My first wilderness camping experience is officially complete.
We just spent 2 nights and one full day in Machtesh Ramon, a giant crater of miles of desert. We got a later-than-ideal start our first day, so it was long about 10 pm (and well past dark) when we first approached our destination. Before descending into the depression, we stopped along the road and climbed up to the top of a lookout to gaze into the dark nothingness below. It felt like standing at the edge of the earth. (except when our eyes adjusted to the darkness and we saw the lights from cars on the road far below...which looked a lot like alien hovercrafts. at least, what I imagine them to look like.)
We then hopped back into the car and drove slowly down the narrow switch-back road until we reached the bottom. We drove for awhile, not really sure where we would stop and sleep. But as luck, or perhaps divine providence, would have it, we took the second turn we saw (where's the adventure in taking the first turn?) and ended up at a campground of sorts. We parked in the lot and then walked over a hill for a bit until we found a nice flat plot of sandy earth, and laid out the blanket to sleep on. After we cooked up some stew, we laid down under the vast desert sky to sleep. I've never slept under the open sky before, nor have I ever seen so many stars. I felt very insignificant, yet very alive at the same time.
The next morning we woke under the desert sun, packed up our bags, and headed off into the desert in the direction of a large mountain that looked fun to hike. Somewhere near the base of the mountain, Amy decided this was a good place to just stop and read for the day, so we built her a lean-to shelter out of a sheet and some sticks, and Barrett, Brian and I continued onward. When we got to the base of the ascent, we realized the way up was much less stable than what it looked like from afar. Among the few stable rocks were many loose ones that crumbled beneath our feet and created rock avalanches with wrong steps. Yet, we continued onward. To make myself feel better, I started singing "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand"...which suddenly took on more meaning. After spending time at the top (just enough for pictures, as it was now noon and the heat of the day was wearing on us), we descended, which proved to be more precarious than the ascent - but with careful maneuvering, we made it to the bottom breathing sighs of both relief and exhaustion. The experience that we were looking for - of thirst and heat in the wilderness - was beginning to take hold.
We sought shelter in the one bit of shade we could find - next to a large boulder at the base of the cliff. Feeling thirsty and worn out, we discussed the significance of the theme of water in the Bible. What would it mean to live out here in the days when you couldn't just fill up a Camel Bak and go out hiking for the day? What would it mean to live in a place where for months, there was not a single drop of rain? Although there is no rain in Israel now, and there won't be until about November, we aren't completely in the throes of summer - so there are still the occasional clouds in the daytime. There were some brief clouds that passed overhead as we huddled in the shade next to the rock, and I remarked aloud to the boys that even that small respite from the sun's heat brought such relief. And I imagined being an Israelite in October, when she saw the first cloud she had seen in months, and her body and soul yearned for the coming rains. Only in a context such as this does one realize what it truly means to depend on God to send the rains, and only with this understanding does Christ as the "living water" take on true significance.
I remember learning some about this concept when I studied in Israel two years ago. It is interesting to study the water theme in light of John 7. The context is this: the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) is going on, which is an 8 day festival during which time the Jews cry out to God for water. It is late in the summer, when the land has been dry for 5-6 months, and the cisterns of the people are down to only the mucky water at the bottom. Imagine the scene: on the last day of this festival, the "greatest day of the feast," Jesus stands up and says, 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to ME and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.'" What an image! It was this profoundly relevant statement that must have lead the people to declare, "Surely this man is the Prophet."
At any rate...after our rest near the rock while talking about water and trying to rehydrate ourselves, we set out to find Amy. This proved to be a much more difficult task than we had imagined. Out in the desert wilderness, everything looks the same. We wandered, hot and tired, over endless hills and sandy dunes. Each one of us had a different idea about where we might have left her. ("We should have left a trail of breadcrumbs.") We backtracked several times, changed directions, and climbed to the high points to try and spot her with our camera zooms. After about an hour of fruitless searching, I started thinking about the Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert for 40 years. The trip from Egypt to Canaan should not have taken anywhere near 40 years. While it is true that God had a hand in the confusion that lead the Israelites to wander for such a preposterously long time, I could definitely see how it could happen. It is easy enough to be confused by the landscape itself, let alone when your reasoning becomes clouded by the heat and thirst.
Well, we did eventually find Amy (and before dark even!), we trekked back to the campsite, and made dinner. We also made friends with some Bedouins there and sat on the floor of their tent drinking tea from a cast iron pot over an open flame, trying to converse in broken Arabic and broken English. The day ended with us building a fire of our own, reading aloud until the fire died, and then falling asleep under a vast sky of shooting stars.
And now some pictures from our stay in Machtesh:
(Barrett sitting at our "campsite")
(what we climbed)
(me at the Machtesh overlook, earlier today)
And here are some pictures from the other day at Wadi Qelt:
(seeing Jericho - finally!)