Keller and I went to Jerusalem in the morning, and after a couple of ungracious vendors called us bad people for not buying their fake goods, we decided to blow the over-commercialized Old City and drive north to Nazareth.
The map showed us two "safe" routes: we could go west and up the new Highway 6, which skirts along the western edge of the West Bank. Or we could drive east toward Jericho and make a left on Route 90.
I grabbed the map from Keller. "We could also straight up the middle," I said.
"Through Palestine? Is it safe?" he asked.
I shrugged. "If it gets bad, we can always turn back."
And that's about how much thought we put into driving through a gate in the wall and heading into the Palestinian Territories. Maybe we should have spent some more time thinking it through—that alone would have saved us a few hours.
Getting from Jerusalem onto Route 60 isn't easy: the highway exit isn't marked with any signs. We ended up at an intersection that showed Tel Aviv to the left, the Dead Sea to the right, and an unmarked tiny dogleg exit in front of us. We figured that was the road we wanted, so we took it.
The wall the Israelis have built around the West Bank isn't complete yet, but they had finished this stretch. It's steel, maybe fifteen feet high, and topped with a coil of barbed wire. Every now and then a watch tower sticks up, and sometimes there's even a gate you can drive through, complete with guards. The streets around the Israeli side of the wall are nice and tidy, and the wall is painted blue-gray.
But when we drove onto Route 60, the guards seemed to be missing. Heck, the road seemed to be missing. It dead-ended at the wall. We made a left and drove along the border, and then we saw an open section on our right with a small road leading in.
We drove through the entrance and into a new world. Litter was strewn all over the ground, and the wall had placards pasted to it. The wall was now on our left, and a row of boarded-up shops sat on the right. The two or three cars parked along the street were covered in dust. We didn't see anybody, but it was only 10 on Friday morning, so maybe everybody was sleeping late on the first day of the weekend.
After a mile or so, the road re-entered Israel through another gate. The view of the wall from the Palestinian side was not quite as tidy: check out this picture of the graffiti.
I looked at Keller. "Want to keep going?"
He gave a nervous laugh. "Why not?"
So we continued. Another quarter-mile later we veered back into Palestinian territory. We followed the Route 60 signs for a half hour: Keller manned the map, and he warned me of every possible turn.
"You'll have to turn right, then a quick left," he said at the base of a hill.
The signs agreed with Keller, so I headed up the hill and straight into an Israeli check post. There were two teenage soldiers with rifles sitting above us on our left, manning the gate.
I rolled down the window, and one soldier hopped up, came over, and spoke to me in Hebrew.
"English only," I said.
The other soldier stood up and smiled. "Get out of my way," he said to his buddy in an American accent. "It's my turn for once." He came over to our car, his rifle slung over his shoulder. "What can I do for you?"
He sounded a bit goofy, like a high school stoner. "We're on our way to Nazareth. Can you let us through?" I said.
He shook his head. "No, dude. I can't let you go this way."
"Isn't this Route 60?"
He nodded. "But you don't have papers, dude. And if you go through this gate, you'll end up in Lebanon."
I glanced over at Keller. Lebanon was a long way north of us. This guy had no clue what he was talking about. Keller shrugged, and I turned back to the guard. "So how do we get to Nazareth?"
"No idea, dude." The soldier flipped his rifle off his shoulder and pointed it at the ground.
"Can you ask somebody?" Keller said.
The soldier smiled. "Back up a bit, dude. There's a truck behind you with other soldiers. I'll ask them."
So I backed up, and a troop carrier pulled in front of us. The soldier went up to it, leaned in the door, and talked for five minutes while we waited. While he talked, he kept gesturing at us with his rifle's barrel.
"Why's he pointing that at us?" I asked.
"The dude's a stoner," Keller said.
"Let's hope he doesn't squeeze the trigger," I said.
Finally the soldier came back to our car. "Those dudes say to head back down Route 60 and cut over to Highway 6. That takes you to up toward Nazareth." Now he was pointing the rifle right at me. He popped out the magazine, then put it back in and slapped it with his palm.
I held out the map. "Can you show me where?"
The soldier frowned. "I've got no idea where we are, dude. You'll have to figure it out." Now the rifle was pointing at Keller.
The other soldier called out to him, and the stoner soldier laughed. "My buddy wants to know if you like Jews or Arabs better," he said.
Tough question, especially with a rifle pointed at you. "We're American," I said. "We don't really give a shit about either of you."
He laughed and said something in Hebrew to his buddy. "Get out of here, dudes," he said. "But be careful. Don't stop anywhere, and don't park. Keep your car moving—it's dangerous to be here."
