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Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road [Paperback]

Donald Miller
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Aug. 16 2005

From the author of Blue Like Jazz comes a road-trip memoir about three months spent crossing the country in a Volkswagen camping van, wondering out-loud if there is more to life than nine-to-five jobs, than the ruts the entire world seems to be stuck in. Follow Don and Paul as they dive headlong into the deepest of human questions and find answers outside words?answers that have to be experienced to be believed.

Day 1: Trips  like ours are greener grass left unknown for fear of believing trite sayings; sayings that are sometimes true. But our friends back home live an existence under the weight and awareness of times; a place we are slowly escaping; a world growing fainter by the hour and the mile.

Day 13: It feels again that we are leaving who we were, moving on into the people we will become, hopefully, people with some kind of answers, some kind of thing to believe tht makes sense of beauty, of romance. Something that would explain the red glow against Pauls face, the red glow that seems to be coming off the console . . . Did you notice the engine light is lit, bud? I ask . . .

Day 83: I sit in the van, waiting for her to come out when I notice a window in one of the classrooms open, and a backpack comes falling out, spilling a few books onto the lawn. After the backpack comes Elida, falling atop the pack and laying low, peeking back into the window to see if the teacher noticed. She gathers her books, reaches into the classroom and closes the window, then runs toward the van as though this were a prison break.

As you read Through Painted Deserts, youll soon realize this is not just one mans account of finding light, God, and beauty on the open road. Rather, this book maps the journey youre already traveling . . . or soon will be.


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About the Author

Donald Miller is a speaker, founder of The Mentoring Project, and author of A Million Miles in a Thousand YearsBlue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, Through Painted Deserts, and Father Fiction.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

AUTHOR'S NOTE

IT IS FALL HERE NOW, MY FAVORITE OF THE FOUR seasons. We get all four here, and they come at us under the doors, in through the windows. One morning you wake and need blankets; you take the fan out of the window to see clouds that mist out by midmorning, only to reveal a naked blue coolness like God yawning.

September is perfect Oregon. The blocks line up like postcards and the rosebuds bloom into themselves like children at bedtime. And in Portland we are proud of our roses; year after year, we are proud of them. When they are done, we sit in the parks and read stories into the air, whispering the gardens to sleep.

I come here, to Palio Coffee, for the big windows. If I sit outside, the sun gets on my computer screen, so I come inside, to this same table, and sit alongside the giant panes of glass. And it is like a movie out there, like a big screen of green, and today there is a man in shepherd's clothes, a hippie, all dirty, with a downed bike in the circle lawn across the street. He is eating bread from the bakery and drinking from a metal camp cup. He is tapping the cup against his leg, sitting like a monk, all striped in fabric. I wonder if he is happy, his blanket strapped to the rack on his bike, his no home, his no job. I wonder if he has left it all because he hated it or because it hated him. It is true some do not do well with conventional life. They think outside things and can't make sense of following a line. They see no walls, only doors from open space to open space, and from open space, supposedly, to the mind of God, or at least this is what we hope for them, and what they hope for themselves.

I remember the sweet sensation of leaving, years ago, some ten now, leaving Texas for who knows where. I could not have known about this beautiful place, the Oregon I have come to love, this city of great people, this smell of coffee and these evergreens reaching up into a mist of sky, these sunsets spilling over the west hills to slide a red glow down the streets of my town.

And I could not have known then that if I had been born here, I would have left here, gone someplace south to deal with horses, to get on some open land where you can see tomorrow's storm brewing over a high desert. I could not have known then that everybody, every person, has to leave, has to change like seasons; they have to or they die. The seasons remind me that I must keep changing, and I want to change because it is God's way. All my life I have been changing. I changed from a baby to a child, from soft toys to play daggers. I changed into a teenager to drive a car, into a worker to spend some money. I will change into a husband to love a woman, into a father to love a child, change houses so we are near water, and again so we are near mountains, and again so we are near friends, keep changing with my wife, getting our love so it dies and gets born again and again, like a garden, fed by four seasons, a cycle of change. Everybody has to change, or they expire. Everybody has to leave, everybody has to leave their home and come back so they can love it again for all new reasons.

I want to keep my soul fertile for the changes, so things keep getting born in me, so things keep dying when it is time for things to die. I want to keep walking away from the person I was a moment ago, because a mind was made to figure things out, not to read the same page recurrently.

