Day 3: Racing the Rain to the Sea of Galilee

Moshav Arbel to the Sea of Galilee in First-Century Costume

Hiking down to the Arbel Spring in the early morning

The final day of our journey begins early—at 5:30am, with the breaking of the unseen sun. It’s hiding behind clouds, which is the reason we’ve chosen this hour of the morning. We’ve heard the rain’s a-comin’ and it’s a-comin’ hard! We don our dress and man-dress and break down our tent one last time before leaving out from Moshav Arbel above the cliffs.

Betsy’s knee is hurting bad, so we plan to take it slow. The first part of the day is going to give her a challenge for sure, as we’re heading back down the cliff-side we came up last night. The trail leads us down at a different spot which is great because we come across some awesome ruins including a cave that’s obviously been dug into the hillside for some reason. It reminds us Tolkien fans of a hobbit hole. This leads me to something I’ve been thinking about as we’ve walked these past couple of days: role play. It was a natural thing that came up in conversation along the way. The main intention when we planned the trip was not necessarily to impersonate Jesus (how presumptuous!), but rather to understand his life and teachings better by sensing the world in some ways as he would have. Yet it became a natural consequence of dressing like him that whenever we hiked through populated areas along the trail I would be called Jesus/Issa/Yeshua, so I definitely thought of what it means to portray him (big sandals!).

We thought of others as well. At one point, a peaceful little dog joined our band and I thought of myself as Francis of Assisi, who is known to have cared for animals and thus attracted them to himself.  Betsy briefly thought of herself as Sarah or Mary Magdalene along the way too. So here we are hiking down a cliff-side in a beautiful heavy mist thinking of the The Lord of the Rings and in my mind I become Gandalf or Aragorn in my hooded outfit while Betsy and our other travel partners became hobbits. A little further on I’m back to being Jesus as a man picking up children in his school bus leans over to watch us walk past and yells, “Good morning! Good morning Jesus!” We smile, call “Good morning!,” and wave back.

I enjoy this morning’s slow walk through Wadi Hamam (Valley of the Doves)—a perfect time and place for reflection. Everything is so beautiful and green, with complements of bright reds, purples, whites, yellows, and oranges dotting the sides of the path in flowers. We plod through the light rain and I think of Jesus walking with his disciples through similar valleys in similar weather. What was he thinking about?

As we leave the Arbel Cliffs behind us, we begin to worry as light rain changes to heavier rain accompanied by flashes and crashes of lightning and thunder. We contemplate stopping but it passes quickly overhead and away. The sun slides up through some clouds and then shines brilliantly on us though we’re still walking through pockets of rain. I keep looking back to see if there’s a rainbow somewhere, and I feel a sense of connection with God’s people ever since Noah who have been doing the same thing—remembering and looking for God’s promises in the signs he gives.

Mud! Lots of it as we walk through orchards and olive groves toward our destination at the Sea of Galilee. I like Anna’s comment: “Why didn’t Jesus tell more parables involving mud?” We find ourselves asking questions similar to this one—why not more parables about caves, about valleys, about lentils, about olive trees, etc…. But as the footpaths-of-Jesus follower, John, wrote at the end of his gospel: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). I really love that verse! It’s probably true about what Jesus “said” as well as “did.”

The mud clinging to our sandals makes every step pounds and kilos heavier, and Betsy’s knee gets worse under the constant strain. The pain becomes so bad that we decide to accept a ride from our awesome support posse (Anna and Dave Landis, Taylor Stutzman—thank you for everything!) and cover the last four kilometers in a 21st Century chariot. This fits neatly under our ever-widening category, “hospitality,” which—as everyone knows—is timeless.

