Saturday, February 04, 2006

Life's a journey: two book reviews

Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts: Light, God and Beauty on the Open Road (2005)

Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage, translator Alan R. Clarke (1992).

I’ve always been a fan of travel books, probably because the journey is more exciting than arriving at the destination. Some of my favorites include Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Edward Abbey’s The Fool’s Progress, Mark Twain’s Roughing It, Innocent’s Abroad, and Around the Equator and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ve also enjoyed the humorous stories of Bill Bryson’s journeys and the more serious yet still humorous insights of Paul Theroux as he rambles around on trains. And don't forget Peter Matthiessen’s spiritual quest in The Snow Leopard. Although these two books I’ve read over the past month may not become classics of those listed above, they both take you on an interesting journey.

In Through Painted Deserts, two young wannabe hippies, 30 years after Woodstock, take off from Houston, Texas in a VW bus. Heading to Oregon, they also long for the experience of the road. Along the way, they crash with friends and hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and find ways to over mechanical troubles for which the old buses were infamous. When things look desperate, someone always seems to offer a hand. There’s the mechanic that stops when they’re beside the road in the desert and an owner of a diner who gives them free meals. Once in Oregon, they take a summer job working at a ranch. Both Don (the author) and his friend Paul are Christians. Don seems intrigued with Paul’s laid back way, the manner in which he finds people more important than ideas. During their travels, they discuss their faith, their hopes in a spouse and family, what is important in life, and how to break out of the material trap of the modern world. In many ways, these two Evangelical Protestant young men rebel against both a faith and a society they had in Houston, one that appears to lift up abundance. Truly, I think they really set out in the hope that "abundant life" means something more than just a larger salary with a nice home, a car and consumer debt.

This was Don Miller’s first book, even though it was only published in this form after he had published several others. It's the second of his books that I’ve read. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it was as good or as mature in outlook as the first book of his I read, Blue Like Jazz.

The Pilgrimage is Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s first book and also the second book of his I read. (Last year I read By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept). As with Miller, I would agree that I liked the first book I’d read better than the second, but I did find The Pilgrimage to be a very good and mature book. In it, Paulo sets out on a pilgrimage from Southern France, across the Pyrenees and then westward along the along the northern part of Spain to the San Tiago. I’d heard of this medieval trail years ago, when hiking the Appalachian Trail, but it had dropped off my radar screen. Now, having read the book, hiking the road to Santiago is again appealing even though I'm not a Catholic mystic. In Coelho’s book, he sets out as a pilgrim in the hopes of finding (and earning the right) to keep a sword. He is given a guide, Petrus, who constantly challenges him to slow down and approach things simply. Petrus teaches him a series of spiritual exercises that enable him to become more in tune with what is important in life. Only after learning these lessons can Coelho find his sword.

In contrast to Miller’s writings, The Pilgrimage is steeped in Catholic mysticism. As the two men travel the road, Coelho encounters demons and temptations and learns to have faith and to trust in that which cannot be seen or proven. The book is filled with metaphors that shed meaning on our journey through life. One thought taken away from the book, that those of us living in our consumer paradise, is to ask ourselves why we want something and what we’ll do with it before we obtain it. Coelho finds himself confronted with the question pertaining to his journey.

Both books emphasize the modern cliché, "life’s a journey, not a destination." We’ll, it may not be a cliche' among everyone, but it is among backpackers.


  1. I hiked down into the Grand Canyon once. It was over 100 degrees and I got a blister, but it was still worth it.

    I would never fry salmon!

  2. Be sure and see "Grizzly Man" if you haven't yet. The guy was crazy, on some level, but the fact that he survived as long as he DID is amazing. I would think that anyone with a love for the great outdoors would have to admire him and his dedication, and anyone who can walk up to a grizzly bear and PET it has to earn someone's respect.

    I'm with you... I love books like this.

    Here via michele! (and I promise to update your SIM's story soon...been very busy at work!)

  3. I might just have to take a look at those books sometime. I keep meaning to buy a Bill Bryson book too (I'm way behind on my book reading at the moment).

    Take care and I hope you're having a good weekend.

    Here via Michele's :)

  4. I love Bill Bryson's books. The one about the Appalachian Trail is good, as well as the one he wrote about living in England (Notes on/from a Small Island?). I'm not familiar with the others.

