'It's Easy to Hitchhike in Texas - Especially if You're White and Nice'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Israeli whose biggest ambition in life is to travel the world talks about the magic of the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiking in general

Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam
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Yuval Yellin.
Yuval Yellin.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam

Yuval Yellin, 23, from Sderot; arriving from Zurich

Hello, can I ask what you did in Switzerland?

I flew there with my brother. I had an extended furlough from the army, and he persuaded me to join him on a visit to our grandmother. We spent a day in Lucerne and then we went to a Buddhist monastery for a few days.

Grandma is from Lucerne?

She lives in California, the sweetie, but goes to Switzerland every year to visit this monastery. She’s been practicing for 45 years.

Which monastery is it?

It’s a Zen Buddhist monastery called Felsentor. My grandmother is one of the elders of the tribe there. Good friends from her distant past established it.

What’s the difference between Zen Buddhism and Buddhism?

Zen Buddhism is stricter and tougher; the whole approach is Japanese, and the Japanese are hard.

How was it in the monastery?

It’s a really cool place, located right between the mountains. To get there, you take a boat from Lucerne to Mount Rigi and then a mountain train, and finally you walk half an hour in the snow to the gate.

Sounds lovely.

It’s an incredible sight. People live there and they have a meditation center where people come for Buddhist retreats. You only need to pay for food, not for the courses or lodgings. Now there were about 30 people there, who had come for a month of practice. Most of the time they’re in what is called sesshin: they sit in meditation all day and don’t speak.

Did you join in the meditation?

I didn’t sit for the whole week, but half an hour here and half an hour there. We were more like guests. They also have a hostel for animals that have been abused, which was founded by a Christian nun 15 years ago. I worked with her a little and tended to the animals.

What do you in general?

For the past year and a half, I’ve been traveling the world and occasionally coming home to Sderot for a visit. I’ll be in Israel for another month and then I’ll head to Nepal.

Where have you been?

I spent more than a year in the East. I surfed in Sri Lanka, I was in Burma/Myanmar, and I did volunteer work in Nepal through an organization called Tevel b’Tzedek, which tries to develop employment and other opportunities so that young people there won’t have to leave the village and won’t deteriorate into things that are not good.

Did you yourself manage to avoid deteriorating into things that aren’t good?

The Ritter Range as seen from the Pacific Crest Trail.Credit: Steve Dunleavy / Wikimedia Commons

I hitchhiked mostly, so maybe I entered forbidden places, but there weren’t too many scary moments.

Do you like traveling?

Very much. I grew up in Sderot, but at the age of 17, I went to the United States and lived there for a year. After high school, I got a military service deferment of a year and a half, during which I visited Hawaii and Alaska, hitchhiking a lot, living with homeless people, working in a Jewish summer camp and for a company that builds bamboo structures for music festivals. And in the end I did the PCT – the Pacific Crest Trail.

The one from Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild”?

Yes, the most amazing trail in the world, 4,300 kilometers over mountains. It starts at the Mexico-California border, continues to Oregon and ends at the Cascade Ridge in Washington. Five months of hiking. You usually start at the end of April and continue until the end of September.

What do you eat and drink along the way?

You rely on what’s available in nature, but there are also “trail angels” who leave water for people. The first ones you’ll meet there are Scout and Frodo.

Those aren’t their real names.

No. Everyone on the trail has a special name.

What was your name?

I was “The Messenger,” because I started to do the trail in reverse. Everyone goes from south to north, because that’s what’s most suitable in terms of the weather, and it was my first time doing this trail, so I did 700 kilometers of the trail but in the other direction: I started in central Washington and walked south.

Why backward?

I got there by chance, I was looking for something to do after the Jewish summer camp, and someone recommended a hike of 100 beautiful kilometers, and I was already in Washington, so I started. On the way, I saw people walking in the opposite direction, and I started talking to them and they told me that the section ahead of me, meaning behind them, is one of the most beautiful. I went on like that until it became late in the year. October in central Oregon is too cold, so I stopped. I thought: Who’s the crazy guy who does all this from start to finish?


Yes. But not yet. I kept going, hitchhiked down the entire West Coast all the way to San Diego. From there I took a plane to the northeast United States, I hitchhiked in the East down to Florida, sleeping in hostels and in churches with homeless people. From there I headed westward. I was in the South, going to New Orleans via Mississippi, Louisiana. It’s really easy to hitchhike in Texas, because people there are all armed so they’re not afraid, and I’m white and nice, so that helps.

I slept at surfers’ places and in homes of people who thought Obama was going to sink the economy, communes of hippie types who hoard food and weapons at home. Then I flew to Hawaii, worked on a farm for a few months and hiked, and then I asked myself what to do next. I’ll start the PCT! I did the trail to the end. I was the last to finish, because there was a wild snowstorm, and the people who set out after me turned around and went back.

Did that trek change anything in you?

I can’t point to specific things, other than that I became addicted to it. It’s a totally unique experience, it’s not like going on vacation or on a trip: It’s living a different life – one that’s clean, simple and, as we say in a kitschy way, pure.

And then you came back and entered the army?

Yes. I was a paramedic in Rimon [a special forces unit]. It was really hard for me, especially from a psychological point of view. But on my discharge leave, I did the Israel Trail.

What’s that like?

I think it’s a superb trail, but Israelis hiking it are over-equipped, taking twice as much as they need.

What do you normally take with you?

Depends on the hike. When you walk 45 kilometers a day on average, weight is crucial. Usually I get to 4.5 kilos of equipment without food and water, and on a heavy day, with food and water, it’ll be 12 or 13 kilos. I have a sleeping bag, that’s what I invest in most, and if I take a book with me it’ll be a guidebook about the trail. But we can assume that on the next trip, in Nepal, the bag will be heavier, because it’s cold there.

What’s the plan for Nepal?

It’ll be my first time going with a friend; it will be another stage for me.

On the road to where?

I have a lot of trails on the list. I want to cross the Himalayas on foot, that’s a trail that 30 people have done so far. I’ve already done the Continental Divide Trail, 5,000 kilometers, that transverses the whole United States [north to south], and then I want to do all of the Alps by foot. I also had a grandiose plan of going from pole to pole, from the southernmost point in South America to northern Alaska.

By foot?

Most of it is connected, but the North Pole is problematic.

To say the least.

In the winter it’s like minus 50 [Celsius], and in the summer there are polar bears, so it’s not really possible to walk it, and anyway it takes years of preparation.

Are you careful?

Accidents happen in the mountains, but I’m very careful and hope that nothing will happen. And if something does happen, it’s better there than in a road accident.

Does your mother think so, too?

I’m getting my parents used to it gradually. In the United States there’s Wi-Fi in every city, but in Nepal there are problematic places, so I’m taking a device with me that’s used for locating and rescuing people. I do what I can.

Is this what you want to do in life?

I have the next two years during which I will do this alone, and in 2020, I’ll stop for a moment and think past that point, and decide whether I have ambitions for other things. Right now I want to live in the moment, and afterward perhaps other things. Maybe I’ll keep on going with this.

Are you maybe trying to escape from life?

I don’t think so, and I’ve thought about it. I’m alone a lot and I think about everything. I meet dozens of people and make friends with people I’d never have met any other way. I’m experiencing civilization in many ways, and my influence and my relationships are extending across more territory and more people. It’s not an escape, maybe it’s a pursuit. A search and pursuit for the good in the amazing world at our feet.