Arriving at the Sea of Galilee after a three day journey

After 40ish miles of walking and a very brief chariot ride, we have finally reached our pilgrimage destination—Capernaum at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus’ base of ministry. My time here at the seaside, with my bare feet in the cool water is one of my favorite moments of the entire trip. I love the wind blowing toward us from the south and west, the sound of waves crashing on the shore, the sun warming my face. Closing my eyes,

Dipping our feet in the Sea of Galilee

I imagine what Jesus thought as he stood here. I think of him calling his disciples at this place; of getting into boats and crossing to the other side with friends. And then I begin to think more about those first disciples. I imagine them returning to this sea every once in a while to center themselves and to remember how it all began…when they were all just about their normal day-to-day and Jesus came and called them away to a very different life. They, too, stand here with their feet in the water listening to waves. They come here to refresh after intense ministry in Jerusalem or after traveling to other parts of the world to share the gospel with others. They think, “If only everyone could have seen Jesus the way he was here!  What an incredible time it was to be alive! What an awesome thing that we got to follow and befriend Jesus, the only divine human to walk on this earth!”

I’ll bet it was as hard for them to pull themselves away from their watery reveries as it now is for me to walk back up the hill to where I will return by car to my “day-to-day” in Nazareth. By car, we will cover in less than an hour the ground we covered in 3 days of walking. I know it will take some time for my soul to catch up to my body when we get there.

Watching the modern world fill in around us as we contemplate finishing our journey

Day 2: Roman Roads and Spring Valleys

Ilaniya to Moshav Arbel in First-Century Costume

Crossing the Jesus Trail at Golani Junction

Day two of the hike began with a light rain before dawn but as the sun rose we knew it was going to be a beautiful day.  We ate boiled eggs, bread and cheese, and dried dates for breakfast, then hit the trail.  In a few minutes we came to a major highway junction where we encountered many inquisitive looks and photos out car windows.  A busload of children waved to us as they passed.  We waved back.

Shortly after crossing the busy Golani Junction, we passed by ruins of an ancient Roman road.  The road had been walked on by so many feet.  Thousands of years of rain and sun had smoothed the stones.  Was this what Jesus was talking about when he told his followers to carry something two miles if someone asks you to carry it one?  Did he envision a Roman soldier demanding help on this prominent highway stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to Damascus?

Walking the Roman Road on the Jesus Trail

As the simple trail wound away from impressive highways, we wandered through heaps of flowers, muddy tracks through olive orchards and bright green farm fields.  The way sloped up to the high point known as the Horns of Hattin.  From the green and sunny heights we could look out on hills, valleys and farm land for miles around.  The Sea of Galilee glimmered through the Arbel cliffs in the distance and we could even make out snow on Mount Hermon to the north.  As we rested there, we enjoyed simple snacks of boiled eggs, dried apricots and almonds.

Hiking around the rim of the Horns of Hattin on the Jesus Trail (Arbel Cliffs and Sea of Galilee in the background)

Down we climbed through rocks and flowered pastures to the base of the Horns.  Sitting at the foot of the hills is a Druze holy site, Nebi Shu’eib.  We washed our muddy feet in the natural spring there and caught curious glances from the Druze woman making a barbecue.

Washing muddy feet at the spring at Nebi Shu'eib

On we went into a perfect late spring afternoon.  Down through the ruins of the Arab town of Hittin, past fields and more olive orchards in the rocky valley and into my favorite section of the trail.  A long valley winds through steep, rocky mountains inhabited only by wildlife and cattle.  A sweet breeze blew along the valley as we wound on dirt paths between mother cows and their new calves, a wandering creek, spring flowers and late sunshine.

Nearly at the end of the valley, our path took us up a steep,  black path, past an ancient synagogue ruins and into the town of Moshav Arbel where we found our second campsite.  All six members of the Jesus Trail team worked at building a fire, and we heated up lentil stew to accompany the delicious St. Peter’s fish Dave and Anna brought and cooked over hot coals.  Sweet local wine and goat cheese, bread and cucumbers satisfied us after a long day in the fresh air.  We slept again in our tent and without a shower.