We waved as we left and headed back down Route 60. Keller showed me the map. "We should be able to cut across Route 59 to get to Highway 6," he said. "It goes through Tul Karm."
So we made a right on Route 59 and drove toward Tul Karm. The road got smaller, and then it ended at another gate. This one was manned by Palestinians. A big sign read "Entering Area A of the Palestinian Territories. No Israeli citizens allowed, by order of Israeli law."
"Do we really have to go in there?" I asked Keller.
"It's the only way to Highway 6," he said. "Unless we go back almost to Jerusalem."
So we drove into an Area A. The Palestinian soldiers looked at us and waved us through. And we drove into Tul Karm, where the small road disappeared into a mess of even smaller side streets.
This wasn't good. The buildings were mostly closed up, except for one restaurant which had a big photo on its canopy: the owner and Yassir Arafat with their arms around each others' shoulders. "You want to stop for lunch?" I asked.
"Let's just get back to Israel," Keller said. He pointed. "Look, you can see the wall down there."
That was helpful. We found a road that ran south along the wall. We went past a bunch of old factories. The potholes in the road increased, and so did the trash. No other cars were on the road, and every time we passed a group of people, they did an about-face and stared at us. My fingers were digging deep into the steering wheel.
After a couple miles we saw that the road dead-ended at a fortified gate, surrounded by a parking lot filled with trucks. "We did it," I said. We both gave a nervous laugh, and I drove up to the gate.
"Nobody's there," Keller said.
He was right: the gate was closed. It looked abandoned.
"This isn't good," I said.
We turned around and headed back the way we came, and then tried to turn back to head south and hopefully another gate. We saw a cloud of dark smoke obscuring the road ahead of us, and as we got closer, we saw a huge dump on both sides of the road. The trash was on fire. A dead horse lay on the side of the road, not quite in the dump. A bunch of birds were picking at a pile of goat carcasses. We flipped the air to recirculation and headed into the cloud.
Keller pointed. "There's a check point." It was about a hundred yards on our right. We had made it.
Well, we thought we made it. The exit from the dump road was blocked with concrete barriers, and we couldn't find a way through to the check point. Apparently this one was for pedestrians only.
We continued driving down the road. A couple miles later we saw another gate, and this one was manned by Israeli soldiers. We drove up to the gate. The guard wore a New York Yankees baseball cap and gave us a big smile.
"You speak English?" I asked.
"Of course," he said.
"I'm so glad we found you. We were wondering if we were ever going to get out of here."
But the guard frowned. "Only Palestinians with papers can go through here. You have to go back to that big gate by the dump."
"But that road is closed," I said. "We can't get through."
The guard smiled. "There has to be a way through," he said.
"Can you help us?"
He shook his head. "I don't know how to get there. But you'll find it, I'm sure."
"Can't you just let us through?" I asked. "We really want to get out of here."
He shook his head. "You're not authorized."
So we drove back through the dump, past the dead horse, and back into town by the Arafat restaurant.
I looked at Keller. "Now where do we go?"
"There has to be a way to get to that gate," he said. "Let's just look for it."
But if there was a way to the gate, we couldn't find it. We searched for a couple hours. We drove on itty bitty tiny roads to tiny villages. We drove through narrow streets in those villages, and past "Arafat Sweets" stores. We saw farmers with wooden plows behind black horses tending to tiny fields carved into the sides of the hills. And every time we drove past a group of young men, our stomachs and fists and butts clenched up until we were past them.
Eventually we gave up. We found our way back to Route 59, and we drove out of the Area A. We turned onto Route 60 and headed south until we saw a sign for Route 57 leading to Netanya. And we followed that road all the way to an Israeli gate. There were two lanes: one said "Authorized Vehicles Only," and the other said "All other vehicles."
"Almost there," I said as I pulled into the long "All other vehicles" lane.
"They're not gonna let us through," Keller said.
"Let's at least try," I said. But when we finally made it to the front of the line, the guard wouldn't let us through, even after we pleaded with him. He made us drive back into the Palestinian Territory.
This was pretty frustrating, and we were both getting mad. We'd been driving for five hours, and that stupid guard killed our last hope.
"We have to get through there," I said. I pulled into the "Authorized Vehicles Only" lane.
"What are you going to do?" Keller asked.
"Go through that damn gate," I said. I drove right up to the soldier, and when he held out his arm to halt us, I waved and kept on driving.
"They're confused—keep going," Keller shouted.
And I accelerated, and we made it through the gate and back into Israel. Our stomachs eventually calmed down, and I unpeeled my fingers from around the steering wheel.
I'm sure we'll never forget our time stuck behind the wall.