Only the good stories have the characters different at the end than they were at the beginning. And the closest thing I can liken life to is a book, the way it stretches out on paper, page after page, as if to trick the mind into thinking it isn't all happening at once.

Time has pressed you and me into a book, too, this tiny chapter we share together, this vapor of a scene, pulling our seconds into minutes and minutes into hours. Everything we were is no more, and what we will become, will become what was. This is from where story stems, the stuff of its construction lying at our feet like cut strips of philosophy. I sometimes look into the endless heavens, the cosmos of which we can't find the edge, and ask God what it means. Did You really do all of this to dazzle us? Do You really keep it shifting, rolling round the pinions to stave off boredom? God forbid Your glory would be our distraction. And God forbid we would ignore Your glory.

HERE IS SOMETHING I FOUND TO BE TRUE: YOU DON'T start processing death until you turn thirty. I live in visions, for instance, and they are cast out some fifty years, and just now, just last year I realized my visions were cast too far, they were out beyond my life span. It frightened me to think of it, that I passed up an early marriage or children to write these silly books, that I bought the lie that the academic life had to be separate from relational experience, as though God only wanted us to learn cognitive ideas, as if the heart of a man were only created to resonate with movies. No, life cannot be understood flat on a page. It has to be lived; a person has to get out of his head, has to fall in love, has to memorize poems, has to jump off bridges into rivers, has to stand in an empty desert and whisper sonnets under his breath:

I'll tell you how the sun rose
A ribbon at a time...

It's a living book, this life; it folds out in a million settings, cast with a billion beautiful characters, and it is almost over for you. It doesn't matter how old you are; it is coming to a close quickly, and soon the credits will roll and all your friends will fold out of your funeral and drive back to their homes in cold and still and silence. And they will make a fire and pour some wine and think about how you once were . . . and feel a kind of sickness at the idea you never again will be.

So soon you will be in that part of the book where you are holding the bulk of the pages in your left hand, and only a thin wisp of the story in your right. You will know by the page count, not by the narrative, that the Author is wrapping things up. You begin to mourn its ending, and want to pace yourself slowly toward its closure, knowing the last lines will speak of something beautiful, of the end of something long and earned, and you hope the thing closes out like last breaths, like whispers about how much and who the characters have come to love, and how authentic the sentiments feel when they have earned a hundred pages of qualification.

And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you, about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn't it?

It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.

I want to repeat one word for you:

Leave.

Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn't it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don't worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.

 

Chapter One
Leaving

HOUSTON, TEXAS, AT NIGHT, AS SEEN FROM INTERSTATE 45, is something beautiful. The interstate approaches and collides with the city's center in a tight, second-level loop that hugs skyscrapers three-quarters around downtown before spinning off north toward Dallas and south toward the Gulf coast. It is, as you know, an enormous city, its skyline brilliant with architecture and light. A landlocked lighthouse on the flat surface of south Texas.

Tonight she shines. The towers are lit and the road is ours alone. A bank sign marks the time at 2:30 a.m., alternately flashing the temperature at seventy-three degrees. Houston has an empty feel to it at such an hour. Her size demands traffic and noise. But this is a southern city and people sleep at proper hours, leaving the landscape to changing street signals with nobody to obey their commands. Night travel is best. Mild, thick air pours through the windows like river water, flowing in circles around our heads. Paul and I are quiet, our thoughts muffled by the tin-can rattle of his 1971 Volkswagen camping van. We are traveling north toward Oklahoma and then, perhaps, the Grand Canyon. After that, we have no plans except to arrive in Oregon before we run out of money. We share a sense of excitement and freedom. Not a rebel freedom, rather, a deadline-free sort of peace. There is nowhere we have to be tomorrow. There is no particular road we have committed to take, and I suppose, if one of us could talk the other out of it, the canyon itself could be bypassed for some other pointof interest. Tonight we are travelers in the truest sense of the word, a slim notion of a final destination and no schedule to speak of. We are simply moving for motion's sake.

Our plans were shared with friends, but few understood. "Going off to find yourself" was the standard interpretation. I don't think that is really our point. We are shaped by our experiences. Our perception of joy, fear, pain, and beauty are sharpened or dulled by the way we rub against time. My senses have...