Supper also included fire-grilled onions which I mistakenly ate. Having decided not to brush my teeth during the pilgrimage because of the lack of toothpaste and toothbrush technology in the 1st Century, this would have the effect of utterly destroying my breath for this night and the following day. Oops. (Philip)

Photo highlights for Day 2

Stopping for a photo at the McDonalds at Golani Junction, the first in Israel

Spring flowers in full bloom near Kibbutz Lavi

Agricultural fields near Kibbutz Lavi

Philip approaching the Horns of Hattin

Spring rain brings spring mud, stop at Nebi Shu'eb to rinse off in the spring

Philip & Julian enjoying the view on the Horns of Hattin

Descending the Horns of Hattin to Nebi Shu'eib

Taylor eats a non-first-century lunch of peanut butter & jelly pita sandwich at Nebi Shu'eib

Almond blossoms near the Horns of Hattin

Day 1: Valentine's Day, Jesus Style

Nazareth to Ilaniya in First-Century Costume

Valentine’s Day 2011 was a good day. Because they did not celebrate Valentine’s Day in the first century, we did things they might have done on a typical day, like walking, dressing in a head scarf and robe, talking with friends, making a fire, cooking lentils, picking red anemones for one’s hiking partner.

We began the first day of our costumed walk with the mist and sun of a pleasant February morning shining down on our turbaned heads. After a saunter around Nazareth Village, we headed out of town. Because it is springtime, we encountered mud every day, but as we walked along, knocking mud off of our sandals, we occupied ourselves by asking what various objects were which we would not recognize in the first century. What is a pepper? What is a potato? What is plastic? Someone else in the party would try to explain characteristics of the object.

Our first day on the trail was a beautiful day for hiking. All day we enjoyed cool breezes, sunshine, new flowers springing up all along the trail, and splashes of green as far as the eye could see. Towards the end of the day, we were walking through hidden fields of tall green grass and hillsides covered with fir trees and flowers. The last half of the trail, in particular, set the stage for Jesus’ stories. I could imagine Jesus walking through green fields on muddy paths, pointing out the flowers to his followers. If we were kicking mud off of our feet behind him, he might tell us not to worry about what we wear or eat because the beauty all around us in nature shows that God cares for us. Walking and worrying do not seem to be very good partners in general.

As we walked through muddy fields, quiet back orchards, and modern villages, we constantly thought about the people around us. Jesus most likely was almost constantly surrounded by people who listened, people who judged, and people who wondered who in the world he was. I also felt that we met all types on our travels. As we walked the valley between Mash’had and Cana we came upon a Jewish man and his car. He was taking pictures and asked for a picture with us. He asked us if we had heard about the story of Jesus turning water to wine. It happened right here, he said. Although we had just walked through a village, this man was the first to talk to us. Most people either stared, chuckled, or tried to avoid us.

Delightful stop at the Cana Wedding Guesthouse! The hot tea hit the spot, right when we were thinking about the weather getting cooler and the chance of rain increasing before our eyes. It was a welcome break, and her genuine curiosity was refreshing.

Along our hike, we often talked about hospitality. Today, as in the time of Jesus, hospitality is important to give and receive. We were most aware of this as we began the second half of our day. As we passed through Cana, Souad, the owner of the Cana Wedding Guesthouse saw us from her porch and called us in for tea. Her excitement over our journey and the hot tea and sugar she provided were enough to keep us smiling for miles down the road. We were also blessed by a man and his sons who saw us from their house just on the edge of Cana. The offered us water and fruit. The man explained our ancient looking waterskin to his young son. Exiting Cana, we felt filled and ready for the path ahead. Walking along we discussed Jesus’ command to take nothing but a staff on the journey. Perhaps he wanted his followers to interact with those along the way. Asking for food, water, and shelter would certainly have provided many opportunities for Jesus’ disciples to receive hospitality. Barely asking, we also received.

