Beating the Heat on the Jordan Trail
We have a donkey now. His name is William Shakespeare and he has long whiskers sprouting from his soft upper lip and pouty chin. His tall ears move like a pair of independent limbs, pointing straight up like double exclamation points, or else whisking back coyly against his head, or suddenly dropping down like the angry arms of a football player upset by the referee’s call.
We need a donkey, they say, in case we run out of water. Most days I am carrying four to five liters of water—well over a gallon—but some days I can drink it all before lunch. It all depends on the heat of the day, and that is changing.
Though the last month has whooshed by like a single day in my head, the calendar claims that March and April are long gone and we now find ourselves in the warmer month of May. We are also walking south and entering the hotter, dryer part of Jordan. Every day, my boots hit the ground with new sounds—more skidding, more crunching on gravel, more sifting through soft dirt and dust, and at times, pure sand.
The day starts cold—so cold I do not ever want to leave my sleeping bag. I wake up and wonder, “What if I never left my sleeping bag ever again? What a great idea! Can I convince the others to bring me food?” My sleeping bag is so warm and comfortable, and I know the minute I unzip myself from this cozy bed, the frigid night air will hit my bare legs, and I will question my existence.
This is the hardest part of the Jordan Trail—not the 400 miles of mountains we are crossing on foot, but the decision I have to make every morning, alone in the dark, to wake up and stand up, teetering on sore feet and stiff legs, to pack up all my little necessities—toothpaste tubes and batteries and filthy socks—and to start walking again. After a dozen steps, my body gets back into the rhythm, the muscles warm up, my arms swing and I mentally launch myself to the next horizon.
The heat makes it harder though. I remember one day, coming down an incredibly steep wadi while directly facing a huge and unforgiving yellow sun. For an hour, I tasted my own sweat as it dripped from my forehead down my cheeks and onto my lips. I got woozy and my head hurt until I found a single tree with just a crescent moon of shade, where I lied down, took off my boots and remained, unmoving for half an hour, grateful for any little gust of breeze.
Some days the air temperature reaches 40°C (104F°), but these extreme numbers mean very little to me. All I know is how heat feels at ten o’clock in the morning versus two o’clock in the afternoon, and how the sun’s heat reflects back up from the rocky ground, like an extra-efficient convection oven that cooks you evenly on all sides.
The heat is serious, and downright dangerous at times. Already on this hike we have had a few short-term hikers who ended up in the hospital for dehydration and heat stroke. They recovered quickly, but it was a stark reminder to the rest of us to keep drinking water, to stock up on rehydration salts no matter how awful they taste—and to get a donkey. William Shakespeare can carry over 200 pounds on his furry brown back, but for us he is usually carting around 30 extra liters of water—around 66 pounds. Around lunchtime, I try to lighten his load by grabbing a liter or two from his saddlebags, after which I imagine him sighing in relief and thanking me profusely. The donkey knows I am a newbie in Jordan and a total softy, and he has targeted me accordingly, so that in just a few days I have become the primary victim of his grand manipulations.
For example, one morning, just after breakfast, I invented the greatest jam sandwich of all time—spreading strawberry jam on a massive circle of shrak bread and then rolling it up like a crepe. All morning long I looked forward to my lunch, hiking uphill and reminding myself with every breath, “Oh, but I have a jam sandwich for lunch, alhamdullilah!”
When lunch finally came, I sat on the ground in the shade of an acacia tree, daintily unrolling my prize just as a looming shadow darkened my view and I felt the herbal warmth of William’s donkey breath. I looked at him, and he looked at me, then moved his lips into a perfect “O”. With one swift inhale, William Shakespeare sucked the jam sandwich right out of my hands, utterly satisfied.
“La!” I shouted in Arabic—“NO”—but William clenched his teeth and pulled away as I clung to the last remaining corner of my sandwich. In the end, the donkey took the lion’s share, and I was left with a wee corner of sad, jam-soaked bread. Adding insult to injury, William returned for desert, demanding my orange and mushing the entire thing in his mouth before I could even peel it. Juice dribbled down his chin and for once, his anxious face seemed to relax.