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Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Roadtrip Classic April 19 2006
Format:Paperback
I finished "Through Painted Deserts" last night and I was very happy with the book and I have one word to discribe the book - relaxed. I read it in multiple settings and was able to follow it very well from where I had left off. I loved how the book was so realistic and truthful about how Don discovered God through small incidents to the beauty of creation. I also enjoyed the book as well because it got a couple chuckles out of me and a longing to take a roadtrip like that.
Another excellent book by Donald Miller!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  86 reviews
44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mulling "Why" vs. "How" on the open road. Aug. 19 2005
By Erik Olson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I was a big fan of this book's original form, "Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance (PAVM)," when it came out in 2000. Either way, the premise remains the same: Donald Miller and his friend Paul leave Texas in a beat-up Volkswagen van to seek their destiny in Oregon. Along the way they experience cool places, meet interesting people, and wrestle with various life issues. I'm a Christian who loves to travel, so I liked the combination of a literal and spiritual journey. Five years later, Donald Miller has achieved a measure of fame by writing a couple of other Gen-X Christian bestsellers. Perhaps that gave him the clout to pull a Stephen King and rework a previously published book into "Through Painted Deserts." I read somewhere that his purpose this time around was to tell the real story of how the trip went. But there are no momentous revelations - only added flowery exposition, a new anecdote or two, and some cruder male bonding episodes (I sold my copy of "PAVM" awhile back, so I couldn't do a thorough comparison between the two).

The somewhat lofty new title (I liked the old one better) reflects a high-minded literary bent I don't remember from the first time around. There's a serious helping of purple prose about life, nature, and spirituality, especially in the first half or so. It got to be a bit much at times; the writer's admonition to "kill your darlings" came to mind. And some political comments, coupled with a favorable comparison of Northwest women vs. their Texan counterparts, indicate that he's become the Oregonian "granola" Paul accused him of being even before he got here. Between such banter (and a tiff or two), they get serious and discuss deeper Christian guy stuff about what they want in a wife, the meaning of a God-centered life, and so on. Within this context, Mr. Miller ruminates on Christianity's "why" answers to life vs. science's "how" answers. It wasn't quite a Schaeffer vs. Dawkins level of internal monologue, but it was good and relevant nonetheless.

Although I enjoyed seeing how time has affected Mr. Miller, I'm not sure why this book had to be written. Indeed, I wish the original had been re-released instead. Perhaps I've changed as well over five years, but there was something about his virgin effort that made a bigger impression on me. I think those that missed the first release (which I believe is out of print) would have liked following his spiritual and literary progression from "PAVM" through "Blue Like Jazz" and "Searching for God Knows What." But regardless of edition, the interpersonal interactions are real, and there's gold to be mined out of the expository passages. Plus, it was intriguing to get an outsider's description about my native region. I still trip out on the fact that he and Paul eventually wound up in my hometown and experienced more adventures there than I ever did.

"Through Painted Deserts" is a looking glass into a pivotal formative experience of Donald Miller's life. If you enjoyed his other books, and would like some insights into Mr. Miller's spiritual formation, than by all means check this one out. But get "PAVM" if you can track it down, if only to see how he was when he first started out.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Road Trip Book March 29 2006
By Jeff Benson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Retitled and re-released after Donald Miller's more recent and more successful books, this is a chronicle of a road trip taken by a young, searching person (the author) and his friend. They patch together a Volkswagon bus and hit the road, without a timeframe or a destination in mind. Their adventures are recounted here, and even though as far as adventures go they're pretty tame, the journey itself is the real point.

The book's message is powerful and struck me on a personal level: Just leave. Most of us don't see how small our lives are, how much we cling to the known, and how much we miss when we limit our horizons to the safe, to what common wisdom tells us is secure. It awakens something in me, the opening preamble of a wistful thought that has not yet found completion. Perhaps it's related to my turning 30 earlier in the year, but here it is, my favorite part and the introductory paragraph that told me I had to take the book home and begin reading it that night.

"Leave. ... Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn't it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don't worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed."
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A journey both physical and metaphysical July 14 2006
By Wesley L. Janssen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In this volume, Miller gently reminds the modernist that, in the final analysis, the big questions -- the 'why' questions -- determine whether the 'how' questions are important. Gently is the operative adverb.