I enjoyed the little playful baby goats at Yarok Az. So fun. Every time I watched them running, jumping, butting heads, exploring I smiled. Similar feeling I get from watching young children doing the same things. Makes me want to recover my own childhood sense of wonder, adventure, care-less joy! Well, maybe those who know me well would say I still have at least a little bit of that hanging on yet. 🙂

With the sun’s setting rays we made our way to Yarok Az, an organic goat farm at Ilaniya. Guesthouse owners along the trail, the Jewish owners welcomed us happily into their cool green garden. After a long day of hiking, the soft piles of fresh grass in their yard felt wonderful to our hot feet. Baby goats jumped around us as we sipped hot cups of sage tea provided by our fellow hiker, Anna. I better understood King David’s delight as he remembers how his shepherd, God, makes him lie down in green pastures and restores his soul (Psalm 23).

As Valentine’s Day evening settled around us, we set up a tent for the night and fiddled with damp wood to start the fire that would cook our red lentil stew. Finally, we watched the stew bubble and steam. Local wine, goat cheese, and bread rounded out our Valentine meal shared with our hiking partners Dave and Anna.

Photo highlights from Day 1, Nazareth to Ilaniya

Reflections and captions by Philip

I enjoyed experimenting with different ways of carrying my food bag and water skin on the first day. It was a fun (and important) learning process. I tried them on either side, then I tried attaching them to my staff on each end and carrying them on my shoulders; this caused some back-and-forth swaying which affected my balance a little. I also found that if I put my staff under my bag and water skin and lifted slightly, taking the pressure off of my shoulders, this gave my body wonderful relief. I would rotate between doing this and letting them hang freely from my shoulders across my chest, against each side of my body. I was very happy that our friends at Nazareth Village gave us an extra wool wrap, because it gave me much-needed extra padding on my shoulders, especially for the abrasive rope holding the water skin. - Philip

Melchizidek, the cute little dog from Mashhad, was a welcome addition to our band mid-way through the first day, with his inquisitiveness and general cuteness. His oversize paws and squarish face were incredibly cute, even prompting me to say something you will rarely hear me say: “If I had a dog....” The ending to this particular sentence: “ would probably be one like this one”. Every once in a while Melchiz would stop right in front of me so that I would almost step on him. I enjoyed even that slight annoyance because it made me laugh at his simple trust in me, a funny-looking stranger. I also did love very much his persistence in staying with us past some big, menacing barking dogs. I was impressed, really not thinking he would continue. - Philip

Passing the elementary school in Cana, we were greeted by dozens of school children. Another group of guys in Cana who drove by us then stopped and, when we caught back up to them, offered us a whole bag of bread . What an awesome gesture! Dave accepted one loaf from them instead. I waved at the driver as he smiled at me in his side-view mirror and drove slowly on. He waved back. As we left town, then, we also received water from a kind father and three sons (they also offered us fruit, which we declined). Water and bread given to pilgrims on hajj. - Philip

We also found some kindred spirits at Yarok Az, a young Christian couple having similar passions as we have—for Simple Way-type Christian community life and real down-to-earth worship of Jesus. They asked if we were familiar with—who else?—the Psalters! They had seen them on a European tour. (I'm listening to the Psalters right now in honor of our new Yarok Az friends from South Africa and the UK.) - Philip

Preparing for the First-Century Journey at Nazareth Village

Sitting on a dusty rug in a dimly lit stone room, my knees bumped a little girl on one side and her mother on the other. Friends of ours from Nazareth, they had come to experience an evening as our guests. The spread we offered was not what most people consider elaborate, but all who gathered to eat the simple bread and lentils were delighted to be sharing the meal with one another. We were gathered to begin a journey.

Weeks ago we dreamed of walking the Jesus Trail in first-century style costumes, following the paths of Jesus. Finally, the moment had arrived. We stepped into our handcrafted clothes and began preparations for supper in a reconstructed Roman period house at Nazareth Village. Local lentils bought at the old dry goods store in town had to be cleaned for straw and rocks. A fire had to be started and kept up. As Betsy sat hand-sifting the lentils into a large pot, Philip struggled to keep a fire going. After many tries, he succeeded with small bits of wood from the woodworker’s shop and a small, terracotta oil lamp. At last, the large pot of lentils steamed over a bed of smoking coals.

