“That’s a first-century smell,” says anna dintaman, stepping around a blood-soaked sheepskin. We’re on the outskirts of Nazareth, almost two miles into the first day’s walk on the Jesus Trail, but I’ve yet to see anything resembling an actual trail. We’re striding along a dirt road, and the rotting hide appears not long after we pass a pile of garbage—construction and household detritus—dumped near a half-finished apartment building. I would have doubted we were even on the right path, but Dintaman, along with her husband David Landis, literally wrote the guidebook on the Jesus Trail. When Landis first scouted the route in 2007, he says, “the hardest challenge was getting out of Nazareth—I came over the hill and saw the garbage and a burning cow.”
We’ll see some other rough spots along the way, including places that are disturbing in other ways, like a trailside Holocaust memorial, and the modern ruins where Arab villages stood before the fighting that broke out after Israel was established in 1948. But rather than casting a pall over the hike, I find these sights are also part of its appeal. The Jesus Trail affords an unvarnished look at the Galilee, stitching together a patchwork of roads, dirt tracks, and trails that alternate between the stunning Mediterranean landscape and some of the ugly truths of earthly existence. You don’t have to be a Jesus expert to know he saw both—and didn’t turn away from the latter.
We follow the Jesus Trail’s painted orange blazes out of Nazareth’s old city, then traverse the urban border that’s caused Landis such a route-planning headache. But once we clear the garbage-and-carcass zone, it’s easy to see why he persevered. We look down on broad valleys and rolling hills, an area quilted by olive groves, wheat and barley fields, and wildflowers like Egyptian honesty and daisies in yellow, purple, and white. Hello, land of milk and honey.
I join Landis, 29, and Dintaman, 30, in March 2011, less than two years after Landis and his Israeli partner, Maoz Inon, cofounded the trail. Landis doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate to establish a new trail in the Middle East. He’s from Pennsylvania, a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University who doesn’t speak Hebrew and is learning Arabic on the fly. He met Inon, 37, while thru-hiking the 620-mile Israel National Trail. They became friends, and shared a vision for a path that revolved around the Galilee’s rich history. But they also saw the trek more broadly: It would help local communities that had been bypassed by the bus-tour crowd, and break down barriers between Arabs and Jews, who inhabit the Galilee in roughly equal numbers. They imagined a historical and cultural tour that has Nazareth’s hometown hero at its center. The result: a route that connects biblical sites, but also Arab and Jewish towns, kibbutz wheat fields, national parks, Crusader and Roman and Byzantine ruins, a Druze cliff-side fortress, a Bedouin village, and more.
“I see travel as a kind of art,” says Landis. “I wanted to create something new.”