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.