On a windy December day, high in the Galilee in northern Israel, Jesse Rosenthal sat on a mountain bike, shook his head and stared downhill.
“I am going to fall,” he said, half-laughing. “It’s a good thing I bought that travel life insurance, because if we go down these hills… it’s going to be bad.”
As part of the inaugural J’Burgh trip that brought 15 young Jewish professionals from Pittsburgh to Karmiel, its sister city, Rosenthal was preparing to trek across the P2K Trail, a network of bike trails that launched to the public in May 2009.
But the group wasn’t biking just to challenge their outdoor sports confidence; they were biking to see, in action, the fruits of the Pittsburgh-Karmiel Misgav relationship — the P2K Trail began with a seed money grant from the Pittsburgh’s P2K branch.
The idea for the trail started about three years ago, and came from Partnership 2000 itself, said Boaz Gershon, the tourism director of Misgav, the region of 35 residential communities surrounding Karmiel. With the Pittsburgh grant, P2K and municipal staff in Misgav and Karmiel were able to gather support for the trail, a project that to date has cost about $60,000, according to Gershon.
“The trail passes through six land-owning authorities,” said Gershon, citing both Karmiel and Misgav, as well as JNF and several smaller villages, including Arab village Sha’ab. “Each one of them had their own ego. We had to speak six languages.”
But as the project “didn’t threaten anyone,” said Gershon, “we succeeded. We did this all by the book — we surveyed the risk, managed the results and went to biking planners to make the trail bikeable for anyone.”
The project required time and patience, however; “In Israel, without pressing, nothing moves,” said Gershon. “We had to be loud and clear about what we wanted to do.”
Important for the success of the trail, said Gershon, was its inclusion on Israeli biking maps.
“There are about 10,000 kilometers (6,250 miles) of marked trails in Israel, and we are now on official maps,” said Gershon. “That means we are spreading the news.”
As are the 500 to 1,000 bikers who ride the trail each week. Initially meant to bring more outdoor tourism to the rocky, hilly region, the P2K trail draws bikers from all over Israel (“Misgav is famous in the country for its biking culture,” said Gershon) and the world — American and European cyclists fly in over the winter, when their own countries are too frigid to bike.
Experienced biker or not, it’s easy to see the appeal of the trail: it cuts through some of Israel’s most beautiful terrain.
“The trail is one of those places in nature that makes you stop and think about the incredible natural beauties in the world and make you put a lot of things into perspective,” said Hara Lampert, one of the J’Burgh trip participants. “There was an incredible mix of rocks, plants, hills and trails. I felt so at peace.”
The trail veers from advanced mountain trails to paved, flat paths, with smaller trails jutting from the main one into the woods, allowing experienced bikers some exploratory freedom. Campsites appear every few hundred yards — a fire pit here, remnants of a weekend party there — giving the trail a balance of untouched nature and a playground for outdoor-loving adults. Every turn provides a different breathtaking view of another rolling hill or deep, tree-covered valley.
To Gershon, though, the trail’s importance runs deeper than beauty. He sees it as a chance connect communities, and seas — when the project is completed around 2012, said Gershon, it will run from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee.
“Then bikers can pass through the mosaic of communities in the Galilee – Christians, Muslims, Jews and Druze; cities, villages, moshavim and kibbutzim,” he said. “This is a very good way to show off Israel.”
“What the bikers have in common is the desire to be outside, to enjoy nature and to experience the thrills that come with being active, both physically and mentally,” said Sophia Berman, another J’Burgh participant, and one of the group’s best bikers. “Being active isn’t something that is limited to your culture, language or religion. The bike trail can be seen as a link between the many different peoples of the Galilee.”
Back on his mountain bike, Rosenthal was beginning to get a feel for the terrain, as were the rest of the J’Burghers. After three hours biking down hills and around rocky turns (and yes, a few falls), the group was tired but proud.
“Here we are thousands of miles away using something tangible that came from where we are from,” said Rosenthal, a Pittsburgh native. “Plus, I didn’t fall.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)