While the stew simmered, Philip was busy starting another fire in order to bake bread. Our guests, six in all, arrived to billows of smoke, rain clouds, and tiny oil lamps against a dark night. Although the rain did begin falling in light sheets, the eight of us retreated to an almost cozy stone room for supper. Surrounded by the light of faithful lamps, we shared a large common pot, scooping up the steaming stew with fresh, chewy bread. One of our guests noticed the simple white cheese and cucumbers beside the bread and reminded us that many Arabs love this delightful combination. In the style of the Romans, we completed our meal with some watered down sweet wine.

As the meal drew to a close and the lamps flickered on, we sat wondering what people in the first-century would have done after dark. What forms of entertainment would they share? Our conversation led to its own form of entertainment. We watched each other’s faces across the glowing room. Our environment, which had seemed so primitive in the daylight, became soft and shared.

Thinking forward to the next three days, we do not know who we will meet, but we feel excited about the questions that will be asked. We do not know what weather we will walk in, but we know we will have friends to share a fire with at the end of the day. We do not know what we will learn, but we know that walking the Jesus Trail in a style reminiscent of Jesus’ day can only be an adventure.

A First-Century Packing List

Mission Update:
With the send-off date for the 1st-century Jesus Trail experience (see blog entry from Jan. 21) set for this Monday, Feb. 14, our brave couple, Philip and Betsy, are finishing preparations for the journey ahead.

Here they are next to the clothes they will be wearing.  The headpiece, robe, shawl, and staff are all handmade.  And to complete the ensemble, they will be wearing the quintessential 1st-century footwear: sandals!

They will need ample supplies for the 3-day trek.  Pictured is a metal pot for cooking, burlap sacks, an animal skin for carrying water, and the 1st century’s duct tape: rope.

Perhaps the most difficult things to procure were authentic, first-century foods.  Here is a list of ingredients and foods they will be taking and preparing:

  • boiled eggs, fried eggs
  • red lentil soup with onions
  • brown lentil soup with garlic and onions and cumin
  • flat bread baked over an open fire or pita from a local shop
  • olives
  • dried apricots, raisins, dates
  • almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts
  • apples, pears
  • cucumbers, cabbage, carrots
  • za’atar (local spice mixed with sesame seeds)
  • simple white salted cheese
  • local wine, watered down (even the Romans did not drink wine without dilution)

If you are in the Galilee during this adventure and would like to eat a meal prepared by Philip and Betsy and join a conversation with them about the day’s hike, here is a schedule of where you can join them:

  • Monday, February 14: 8:30am at Nazareth Village across from the French Hospital for the send off
  • Monday, February 14: 7:00pm at Yarok Az Ecolodge Organic Goat Farm at Ilaniya
  • Tuesday, Feburary 15: 7:00pm at Wadi Hamam below the Cliffs of Arbel
  • Wednesday, February 16, 7:00pm at the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum

Times and locations are subject to change for various unforeseen reasons. For more information and for updates on our projected location on specific parts of the journey, contact Anna or David Landis at

If you are not in the area but would still like to follow this journey, they plan to journal and blog daily for the websites and We will also include video footage, pictures, and interviews along the way.

See you on the trail!

From the Jesus Trail to the Israel Trail

I’ve been spending the last month working on various hiking-related things in connection with the Jesus Trail – mapping out new routes for the trail network, starting to lead group hikes with the Galilee Hiking Club, and creating an English translation of the keys to Israel’s hiking maps.

