As a child, I was fortunate to spend my summers backpacking in the Sierras. Something about being surrounded by beauty, the silence of the forest, rushing rivers, heaving oceans, has always captivated my soul. My first album was recorded when I was eleven and featured songs I had written from the age of seven with such titles as Wilderness, This World, The Last Frontier and This Valley. To this day, when I’m on my concert tour and the opportunity arises, I try to fill my days with a walk to a local waterfall, biking trail or surf spot.
Nowadays my kids run the other direction when I propose that we take a hike. I’ve learned not to tell them where we are going and to hide the boots in the back of the van. That way I can get them out of the house without straitjackets. Once we hit the trail, however, they love it, and I marvel as their personalities shift from boredom and sarcasm to innocence and wonder.
I proposed to my sons Max (14) and Jesse (12) that we go for a serious backpack trip, our first together, in the wilderness of Sedona, AZ. After all, they had a week before camp was starting and I had gigs in Tucson. Surprisingly, they were excited about the idea and the itinerary occupied weeks of our conversation. Using their pocketknives and building fires were the primary attractions. My daughter, Sarah Lena, a nine-year-old diva in pink would have to wait a few more years.
How could I remain sequestered in my recording studio knowing my boys were available for an adventure of this magnitude? These days I’m increasingly aware of the nature of their fleeting childhood. What I didn’t realize is that backpacking takes huge amounts of preparation and expense. When you are leaving civilization, you can’t just run to 7-Eleven when you feel like a slurpee. As a kid, all the hard work was done for me. Now I had to rent packs, plan lightweight kosher meals, deal with water purification, acquire sleeping bags and pads, a tent, first aid kit and lots of sunscreen.
I carefully chose CDs to inculcate my boys with essential classic rock for our seven hour drive. To the strains of Boston, Beatles, Kansas, Metallica and AC/DC we rocked through the barren Southwest, arriving in Sedona just as the sun was setting. Thankfully we planned a trial hike climbing one of the red rock buttes on the first day. The sole of Jesse’s boot fell off completely in the first mile and he had to complete the hike in Crocs. After a dip in a spectacularly scenic Oak Creek swimming hole we searched frantically for new boots all over town and got very lucky finding the only pair his size in the city. Those first few nights we stayed with friends and as we soaked in their scenic Jacuzzi we witnessed one of the most amazing shooting stars, tail and everything, that I have ever seen.
Finally, after all this preparation we had packs on our backs. Early the next morning we set out on our fourteen-mile red rock canyon adventure. After the first three miles we had to switch from hiking boots to water sandals since the canyon narrows to the degree that the trail disappears and one has to walk in the river the rest of the way. We saw an assortment of butterflies like I have never seen in my life, gardens of wildflowers in the weeping cliff walls, soaring hawks and herons, freaky spiders and sonorous mountain goats.
By the sixth mile, Jesse was at breaking point. He couldn’t go on. We needed a campsite immediately and there was nothing but rock on either side of us. The final straw was a six-foot deep pool of water with no way to get through it other than swimming. You try swimming with a backpack! Max and I abandoned our packs and opted to scale the cliff wall to see if there was a way around. Sure enough, we found a ledge with a fire ring. Someone else had gotten stuck here and made the best of it. But there was no room for a tent. Max noticed that there was a way to get even higher up the cliff. Sure enough, about sixty feet above the river we found a campsite. A perfect, well-shaded campsite to enjoy for the duration of our trip, with a spot for our tent and a fire ring with log benches all around it. Can you imagine our happy dance? That night we thanked Hashem for the divine providence of our discovery as we pondered the milky way and roasted salami on the open flame.
You may wonder by now why I am dragging you through the anecdotes of our family vacation. You see, it’s all about the campsite. Our campsite was the sweetest campsite in the world. Better than any 5-star hotel. Why? Because we worked so hard for it. Because we sweated out the intensive preparation required to survive half a week in the wilderness, because we drove so far, woke up so early and hiked miles with heavy backpacks. For us, that magical twenty square feet of dirt represented the fact that we were pushed above and beyond our perceived limitations and triumphed.
This dynamic is the essence of Jewish holidays. The intensive pre-Pesach spring cleaning, cooking and seder planning makes for a powerful Passover. The forty-nine day omer countdown to Shavuot gives one the feeling that they too are standing at Sinai. There’s nothing like the first night of Sukkot when you sit in the Sukkah that you shlepped from the storage room, built and decorated. And Rosh Hashanah is as potent as the spiritual work you undertake during the preceding month of Elul.
I’m reminded of a time after a concert in the Berkshires last year when I visited the Norman Rockwell museum. I’ve always loved his art and was amazed to see my favorites on the original large canvases. As I was leaving the museum I noticed that a docent was about to lead a tour group through. I opted to go through the museum a second time with this well-informed woman and this time I had a completely different experience. I saw things in those paintings that I would have never noticed and the characters came alive as I heard the background story of their creation. Similarly, two people can sit side by side in the synagogue and have vastly different experiences proportionate to the preparation they have undertaken and the guidance they have received.
On our last day we broke down the camp and made sure that we didn’t leave a trace of our visit. For lunch we frantically finished all of our food so that we wouldn’t have to carry it. In between mouthfuls two large brown beasts suddenly burst out of the bushes. We screamed as we leapt up ready to protect ourselves with our plastic sporks. Two hungry chocolate Labradors were exploring the canyon and must have smelled our kosher turkey MRE’s. Cocoa and Charlie became our dogs for the rest of the day and made hauling our packs home a lot more fun. As we neared the end of the canyon we heard a voice from above shouting, “Stop calling my dogs!” Sure enough, the owner hadn’t seen his dogs for hours. I followed the voice by climbing up the rock wall and quickly explained to the lone backpacker that we weren’t trying to steal his animals. This guy looked familiar…can you imagine…it was a friend of mine from high school who had moved to Arizona in search of peace and quiet. The only other human that had seen in days!
As Jews, we are about to enter the period of the “three weeks.” We are commanded to always serve G-d with joy, in every situation, everyday. But during this short period of time we “lessen” our joy just a bit. We refrain from such things as live music, weddings and haircuts. Minor inconveniences, but just like preparing for the happier holidays, they make a difference, just enough so that we acquire a sense of mourning that peaks in the observance of Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av.) This day is the saddest on the calendar and commemorates the destruction of our Temples and many other disasters throughout history. This year it starts at sunset on Wednesday night, July 29th. Those who weep for Jerusalem will merit seeing her rebuilt, with uncontested borders and eternal peace. May it happen speedily in our day.