The Story of the Wayward Bus and Shabbat

A view of Mt. Hermon (Photo: Graeme Stone)

The great storm of January 2015 had descended upon northern Israel bringing with it heavy rains, cold weather and snow to altitudes above 600 meters while other parts of Israel dealt with flooding and high-velocity winds.

My group, consisting of 11 tourists from England, mostly in their fifties, had been traveling with me for the last five days as part of an 11-day tour entitled “Dan to Beersheba.” We had initially begun our journey in the south, in Sde Boker, and each day we avoided the floods by keeping ahead of them by half a day. Strangely, each time we stopped to tour a site, the deluge would briefly cease, only to renew its ferocity when we resumed our journey.

After staying overnight at Ein Gedi we continued north the next day, barely passing unscathed along the Dead Sea road before it too flooded. Because of foreboding weather anticipated in Jerusalem, I changed the order of the itinerary and we headed north. We had a wonderful time sailing on the Sea of Galilee between storms, and again successfully touring the sites between episodes of heavy outbursts of rain. We were privy to wonderful sunrise views over the Golan and dramatic skylines throughout the day with those classic images of rays of sunlight penetrating openings in the menacing cumulus clouds.

As a result of the last-minute rescheduling, we had two nights on the Kinneret. I booked the field school at Kibbutz Snir for our Friday night, thinking it would be an interesting experience for the group to spend Shabbat with Israeli families visiting the north to see the snow on the Golan and Mount Hermon.

This is when the adventure turned into a nightmare.

On Friday morning, we visited first the Benayahu Lookout at Misgav Am, enjoying clear views of the Hula Valley, Mount Hermon in the clouds, the snow-covered Golan Heights and colorful landscapes of southern Lebanon surrounding the rich agricultural areas near Metulla. In Kiryat Shemona we stopped for pastries at a local bakery while watching the Friday morning bustle of locals completing their shopping before Shabbat.

From there we saw the Dan River in Tel Dan beginning to swell from the effects of the recent heavy rains. A brief energetic walk in pristine air along the vibrant riverbed reduced the caloric effect of the morning pastries. After biblical raconteurs at the archaeological site, we witnessed the Banias waterfalls from the suspended trail and the magical main waterfall performed with volumes of muddy water gushing vociferously in its own trance. The group adventurously continued along the walking trail to the Pan temple and cave.

At Banias, I was informed that the road to the Golan was open and we would be able to visit there by way of Masade, a Druze village. It was 3 p.m. and we still had several hours of daylight. The decision to ascend the Golan seemed quite reasonable. Traffic appeared to be moving in both directions and visibility was good. We passed the view of Nimrod’s Castle and the Saar waterfall. The rain had ceased and the views of the surrounding countryside were outstanding.

As we continued to rise in altitude, snow covered the landscape, blanketing trees, the ground and the roofs of Ein Kenya’s homes. As we drove higher we saw children making snowmen and throwing snowballs while families stopped to take photos. It was wonderful and white – an idyllic spectacle that I had not experienced there before. Closer to Masade, we saw the villagers clearing their driveways of snow and preparing wood stacks for their fireplaces.

While enjoying the drive, I noticed the vehicle in front of me, which for some reason had an enormous pile of icy snow on its back tray, was beginning to stall and falter and so I kept a wary distance of it. It was towards the end of this ascent that I sensed my own vehicle faltering. My wheels were slipping and acceleration was rapidly waning. As we continued to ascend, the situation grew more critical as I saw vehicles backed up at the traffic circle on the crest of the hill.

My harrowing predicament now became increasingly clear. The grim possibilities included not making it to the top of the hill which was essentially the plateau of the Golan Heights; being stranded on a narrow road with a busload of tourists and their belongings; creating a major traffic jam leading up to the northern Golan; having little hope of rescue from our impending disaster in such weather conditions; and, finally, providing front-page headlines for the media!

Tourists stranded in snow – major traffic jam – entangled bus requiring dramatic rescue – rescue squads working until early hours of morning – icy conditions and foul snowy blizzard – all tourists, guide rescued – safe!

My mind racing and worked overtime trying to decide how I would extract myself from this predicament. I decided to share my viewpoint with the group leader, Glen, who was sitting beside me as I grasped the steering wheel, keeping my eyes on the disaster unfolding ahead and my control panel for any warning lights indicating more dangers that might visit me.

Concealing from my voice the panic that had descended into the bowels of my being, I said, “Glen, I think we have a situation.”

I stammered a little. “I don’t think the bus is going to make it over the crest where the traffic circle is in front of us. There is obviously a traffic jam ahead of us and around the traffic circle itself – with vehicles going down and around in all directions – and this vehicle stalling in front of us. Our own wheels are spinning and I have no traction and no acceleration, and if by some miracle we make it to the traffic circle, I am going to turn the vehicle around and go back down the hill.”

I continued breaking the bad news. “Glen, do you think the people in the bus would mind getting out and pushing the bus? To hell with the traffic jam and the snow, they have to get us out of here otherwise we are stuck and all hell is going to break loose. We will cause a massive traffic jam and we will not be able to get out of here tonight!”

I made the announcement over the microphone. We were not bailing out, simply everyone would have to disembark from the bus and push us just beyond the turn in the traffic circle in order to safely position us on the downside of the hill.

Stunned and somewhat bewildered, the group disembarked in the snow and traffic, heaving and pushing the bus. With extra help from God and a little more, we edged our way around the traffic circle while the other motorists stared in disbelief at the strange spectacle of a bus being pushed along by a chorus of tourists, hooting with laughter and consternation.

It was not over yet. We still had the descent down the narrow road where clouds of mist were now drifting in. The group boarded the bus again and I began the downhill drive, clutching the steering wheel and praying for mercy, while carefully maneuvering the winding road. I was fully focused on the mission ahead of me. There was no room for error or respite in concentration: The road was narrow with two lanes of traffic, poor visibility and a drop down a cliff to my right.

I knew it was all downhill for 18 kilometers as I had ridden my bike down this hill once before. I calculated we could get down to the turnoff for Kibbutz Snir at the bottom of the mountain. I gingerly tested my accelerator and found the power was gone. The ignition, steering and brakes were working fine, and we did not need power as we warily cruised downwards, following the winding switchbacks that graced the side of the mountain. It was a relief to descend below the snow line.

My next calculation was, after I made the turnoff from the main road into the road leading to the kibbutz, how far would the bus travel before it simply ran out of power? I calculated I would have sufficient speed to maintain inertia after the turn from main road. After executing the turn, we cruised listlessly for about 700 meters towards our destination along the side road. Progressively the bus slowed down. And then, the bus stopped. The bus had finished for the day.

The sun was beginning to wane over the Naftali Range, the shadows were growing long as the light faded. The luscious green fields of the valley below were deepening in color and merging in their definition. The group inside the bus was by now familiar with our predicament but appreciated the miracle that had brought us so far. All that remained was for everyone to disembark with their luggage and walk the next 300 meters to the gate of the kibbutz. We would check in and enjoy a wonderful Shabbat dinner, savoring the camaraderie of our experience and reminiscing over the unusual turn of events.

Myself, I was surprised how we had crossed over the precipice of the traffic circle, negotiated the downhill journey, landed so close to our planned destination and enjoyed all this natural wonder — just before Shabbat.