While he rode his bicycle through the Negev Desert, Eric Schachar felt the sun scorching his shoulders and the warm desert wind whipping his face. "The air was so dry that my sweat evaporated immediately," he recalls, "making the temperature feel cooler than it really was." Deceived by the weather, Eric pedaled unknowingly into danger.
"Suddenly, cramps racked my stomach and numbness paralyzed my legs," he recounts, wincing as if the pain from a year ago had seized him again. Eric knew that dehydration is a cyclist's worst enemy. He clutched the brake, hopped off his bike, and sat down to drink "nearly a gallon of water.
"The athletic 16-year-old from Sherman, Texas, recovered from the symptoms quickly and leapt back on his Cannondale R3000 high-tech racing bike. Balanced on its sleek, lightweight frame, Eric felt in command again. He had thrived on the physical challenge of long-distance biking ever since he finished a 150-mile race when he was only 14. In fact, sometimes he rides his bike home from his school, the Yavneh Academy of Dallas, a 60-mile trip that takes three hours.
Eric's friends and family, therefore, were not surprised when he scoffed at the idea of touring Israel aboard a cushy, air-conditioned bus. Peering out a window at the cloudless Israeli sky was definitely not his style. Instead, Eric strapped on his helmet and hit the road with 40 other biking enthusiasts on a five-day, 350-mile environmental bike tour from Neve Shalom to Eilat. The annual bike ride is sponsored by Hazon- an organization that promotes Jewish learning- and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES), located in Israel on Kibbutz Ketura. To qualify for the trip, riders must raise $3,600 from sponsors. The donations subsidize AIES's efforts to preserve the wilderness in the Arava Valley, which stretches south from the Dead Sea to Eilat.
The ride was the experience of a lifetime that brought Eric face to face with the land and the history of the Jewish people. From Neve Shalom- midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem- the caravan of cyclists snaked its way south and through Israel's lush Coastal Plain. They stopped for the night in Ashkelon, where the exhausted group camped on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The morning sun woke him early, so Eric dragged himself from his sleeping bag, shaking the stiffness from his body. With the surf still pounding in his ears, he mounted his bike and joined the others as they headed southeast, into the Negev Desert and on to Eilat.
Along the way, he slept in a Bedouin tent, visited the gravesite of David Ben-Gurion- Israel's first prime minister- and coasted into Makhtesh Ramon, the world's largest non-impact crater, before tackling the uphill ride out of the crater. He biked off-road through the barren Wilderness of Zin (see Bemidbar 13:21) and swam with tropical fish in Eilat's emerald waters.
The bicycle adventure opened Eric's eyes to the magic of Eretz Yisrael. As he discovered with each rotation of his tires, the Jewish state is not only teeming with the memories of the ancient past, but it is also bursting with the promise of today. Although it was Eric's first trip abroad, his journey was more like a homecoming: "I felt like I belonged there; it felt like home."