Nearly all my backpacking experience has been in the Galilee, or at least in Israel. Hiking was one of the things I most wanted to do on coming back to this region, although I hadn’t done much of it the first time – a walk down the well-known Wadi Qelt in the West Bank, and a bit of the Jesus Trail, back in its early days before it was even marked. But I enjoyed being out on the trails, and learning the landscape by walking it, enough that hiking has ended up being my primary pastime on my second trip in the Middle East.

I first got started by hiking routes outlined in the Jesus Trail guidebook, which made it an easy transition, as it outlines great hikes as well as how to reach them by public transportation. Then I discovered the set of hiking maps published by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). The 20 maps show the topography and trails over all of Israel and the Palestinian territories and are the only navigational tool you need for backpacking or navigating through the entire area – assuming you can read Hebrew. I taught myself how to read it on my first trip over here, and on this trip I got enough practice to become pretty fluent at it.

So with the maps, I’ve discovered all kinds of amazing hikes and done a good bit of off-trail exploring too, some of it pretty harrowing, like making my way down a hundred-meter cliff, hopping from boulder to boulder. I’ve camped out under eucalyptus trees with forest animals scurrying all around me and foiling my attempts at making my food inaccessible to them – I woke up one morning to find half a loaf of bread had been nibbled out through a tiny hole in the corner of the bag! And I’ve gained a kind of knowledge of the lay of the land that can only be had by both geeking out over maps (which is sometimes almost as fun as actually hiking) and then getting out on the trails, and seeing and feeling the terrain firsthand.

This kind of experience is both satisfying as someone who loves being outdoors and experiencing the land and nature, and enlightening to anyone who’s interested in the history of a place. I’ve stumbled across countless ruins, both ancient and modern, and looked over plenty of panoramas that are packed full of the sites of ancient battles, stories and legends. To people living in biblical times, the shape and content of the land would have been second nature to them, thanks to a lifetime of walking. Driving down a highway does not immerse you in the visceral experience of a landscape; slogging up a mountain, loaded down with supplies, definitely does.

While much of the Galilee today is carved up into rectangular farm plots and littered with prefabricated housing developments, there are still places where you can feel you’ve moved back in time. Mount Moreh, just south of Nazareth, is one of my favorites. Walking along its rocky peak and through orchards of crooked olive trees, you can watch the sunlight go down on the hills of Jordan across the valley and imagine any of those who came to this mountain in the past seeing the same thing: Gideon, King Saul, the Mongols, the villagers who have tended the olive trees for generations.

All the trekking I’ve done so far was what prepared me for the idea of doing a serious, long-distance hike. Israel has just the thing, the Israel National Trail. It’s a thousand-kilometer route from the northern to the southern edge of the country, and is mostly hiked by Israelis, though it seems more foreigners are getting into it as well. It’ll definitely be more difficult than week-long backpacking trips in the Galilee, due to its length, and due to the isolated desert areas in the south, where stashing supplies ahead is necessary, and long days in the hot sun require stamina, willpower and preparation. Now that I’ve spent so much time hiking here, though, I feel like I’m ready for it, and I’m sure it’s going to be a highlight of my time here and the perfect way to finish off the trip.

Because I’ve enjoyed my time hiking here so much, I wanted others to be able to have the same experience. While the Jesus Trail guidebook is great, it covers only a small part of the region. Although the SPNI talks about producing English versions of the maps, it doesn’t seem high on their list of priorities, so I decided to create a resource that I hoped would be useful for others. I created an English translation of the maps’ key, and of common terms found on the maps, plus a guide to pronunciation of place names in Hebrew. You can now download it free from the Jesus Trail website or pick it up at the Jesus Trail office in the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth, or from the SPNI’s main office in Jerusalem. With this key, you can take out any of the set of 20 maps and hit the trails right away, with the ability to identify all the markings, read the names of towns and, in case of emergency, describe your location to someone over the phone.

I hope this translation gets plenty of use – as well as making my time worth it, I think it will give lots of people the little bit of extra help they need to motivate them to do tourism in an unusual way and hike independently through this region. Happy hiking!

photos by Julian Bender