  5. Colleen, the Grand Canyon is wonderful to hike in, especially the lesser used trails off the north side. It's rugged yet beautiful.

    I suppose I'll have to see Grizzly Man!

    As for Bill Bryson--one day I should write a post about his book on the Appalachian Trail (I've read it twice). I may have said this here somewhere, but I'll say it again, I hiked the entire trail and sold an article that netted me 200 bucks--he hiked 1/3 of the trail and wrote a best seller. There is no justice.

    I'd recommend Bryson's book on Australia--I think it's called "In a Sunburnt Country" He also has a good one about driving around America. He is very funny and a gifted writer.

  6. The chapter where Bryson's friend jetisons all their belongings in an attempt to lighten his pack just about caused me to laugh until I got sick.

    I've read lots and lots of books in this genre and have had a hard time reading thing else as long as I have another book to be read.

    P.S. Have you read any William Least Heat Moon's works? "Blue Highways" and "River Horse" both are good additions to travel library.

  7. I read Blue Highways a long time ago and agree that its a classic in this genre. I don't know River Horse. Is it good?

  8. oh i love travel books, i always mean to write about my travels too but never had time to. exactly, journey is more exciting than arriving at the destination...

  9. Blue Highways was good but slows a little when he battles his demons but in Riverhorse, he mostly skips all that stuff because it was in his past. In Riverhorse, he buys a boat and motors from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the inside passage of the Hudson, Great Lakes, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri and Columbia rivers. Since I love building boats, it has been a dream of mine to build a boat and do the very same trip someday. I think it is Moon's best book. He did right a third entitled Praryiearth or something like that and I have tried reading it several times but haven't been able to wade through it. It is about a county's history in Kansas and is just too deep for me.

  10. Hey!

    I met Bill Bryson once, at a signing. He was very sweet and modest and funny.

    I've yet to see the Grand Canyon, but I rangered a couple of times at Horseshoe Canyon. Beeeeautiful.

  11. Aoi--I would love to read your traveling books--but then I'd love to travel in your home country of Indonesia.

    Ed, Now that you mentioned it, I remember hearing about Riverhorse--it does sound good. I don't remember much of Bluehighway--it was so long ago--except for crossing Utah and Nevada.

    ing--welcome. I probably would enjoy having a beer or two with Bryson. I'm not sure where Horseshoe Canyon is at.

  12. ing--are you talking about Horseshoe Point Overlook--in Canyonlands--which is beautiful. I've paddled a canoe down the Green River through part of that country--down from I-70 and it's amazing.

  13. No, I'm talking about this, which I wrote about here. It's fairly out-of-the-way, which I guess is why I like it so much. But oooh, those no-see-ums!

  14. Nice review. Will check this book out this weekend.

    Have a great week ahead!

  15. I need to get back out there. No, I was never in Horseshoe Canyon, and upon thinking clearly about it, I was referring to Dead Horse Point. I lived in SW Utah for 10years and hiked a lot in Western UT (Bryce, Zion, North Rim, Great Basin, AZ Strip, etc, but didn't do any hiking west of Capital Reef (only the one river trip). It sounds like an enchanting place. I did hike the Escalante River--which also has a lot of ruins in it. Thanks for the links.

  16. You betcha. You know what's pretty? Anza-Borrego around Easter, when all the wildflowers are blooming.

    What's your favorite little town? I may have to move in a few months and I'm trying to figure out where I could go.

  17. I too love to read travel books,Bill Bryson has a really nice easy to read writing style as well.
    Michele sent me today.

  18. ing, what is a "little town?" If I was in a "little town" in Utah--it'd need to be around Moab, or in Heber City or maybe Boulder, UT (which is a lot smaller than Boulder CO). But a lot of small towns in UT are tough to live in if you are not conservative and Mormon. In Nevada, I'd choose Lamoille (south of Elko), right at the edge of the beautiful Ruby Mts. In Idaho, go to Stanley (do they still have the Stanley Stomp on Saturday nights in the summer? MT, how about Red Lodge. CA-either the north coast or in the Owen Valley. WY--Cody. MI--Copper Harbor. NC--Ocracroke (spelling?) How's that as some suggestions?

  19. I once hired somebody solely because I asked her what her favorite book was and she said, without hesitation, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. She was quality, too. Too bad the company closed soon after!