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Metsokey-Deragot Hostel, Judean Desert, Israel
In early June of 2002, I left the United States and traveled to the locus of my own soul. If one were to look at a map, they would say that my destination was Israel (specifically the Judean Desert) and that I had traveled 6,497 miles. But in actuality, I traveled much further than that-upon a road whose traversing is not measured in miles, but by the deepening of the human experience, love, and acceptance; and not by direction (for there is only one direction-inward). And whose perilous mountains, cliffs and valleys were not composed of stone or sand, but of one's own psyche (the most dangerous of the world's creations).
"You're making a mistake," Orel the manager at the Metsokey-Deragot Hostel said. "You've got snakes and scorpions out in the desert, and it's very hot, and there are so many cliffs where you can fall . . ."
"So many things that can go wrong," he said shaking his head in disbelief, "and there will be no one to help you if you fall or get bitten by a snake and can't contact us . . . "
Orel was right, I could easily die out in the desert. I knew almost nothing about being in nature. I had the outdoor knowledge and common sense of a man who ventured into nature only occasionally-and that was to play golf. The Metsokey-Deragot Hostel was in the middle of the Judean Desert. It was miles away from any town and once I ventured out into the desert, I would be miles from Metsokey-Deragot.
I looked over at Yael for some kind of assurance. She was the girlfriend of Tamir, the desert guide that had found a place for me in the Judean desert, but since he had punctured his eardrum the day before, it was she who would be dropping me off near my destination. But Yael wouldn't even look at me. Instead, she looked down at the floor and nodded in agreement with Orel.
I turned away from them and looked out the office window into the desert. At one time Metsokey-Deragot Hostel had been a kibbutz, started by Jewish hippies. But eventually they realized that nothing would grow here, so they abandoned it, leaving four or five small adobe buildings. It was now a place where tourists occasionally came to spend time in the desert, but to anyone who has ever been in the desert (in the way that the desert demanded), knew that this wasn't really the desert. Instead, the desert was still out there, beyond the barbed wire fence lying broken and unmended. Beyond the several sets of small hills that distanced one from the safety of others. Beyond the space that opened up just past those same hills, a space so hungry for disturbance or anomaly, that it would swallow up any sound or call for help before it reached its destination. In a science-fiction novel, Metsokey-Deragot Hostel would be the last space outpost. The place from which the hero or fool sets off as he ventured into the vast unknown. Metsokey-Deragot Hostel was miles from Haifa (the nearest town), and come tomorrow, I would be miles from Metsokey-Deragot.
"And the scorpions are nasty," a voice with a British accent said from behind the counter.
I turned to see a wisp of a woman with short, multi colored hair, a pierced nose, and sad, droopy eyes. Her name was Kate.
"I picked up a box one day," Kate said, "and there were twenty scorpions under it. They scattered. I jumped up and down, but one of them stung me."
"If a scorpion gets you in the leg," she continued, "you'll have almighty pain for seven hours. The legs and arms are the best places to get stung because the lymph nodes can stop the poison from reaching the heart-but if you get stung in the throat or chest-the poison goes right to the heart and can give you a heart attack. I even felt my heart shudder a bit when I was stung."
"So you see," Orel said, "it's not just me saying how dangerous it is in the desert. Why don't you just set up your tent just over the first hill? No one will bother you there and we will still be close enough to help you. I'm not saying any of this to get you to stay at our hostel and pay- it's just, what you're doing is very, very dangerous."
As I walked back to my room at the hostel, I was scared. Orel, Yael, and Kate had added fuel to the doubts and fear I already had. I didn't want to die in the desert-that's for sure. I'd be embarrassed if I died in the desert! To throw away my life like that . . . But what was I going to do? I was called into the desert, led there by the Spirit of God-at least that's how it felt to me. It was as though my life (or a part of me) was already in the desert waiting for me to come and claim it. Was I going to say "no" to the Spirit of God? "No" to my life? That night, as I lay in bed, I prayed to God to stop me if I was doing something stupid. After I was done praying, the reality of what I was about to do hit me.
"I'm going to be alone in the desert for forty days," I said aloud.
I laughed at how ridiculous it all sounded, and in the midst of my laughter I had the strange feeling that I was falling, and then-I remembered him.
Fifteen years ago, I lived on a hill in a Tibetan Monastery just outside of Katmandu. On a black-as-coal night, I stood in front of a roaring fire lit by the western monks who gathered each night about halfway down the hill on the eastern edge of the monastic grounds. It was my first time there, and I was invited to the fire by a crazy Australian.
"Bill," the Crazy Australian said as we stood around the fire, "people are born with a wound that time sliced open, a pain that goes from their throat to their belly. They either spend their whole life trying to avoid it or trying to understand it. I got you pegged as trying to understand it.
"But," he added laughing, "you haven't got any idea what you're in for-do you mate?"
That was fifteen years ago, and for a moment when he said that I felt like I was falling, but I just smiled and stared into the flames. I was happy then. I had discovered Buddhism, lamas, mantras, and dark nights around the fire. And then there was the Crazy Australian. He was in his mid forties, slim, with dark brown eyes and hair.
He had a habit of irritating people by seeing, and then verbalizing, their deepest secrets. Once, when we were seated at lunch, he turned to a Dutch man and asked, "How's your heroin addiction?"
There was an awkward silence, and then the eyes of the Dutchman narrowed to slits.
"How did you know about that?" The Dutchman asked.
"Ah, mate," the Australian replied, "I can see the anguish on your face."
Because of his piercing insight, whenever the Australian opened his mouth, everyone scattered so-except me. I'm not sure why I didn't run away, maybe it was because I kind of understood what he was talking about. Or maybe it was because he said I was one of the few people in that monastery that knew anything, and I liked that. Or maybe it was his wild aliveness and unpredictability that seemed so much freer than the meditative control I was trying to exert over my life. All I knew was that he went wherever he wanted, and I don't mean cities or countries, I mean soul places. He traveled to every corner of his soul; places I had been afraid to go.
And now fifteen years later, the night before I was to go out into the desert, I remembered him-and I wasn't really sure why.
After waking up, I got out of bed and dressed quietly. I went outside and was immediately struck by the beauty of the desert in the morning; the landscape and sky was a mixture of browns, pinks and blues. A cool wind blew lightly across my skin. The moon was still full.
I climbed up a small hill, sat on a stone ledge and waited for the sun to come up. To my right, about 150 yards away, was a group of people who also seemed to be waiting for the sunrise. When I looked over at them to see which way they were facing-it hit me. I was lonely, and I wished that they'd invite me over so that I could talk with them. Then I remembered: I'm going to be away from people for the next forty days; I'd better get used to being alone.