A Night Under the Stars MAG

December 20, 2013
By Shannon Gaitz BRONZE, Sydney, Other
Shannon Gaitz BRONZE, Sydney, Other
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

I should be colder, I note, dispassionately. It may seem a simple statement, but I realize it's the first time in almost two weeks I haven't felt affected by the weather. In the 12 days I've been in Israel, the weather has fluctuated in harsh, unforgiving waves. Unbearably hot in the daytime, on long hikes or tours of ancient ruins, and desperately cold at night, in kibbutzim up north or tents in Gadna, a four-day mock army program. I have no watch, phone, or any device which can tell me the time, but I guess it's around 10 p.m., and in December – the dead of Israeli winter – I should feel cold, but I don't.

My eyes, usually red from crying, are uncommonly dry. My head is uncharacteristically clear. I'm in the middle of the Negev Desert. I'm alone and have no method of contacting anyone. I'm calm. Too calm. It momentarily worries me before my thoughts change to other ideas. I'm thankful for my busy mind – usually a source of annoyance swirling with thoughts that keep me awake – now my only source of entertainment during my lonely journey on an endless path.

It started several months ago, around June. That was the deadline for signing up to go on my school's Israel Study Tour. Sixty students had registered, and I wasn't one of them. My mother, caring, nurturing, and unapologetically neurotic, had flatly refused. I screamed and sulked the way only a teenager can, but to no avail. I stopped begging when sign ups closed and it seemed futile.

I sank into a depression, not to force a reaction from my parents, but because I was genuinely sad, miserable to be left behind while all my friends shared an adventure. Then three days later my mother relented and I was accepted.

“If something goes wrong, it will happen to you,” my best friend joked when I shared the news. “A few years ago my brother's friend broke his leg, and a few years before that my other brother's friend had to have his appendix out. Their mothers were the most neurotic too.”

My mother inhabits most of my thoughts as I trudge alone through the desert. My biggest concern is that she might know my current predicament; I fear she wouldn't handle it with my irrational calm. I look down affectionately at her floral Ugg boots. They're far from hiking boots, since I had not expected to hike, and they are now ruined.

I've been walking for about an hour, and the scenery never changes. Mountain after mountain comes and goes, always promising the highway around the bend but never delivering. I could be going in completely the wrong direction, but I refuse to stop, even for a second, knowing that if I do I'll be hit with exhaustion. I've never been one for ­exercise, so my energy is coming from adrenaline rather than fitness. I walk with purpose toward a nonexistent destination and do not stop.

The days leading up to the program had passed in a blur. Suddenly it was the month before, the week before, the day before, and then a 30-hour plane flight with stopovers in Hong Kong and Switzerland. Israel was powerful in a way I couldn't explain, but the trip itself was marred when my boyfriend broke up with me the first night. I was 15 and heartbroken, so naturally the world was ending. I spent the majority of the trip crying, not eating, and generally annoying everyone. I was left mainly in the care of Michal, our Israeli program leader, who became something of a mentor. Days passed, and I feared the trip I had so badly coveted, now tainted, was escaping me.

For the first time in my walk, the scenery changes. I round the bend and hit a solid rock wall. I have walked all this way in the wrong direction, and am now far deeper into the desert than when I began. There is no going forward. I quickly turn and begin walking back, retracing the last two hours. White-hot frustration seeps through me. I look out over the mountains.

There seems to be a violet light beyond the horizon. I cannot tell if it's distant city lights or the reflection of the stars, but the aggravation moves me and I break my golden rule. I step off the path and head for the summit, stumbling over dirt and unstable rock.

Suddenly, I slip and fall feet first into a ditch. Cursing myself for leaving the path I touch the knee of my navy blue leggings, feeling blood seeping through. There is no pain. My survival instincts have truly kicked in, numbing the sting I should be feeling. Gingerly, I climb out of the ditch and back onto the path.

We had come to the desert to reflect. That is why we had to leave our possessions on the bus and be entirely alone. After a short talk from the group leader, we had been told we would spread out ten meters apart from each other and have time to think alone under the stars.

Sixty of us trudged up the sand from the bus to the furthest point in the terrain. The tour guide asked who would like to be dropped off first; this person would have the most time. I raised my hand. I had a lot to think about.

I don't walk in silence anymore. I am talking to God, out loud, the words lingering in the night air before disappearing forever. I'm not praying, it's more of a conversation, an open dialogue. I've never been religious. At school the mandatory morning prayers are seen as a chore, sung in chorus while my mind flicks to the extra 40 minutes I could have spent in bed. Out here I speak to God easily, with no one else for company.

My solitude doesn't last long. A wild dog appears in front of me and fear grips my previously numbed heart. I cannot stop and I cannot run. I don't pause in my conversation or my movement, I continue on with slow, steady steps. The dog eyes me. Any second he could pursue me and I would lose that race. He lets me pass. I round the bend and break into a sprint.

Our designated ten minutes seemed to stretch on forever as I lay consumed by thought. I felt empty, lost, and never further from home. In the distance I heard the low hum of a flute and maybe feet shuffling. I assumed it was the sounds of my restless classmates nearby, stagnant but weary from the evening's activities. After a while I looked up. There was no one there.

My friends, my leaders, everyone had left, and with them, familiarity, protection. I was the first dropped, the furthest on the very precipice of the terrain, and in their route back to the bus I have been left behind. I had been too preoccupied within my own mind to notice. I got to my knees and called for Michal, for someone, for anyone. My cries echoed back at me, shocking me with their desperation, but there was no voice replying but my own. I got up and ran down the path I had just walked, to where the bus should have been but wasn't. Surrounded by the mountains and nothing else, I was alone.

I'm far enough away from the dog now to stop running. I stop for the first time in hours and slump to the ground. It must be past midnight, and it's too dark to keep going. I feel the purpose leave me. Before I was motivated, driven by my resolve to keep walking to nowhere in particular. Now, without direction, the situation seems more hopeless than ever. Having briefly met the wild dog, I know I cannot fall asleep. I will myself to stay awake, making vague plans to occupy my mind. When it becomes light I'll start walking again and search for the highway. I'll find a stick or some stones and write a message for my family. I'll stop taking everything for granted. I'll try harder and be better, if I live.

If I live. I'm humoring myself. It suddenly hits me, not hard, but a slow, resounding realization that washes over me like wading into an icy swimming pool: I'm going to die. For the first time my eyes brim with tears that fall quickly, uninhibited, down my face. I cover my eyes with my hand and start to pray: words that passed by me every morning at school, now said deliberately, with passion, with purpose, recited by heart.

Suddenly my words aren't the only sound that fills the night. My own name is being yelled somewhere in the distance by a familiar voice, accompanied by the soft yellow of a flashlight.

I jump to my feet and run. I'm screaming now. I round the mountain and crash into Michal with a full force that almost topples her tiny frame. My mind, a blur of thoughts, recalls my prayers, my resolutions. I am finally overcome with exhaustion, my knee suddenly stings with pain under layers of dried blood, and for the first time in hours, I note with fervor, I can feel the cold.

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