As the layers of dust thickened on my skin, the days in the desert passed by, my stripped-back, simple existence all merging into a strange passing of time. I finally had the thinking space I had always imagined the trail would give me. It didn’t come in calm moments of enlightenment or new-found wisdom, but stemmed from pure boredom. Although I was relishing the challenge and felt endless gratitude for the landscapes that rolled before me, there was no denying that hiking was monotonous. Plodding forward hour after hour, day after day, with loneliness and isolation becoming more constant, hiking swung from wonderfully exhilarating to tediously bland. I was grateful to have Gil with me, not for safety as most people assumed, but for companionship. Still, our conversations dried up and we found ourselves spending more time hiking apart, each of us at our own pace, looking for ways to occupy our minds. I yearned for the distraction of a busy coffee shop or the crowds of London, a peoplewatcher’s paradise.
Up to this point, much of my mind had been preoccupied with nothing but the loud demands of my most basic needs. There was no space for pondering when all I could think about was how hungry I was, how hot I felt, how much discomfort I was in. Hiking was still tough, that hadn’t gone away, but my body had adapted to the heat, my muscles strengthening by the day. I was getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and that freed my mind, which was now as vast as the space around me. I had infinite hours to think, or perhaps it was infinite hours to listen.
As I walked, a montage of random memories would play out in my head. Sometimes these were significant moments from my life: my teacher telling me it was my fault I was getting teased because I had cut my hair short and ‘wasn’t acting like a normal girl’; opening my GCSE results to surprisingly good grades; my parents separating; the last conversation with a friend before she took her own life, those few words forever played on repeat like a broken record; laying eyes on Gil as he walked into Spanish Conversation Club; catching my grandad Stanley looking at me in a way I couldn’t make sense of until I heard he had passed a few days later; stopping by a tree in the New Forest and Gil producing a ring from his pocket.
Sometimes, though, the memories were so random it amazed me that my mind had made the effort to store them, like the excitement of finding a four-leaf clover in my junior school playground but having no-one around to show, or my Grandad Fred teaching me to draw a house in three dimensions and me noticing the colouring on his fingernails from decades of smoking. Often I’d return to the same point in time, a few years before doing the hike, when I had been my most unhappy, consumed with a cloud of hopelessness and depression brought on by the struggles of moving to an isolated city with Gil, bad jobs and financial strain. I had thought that being spat into the world of adulthood, no longer with a home and a bed that I could call my own, thanks to the breakdown of my family, was as lost as I would ever feel, but I was wrong. Nothing had been more disorientating and shattering than losing my way internally as I battled with poor mental health.
In the desert, though, I could feel old wounds being healed. For a short time, I stopped worrying about finding my way in life or questioning my every move; the path ahead clearly marked by three stripes, the only direction I needed for two months. It was a relief that calmed the turbulence as my compass gradually recentred. Each waymarker pointing south, another step in the right direction. We had been blessed with days of scenery that belonged on a postcard and, in between them, a rest day in a tiny desert town called Tzofar where we stayed in a Bedouin hut. The place was so slow I could well believe that if I saw a clock the seconds might be ticking backwards.
Tzofar was just four streets wide and three streets long, and surrounded by date farms with thousands of date palms lined in perfect rows. We walked through the town to reach the small convenience shop but didn’t see anybody along the way. I peered into the houses looking for signs of life but saw none. Perhaps they were all dozing, like the cats and dogs and camels that seemed to be occupying every available shady spot, all coming to the same conclusion that the only way to survive the sweltering days was to sleep through them.
The further we hiked south, away from the cities and villages of the north, the more I started to feel the vastness of the desert and our solitude. Our tiny insignificance had never been more obvious than when we reached the steep drop-off on the edge of the Ramon Crater. The Negev has five craters and the trail passes three: the Small Crater, the Big Crater and Ramon Crater, the largest. I stood on the edge, as close as I dared go, and felt a thrill as blood rushed through my veins, imagining joining the vultures above our heads as they dived into the expanse below.
Walking down to the crater floor, through thick fog that was clouding our vision, was a magical start to the days that followed as we weaved our way through wadis; but one of these wadis led me to a terrifying moment. Gil was ahead of me but just in sight and it was one of the few times in the desert we had been walking on sand that wasn’t just a thin layer of coating. Each step on the soft, fine sand swallowed my foot, necessitating double the effort and making for painfully slow progress.
Eventually, towards the wadi walls, stretches of gravel offered rocky relief underfoot. So focused was I on my stepping, though, that it took some time for me to look up and realise that I had not seen a trail marker for a while and I could no longer see Gil. I yelled out for him, hoping he might pop his head around one of the turnings ahead to show me the way, but there was no reply. I looked back, seeing that there had been three possible routes through the canyon to this point.
Which one had I come through? My instinct told me the furthest left so I backtracked and headed that way. After a while I passed a lone tree sitting in the middle of the canyon, the curve of its branches so distinct I was sure I hadn’t seen it before.
My chest tightened slightly knowing I was off the trail, so I quickly returned to the crossroads, now walking at a much faster pace. The walk back felt longer than the first time. Was this definitely the way I had come? I reached the crossroads but wasted no time deliberating, and instead took the middle turning. Again, the scenery around me didn’t look familiar but I was sure I hadn’t come from the turning furthest from the right. I pushed on a little further, feeling my heart race a little and sweat soaking the back of my shirt.
The walls around me suddenly seemed taller and the heat in the air just that bit more suffocating. I usually passed by my surroundings without paying a huge deal of attention but now I noticed every detail, each rock, each bare thorny bush. Had I passed that earlier? I stopped when I reached a sandy section and felt my shoulders drop slightly as I spotted footprints in the sand. To the side was the orange, blue and white striped marker I had missed, indicating that I should turn off and climb out of the wadi up the ten metres or so to the top. It was a reminder that a moment of lapsed concentration could have seriously ill effects.