I’ve learned, too, that I don’t really know very much about anything. I mean, I used to have all these theories about life. I thought I had everybody figured out, even God, but I don’t I think the woods, being away from all the clingy soot of commercialism, have taught me life is enormous, and I am very tiny in the middle of it… I think I would sum it up this way: life is not a story about me, but it is being told to me, and I can be glad of that.
-Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts
I fell in love with another Don Miller book. Okay, that was predictable enough. Fully aware that I was about to start my own interstate journey through the Bible Belt of America, I knew that a cross-country narrative from the pen of my favourite writer would be the perfect thing to read in anticipation. The journey Miller takes in Through Painted Deserts goes across Texas, through the Oklahoma panhandle, and across New Mexico, Arizona, and rides the California inland until he reaches his promised land of Oregon, where he’s definitely settled in since then. As any good travelogue should, TPD captures those stories and experiences you have on the road that just have to be retold- the arduous trek through the Grand Canyon, being comped meals by generous diner owners, and that one time an on-the-spot-prayer was immediately followed by the discovery of a much needed replacement part of the van.
Through Painted Deserts has obvious enough appeal to me. Reading a story about a traveler’s adventures shortly before embarking on my own journey sets me up for making some sweet stories of my own. There are more subtle yet meaningful appeals to me, though, beyond the travel and adventure and the story. Miller’s journey is a journey of seeking, noticing God appear most sharply in the most subtle scenarios, appreciating beauty for what it really is, and trying to put the indescribable into words. It’s a tale of living on a very, very, very low budget, which has a particular appeal to me right now. It’s an ode to not having very much materially, but having it it all when it comes to life. It’s about discovering meaning through story, and about demystifying miracles only to make them all the more miraculous.
Along the same vein as On The Road, Miller’s travel diary reminds us of allowing a journey to teach us fully. For those of us, like myself, who are accustomed to have at least some semblance of a script as to what life lesson is supposed to be learned at the moment, a true journey really needs that open canvas in order to become our teacher. The road taken in Through Painted Deserts becomes more of a spiritual discovery of sorts, a bit akin to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Miller’s trip is taken with his buddy Paul and between the two of them they live out a sentiment echoed in his later piece, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. In that book, Miller brings up Ecclesiastes, and how it seems the only recipe for a good life is to follow God, live out amazing adventures, and take along some good company. Through Painted Deserts, which emerged about half a decade prior, is that thought in a storyteller’s format. Good company, seeking God, and adventure after adventure.
To draw the comparisons between his other works, Through Painted Deserts is a lot more journal than essay. It sticks to stories more than ideas in comparison to Blue Like Jazz or even A Million Miles for that matter. He simply goes on a journey and allows his story to unfold along the way, then he retells the story. His approach allows his poetry to surface more in his writing and it might be as close to a full dramatic narrative as Miller has gone.
Back to why Painted Deserts has such appeal to me, beyond telling a story of something I’ll be doing myself in an amount of time, is simple: find God in the subtle and the beautiful, finding a full life on a not-so-full wallet, and going on a spiritual and physical journey at the same time.
If one thing’s sharpened for me over the past year, maybe two years, it’s been learning to see God’s presence in the more subtle aspects of life, and to also recognize the surrounding beauty and seek out more. It’s funny how beauty can be found almost anywhere, yet once you start seeking it out more, the more sharply it’s noticed. That’s kind of what I’ve experienced with God. He’s in everything, but seeking just allows you to take in more. It’s not too unlike what would drive a pair of bohemian backpackers to endure the hike through the red and gold walls of the Grand Canyon.
Life on a not-so-full wallet is another thing I’ve been learning. I don’t have a paying job right now. True enough to feeding sparrows and adorning flowers, I’ve never found God to fail to meet one of my needs. Maybe it means passing up some of the choices my inner foodie would like to make on my lunch breaks, but I’ve still gotten to discover the allure and taste of the low-priced Korean supermarket in town. I’ve also realized that I’m pretty happy. Some of my happiest moments have happened while I’ve been homeless. Argentine backpacking, couch surfing in Isla Vista, and now being a literal nomad all around the USA are all moments where I’ve felt so alive. And they happened on low budgets. On the flipside, the things I own all too often create their own headaches. I’m thankful for them, but they come and go.
Lastly, there’s the idea of the spiritual itinerary, the journey. I love a good pilgrimage story, from Motorcycle Maintenance to underrated film, The Way, to The Alchemist. I often feel like my life entirely consists of a pilgrimage, a journey, but now that I’ve taken the next step from college and the establishment of myself spiritually, professionally, etc., into the unknown place of deciding what comes next practically, a pilgrimage seems in store to truly make that decision. Right now it’s a journey that has my feet all around the USA and my heart in the DPRK. South African and European possibilities seem to loom in the future. But for now, it’s a pilgrimage as a pilgrimage should be- a search in the form of stories and adventures. And I’m meeting some amazing people along the way, and feeling more and more in love with God. Through Painted Deserts emphasizes asking the why questions of life, over the hows.
Pilgrimages are great. My own pilgrimage has launched, and the physical manifestation of that launches at the end of the month. It’s awesome to be able to take one in literature form, as well.