I felt added momentum with him close behind and I turned my turbo thighs loose on the hot Negev road. We were clocking over 25 mph and passing all sorts of riders along the way like a runaway steam engine. For a few very fast minutes we were locked in a dance created by sheer self propelled power. It was an intoxicating feeling that lasted till the first big hill where we parted ways.

Kibbutz Ketura, our last stop before Eilat, is where the Arava institute is located and where Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli and North American students grapple with local environmental issues. The Jordanian and Palestinian students cross the line into Israel for the promise of a free education and a chance to transform a new physical and social environment. To get here, they have to overcome social pressure and fear, while terrorism, war and economic hardships continue to pound their families in real-time.

Jordanian students like Samir and Swasan describe their school breaks back home as a process of winning one mind at a time. They apparently injected enough curiosity into their doubting friends and family to convince some to come back with them and see the Arava Institute for themselves. This was inspiring. This was peace building on a very personal level without any peace accords. This can only happen when people are inspired by something huge. And when you see the Arava students together this is very apparent.

To date, four hundred students have graduated from AIES and they in turn affect hundreds of others. A mere speck in the big picture, but significant when you drill down to the bonds formed between a new generation of environmental leaders stretching across the Arava.

Ironically my Father might have fought against the relatives of these students during the war of Independence and now I’m biking to raise money to help them complete their education, so they can save our environment. What a strange and wonderfully interconnected world we live in.

The next morning we climbed one last monster hill out of Ketura back up to the hot Negev plains. One last ride across this pizza oven and we’d be descending into Eilat and the Red Sea. 115 degrees is hot. Damn hot. But our support crew armed with drums, portable shade and various concoctions kept us going hill after hill until we reached Eilat’s mountains for the most spectacular decent of the entire trip.

Here’s where I started feeling very remote from the group. This was my Eilat and it was different. Very different than what I first saw from my father’s Jeep 40 years ago. I was not prepared for what the onslaught of commercialism can do to paradise. As I banked my bike into the final downhill that took me by the Red Canyon, Valley of the Moon and the wadis of my youth, I got a feeling that the trip was over. Way over. Nothing here remotely resembled my mythical home. It was overdeveloped and ruined by countless hotels and shops. I would never find my father’s jeep trails in this mess. I checked out of my desert and into our 4 star hotel. A very abrupt transition.

The next morning, I walked across the street from our massive hotel to Coral Beach where I first learned to snorkel as a child and then to scuba dive 20 years later with my wife. And to my surprise the little a frame cottages that we rented were still there. Something to cling to before it’s swallowed by the hotel chain next door.

Overdevelopment is rampant here. For example, the salt marshes that are major feeding grounds for 1.5 billion migratory birds are almost obliterated. On the ride we learned that this has become a major international environmental issue that is being addressed head on by the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat (IBRCE). The journey wasn’t over yet.

I found the Center at the end of an unmarked dirt road, across from the Yitzchak Rabin border crossing into Jordan. A metal bird sign in front announces its presence, but this entrance is so nondescript that you could miss it with the blink of an eye.

Eilat is the only land bridge between Africa, Asia and Europe where migrating birds stop and feed after unbelievably long journeys. It offers the only food for hundreds of miles in any direction. Without a stop in Eilat, African, Asian and European birds would die. The deaths of these birds would ultimately lead to the collapse of ecosystems on three continents. The birds that fly through Eilat distribute seeds of fruit-bearing plants, pollinate flowers, and control insects and rodents in Europe, Asia and Africa.

The IBRCE is in the forefront of research examining how global climate change affects migratory birds. Increased desertification in Africa due to global climate change has resulted in a lack of feeding areas for birds, making it much more difficult for migrants to complete their journey in the Spring.

We met Noam who is the educator at the bird center and he was inspiring. I don’t think he sleeps much. The man is on a mission to protect this little sanctuary and provide the world’s birds a place to stop and rest. I stood and listened to Noam’s story and scanned the endless development surrounding him. Logically, I didn’t think he had much of a chance. Only three staff members and a handful of volunteers against Eilat’s growth engine.

But I had just personally experienced the power of commitment. Listening to Noam speak, I caught a glimmer of the possibilities he was creating. And instead of checking out, I felt myself reconnecting. Reconnecting to the land, to a sense of purpose, and even reconnecting to the birds. After all, I’m much like them; sooner or later both of our journeys stop for refueling in Eilat.

  • Oren yaari

    Excellent use of words it made me feel like I was apart of the story. Thanks Dad.

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About Ronen Yaari

I’m no guru and I don’t have hundreds of hours of certifications. All I can claim is that I did not squander the time that I was given so far. I took care of my body from an early age and realized that a fit body was going to be the vehicle of choice to propel me around the planet to find what I was supposed to find. I ran marathons, biked continents, climbed glaciers, walked across states, sailed oceans, explored reefs and floated myself over yoga mats. If the sun is down I’m a sleep and if it’s up I’m outside. My biggest accomplishment by far is creating a family that enjoys each other and puts up with me.