Gaye Lending stood at the top of Masada watching the guards open the gates at 5 a.m. and wished herself a happy 50th birthday.
It was Shabbat. The air was still. And as the navy sky turned to shades of pink and orange at dawn, the mercury had already hit 100 degrees.
Lending bent over and collected stones which she put in her backpack to take home. "Like dust to dust," she thought, and began to cry — tears of accomplishment wetting her face.
"It was the best thing I did [in Israel]," Lending said. "One month after my birthday [May 4] I climbed to the top, at dawn, in 32 minutes…I looked at myself in jean shorts, tank top, my purple backpack and ponytail and thought `I've still got it in me.'"
For nearly a year the Walnut Creek resident planned a personal celebration to mark her half-century on the planet.
She passed up more traditional birthday decadence — a New York shopping trip, body wrap, spa visit, expensive dinner, face lift — for a trip to Israel. She'd never been there before but had spoken of it "for at least 15 years."
Yet rather than "taking a nice ORT tour," like her mother suggested, Lending joined a group of mostly twentysomethings on a tour with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel — like the Sierra Club — and hiked through the Holy Land.
She chose the trip "to see Israel my way, to know it as my friend," she said.
When Lending's daughter wanted to visit Israel several years ago, she insisted she go as a student, to live it rather than "be a tourist." Lending demanded the same of herself.
"I believe every Jew must go to Israel. And what better way to see it then by the ground up? No room service, no `on the bus off the bus.' Buy your humus and pita, stick it in your bag and go."
For 12 days Lending rose at 7 a.m. By 7:45 she was boarding a bus. And at 9 a.m. she was buying food and water for the day of hiking ahead, enough for herself and then some.
"I might have been the hikers' equal on the mountains, but I was always a Jewish mother, too, buying the extra oranges, a little extra candy so everyone could have something sweet," Lending said.
In 110-degree heat Lending hiked two to six hours each day, visiting the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights, the Hula Valley, the Black Canyon and the Judean hills. She kayaked around the Jordan River, snorkeled in Eilat and crawled through the Abshalom Stalactite Caves near Jerusalem.
Evenings were spent on kibbutzim, in sleeping bags at the Ein Gedi Field Study Center, and occasionally in hotel beds.
The active days and simple accommodations were exactly what Lending craved.
"I've always felt a connection [to Israel] but never understood it," she said. "I remember as a child, we bought trees for Israel. I wanted to see these forests.
"I had been active in ORT and Hadassah for years, but I realized I had no idea what a kibbutz was. I'm no granola girl but I needed to touch the soil. I needed to see it through different eyes. I'm leading a different life now"
Lending's world has changed a lot in the last few years. A mother of two adult daughters, she's single again and works full time in sales. She switched from running to hiking and is an active member of the Bay Area Jewish Singles Hiking Club, an association that prepared her well for the trip.
"This sort of trip isn't for most people [aged] 50, but I hike with 30-year-olds all the time. I've found hiking is the only way to clear my mind," she said.
"Running is too hard. You don't get the peace. Walking is the continual high. You're smelling, seeing, touching. You get to feel the air when you walk. You don't when you run because you're always looking at your watch for time."
Lending shared the life lessons and impressions of a more mature hiker with her traveling mates — young adults that were younger than her own daughters. She was thrilled to receive a postcard of Masada from one of them. Written on it was "This is a testimonial to what you did."
Lending laughed, thinking of it.
"We all had our own goals… And even though I was the one on the bus saying, `Who needs toothpaste? Who needs deodorant?,' it was a rebirth for me too.
"I wanted a sense of accomplishment. Going 12 miles in 110 degrees is a lot for anyone. But I wanted to push myself to the limit."