Dirt Tracks 2: Refugee Road
I had never hiked in a desert before, save for a brief trip to the Atacama in Chile and it’s fair to say I was a little unprepared for the environment. My thick leather walking boots which were clearly designed for rambling through the lush green grass of English hills, were woefully out of place in the hot, dry desert of Israel.
Within an hour of setting off, my feet started to blister and bruise and by the second day I was limping through the desert like a cat on hot coals. The mesh of my rucksack strap cut a red honeycomb pattern on my hips, and my legs felt like they were filled with cement.
My expedition partner, Pete, had opted for a pair of lightweight trainers and smaller bag and was dancing along the rocky trails like a mountain goat. Now I really felt like an amateur. He graciously packed some of my gear around his bursting bag and cheered me on with relentless optimism and the promise of dried fruit with semi-melted chocolate. We all need friends like that.
As the days went on and we slowly chomped up the miles of ridges and ravines, discussing life, faith and quotes from the sitcom, 'Parks and Recreation', the pain started to ease.
Or maybe I just learned to toughen up.
One night as we set up camp in the tiny oasis of Timna, I paused and pondered what this journey must have been like for a young child, 2000 years ago. Pete was balancing his iPhone precariously on a rock and attempting to catch a time-lapse of the setting sun, while I sat down with a sewing needle, a bottle of antiseptic (iodine) and a hip-flask of mountain medicine (single-malt) and set to work on my blisters.
For all my moaning about cuts and bruises, I had to face up to the fact that I’m a grown man, with the latest gear, the tastiest of medicine and many years of experience in the outdoors (although you wouldn’t think it from the rookie errors).
Jesus would have made this journey around the age of five, possibly younger, without a decent rucksack, a three-man tent to keep him warm at night, or Italian walking boots.
His family were desperately poor, even before they became refugees. Joseph, his earthly father was a ‘tekton’ which is usually translated as ‘carpenter’ in English, although a general builder or stone-mason may have been closer to the mark. He would’ve worked long and hard, with blood, toil, tears and sweat, to pay the exorbitant taxes levelled on Jewish peasantry from both Herod and Caesar, so if he had anything left over after fleeing to Egypt, he just might have furnished his young family with a set of leather sandals… but maybe not.
The boy Jesus may even have walked these desert trails bare-foot.
Although we don’t know their exact route, it’s likely that they would've walked further west than me, along the shores of the Mediterranean. Did God himself, incarnate as a fragile child, bathe his bruised and blistered feet in the sea he created?
What a paradox.
Unlike many world leaders in our generation, nobody can say that Jesus had it easy.
And for the millions of refugee children on perilous journeys along dirt tracks and desert trails all over the world, Jesus can actually say, "I know your trials, I’ve been there too."
As Pete mixed a can of tuna into our pasta-pesto over a roaring gas stove and handed me the hip-flask, I realised that I knew little of the ordeal that this young Egypt-exile faced 2000 years ago, yet as an adult he never looked back and complained about his humble start. Far from it.
A more encouraging man, I have never known.
Like the vast tapestry of stars in the desert sky, that night, I counted my blessings.
Up next… Dirt Tracks 3: The loneliest place on Earth