The heat breaks the day in half, burning up a big hole in the middle of the day when it is impossible to move or do anything very productive. From noon until four in the afternoon, we hide out in any shade we can find—even if that means we are all bunched together behind a rock. Then the sun moves, so that in a few passing moments, some part of my body is baking in the heat again, and we have to move. In just a short while, I have become an expert in the geometry of shade, contorting my body to fit the curve of a tree trunk, or guessing how long I have before the shade will disappear and leave me exposed to the sun.
This constant hide-and-seek from the sun is a mental game that demands significant life changes. After much discussion and weeks of suggesting it was a good idea, we finally decided that would start hiking earlier. That meant breakfast at 4:30 in the morning, departure at 5:00 AM sharp.
“I will start walking at five,” proclaimed our guide Mahmoud. “Anybody who wants to join me then can just start walking with me then. Otherwise, if you need extra time, you can join the Mohammads.” I’m not sure if it is my established reputation as a morning person, or simply my abundant electrical gadgets all with built-in clocks, but one by one, various hikers pulled me aside and asked me to please wake up the others on time, otherwise we would not make our distance before the heat began. None of us wanted to accept the blame for being the one person who was holding back the rest of the group, but the fact is—it is never one person’s fault. A group only moves as fast as the group decides to move, and so, that night, I set the alarm on my phone for 3:30 AM. Though it turns out, I did not need the alarm, because William Shakespeare woke me up with his mumbling donkey voice while he nibbled at microscopic bits of green from around my tent. I felt his body push against my tent and then hopped out bed, dressing quickly, packing, and singing as loud as I could, with my American voice echoing off the dark canyon walls at 4 AM.
I admit I felt slightly obnoxious doing this, but then I remembered what it feels like to be hiking at two o’clock in the afternoon under the full desert sun. I heard vague death threats from the darkened tents around me but knew that my mission was too important to be deterred. I rolled through the playlist on my phone for inspiration and settled on a solid punk rock repertoire, finishing off with a loud, slightly off-tune cover of The Ramones.
This worked. By 4:15 AM, I had every fellow hiker out of their tent, some of them distinctly furious, and yet, an hour later, we were on our way, all of us packed and ready and hiking out of the canyon before the break of dawn.
For a few days now, the group has been discussing the right and wrong of my waking them all up with loud punk rock songs, and yet nobody has challenged the positive result, which is that we are all leaving early in the morning, enjoying the coolness of the trail before the real heat bears down upon us, and finishing earlier each day. As for me, I am willing to be the bad guy. Even if nobody wants to speak to me for the first few hours of the day as they sleep walk until daylight. We are all hiking in a state of semi-consciousness anyway, tracing this long line across the desert, thinking or not thinking, stepping forward or dropping back for a while, each of us at our own pace. We already know we rely on one another—all of us. We all need that extra push from our fellow hikers, be it early in the morning, or halfway up the mountain, or after our lunch break when it’s time to face the heat once more. Together, there is enough strength and persistence to go around, and when that runs out, we always have our donkey, the stubborn and quirky William Shakespeare—our walking oasis—trotting along the scary cliffs and switchbacks, his four hooves marching along as if this whole Jordan Trail thing is a cakewalk at the county fair, and he has already won first prize.
Follow my personal adventure on social media with #AndrewWalksJordan and #ThruJT and on the Andrew Walks Jordan homepage.
Topics: Adventure Travel
On March 31st Andrew Evans will depart from Um Qais on a 600-km walk through the Jordan Trail, reaching his final destination of Aqaba and the Red Sea. This 40-day hike, comprised of 8 sections, is referred to as the Thru-Hike. While crossing Jordan by foot is one of the oldest adventures in the world, the Jordan Trail is brand new. Andrew will be one of the first few to complete the Thru-Hike. Without the dedication of Andrew, Jordan Tourism Board North America, VisitJordan.com, The Jordan Trail Association, and Intrepid Travel, this trip would not have been possible. Learn more about Andrew’s 600-km trek here.