Although I am not of the generation to whom this books is most naturally directed (older teens through thirty-somethings), and although I am an admitted so-called modernist (which is neither strictly good nor bad, but simply describes most westerners of the past three centuries), I find Donald Miller's observations to be important, consistently valid, and persistently fun. Here's a clip from the second chapter, which should give you a sense for Miller's prose:

"The trouble with you and me is that we are used to what is happening to us. We grew into our lives . . . never able to process the enigma of our composition. Think about this for a moment: if you weren't a baby and you came to earth as a human with a fully developed brain and had the full weight of the molecular experience occur to you at once, you would hardly have the capacity to respond in any cognitive way to your experience. But because we were born as babies and had to be taught to speak and to pee in a toilet, we think all of this is normal. Well, it isn't normal. Nothing is normal. It is all rather odd, isn't it, our eyes in our heads . . . the capacity to understand beauty, to feel love, to feel pain.
"If I do lose faith, that is if I do let go of my metaphysical explanations for the human experience, it will not be at the hands of science. I went to a Stephen Hawking lecture not long ago and wondered about why he thought we get born and why we die and what it means, but I left with nothing, save a brief mention of aliens as a possible solution to the question of origin. And I don't mean anything against Stephen Hawking, because I know he has an amazing brain . . . but I went wondering about something scientific that might counter mysterious metaphysical explanations, and I left with aliens."

The book is a kind of travelogue of a journey both physical and metaphysical; the details need not be related here. There are fanatical, reactionary 'christian' critics who love to hate Donald Miller, which is quite sad. A friend lent my daughter a copy of Miller's 'Blue Like Jazz,' she read it, my wife read it, I read it, my other two daughters read it -- which is honestly amazing, we have different tastes in books, yet we all enjoyed it and all might list it among our most recommendable. I think you'll enjoy 'Through Painted Deserts' and 'Blue Like Jazz' (unless you're a belligerent, religious nut, or a numb-hearted materialist). Miller inspires introspection, and does so with a light heart and a ready wit.

Paul: "You can't beat [Lynyrd] Skynyrd."
Don: "I could if I had a bat."
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Grand Canyon, visions of eggs over easy with a flour tortilla, and a Volkswagon van! Nov. 9 2005
By Wolfe Moffat - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Sometimes you hear the cruel, yet funny comment about when a person comes to Christ, it's AFTER they've sung 28 verses of "Just As I Am". I know when I've heard it said like that, a laugh usually resounds through the crowd of people you happen to be with. That's either because it's the same old story, or because people have heard it one too many times. But every so often, the right person just might sing "Just As I Am", and you can't believe it is the same song, because it is sung so beautifully. That's how this played out for me. You hear stories of roadtrips, but they wear thin after a time, and unless the right person tells the story, you kind of think, "Who cares?" But along comes Donald Miller and he makes an ordinary road trip, from Texas to Oregon into a pretty neat read.

And so, you spend a few days on the road, eating beans and rice. The Volkswagon breaks down every so often. You run into some interesting adventures. Don and Paul, two friends, traveling. One thing that strikes me is that they never do it alone, they are with each other the whole time. You come across crazy things, such as Don putting chewing gum over the dash where the check engine light is blazing. You feel the triumph of visiting the Grand Canyon, and the simple celebration of it with a bowl of Raisin Bran with ice cold milk. The simple joy of living life. The thought of just having "eggs over easy with a flour tortilla," as the Lyle Lovett songs speaks of.

Donald Miller speaks of truely living life, not just getting through it. It reminded me in some spots of a Gary Paulsen read. If you've ever read Paulsen, you can't compare too many writers to him. But this had it's moments, and that was worth something, at least 4 stars to me! So, take this pilgrimage for yourself, and get through the bumpy spots. You'll be glad you took the ride!
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What your looking for depends on what you will get with this book. July 8 2006
By Jason M. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
If you are looking for another theological book and Christian Spirituality, you most likely will not find it in this book by Don Miller. He attempts to make the book about the 'why' questions of religion and not the 'what' questions - and attempts to answer them with a trip from Houston to Oregon in a VW Wagon with a friend named Paul - but never seems to follow up on this attempt in any way that resolves properly.

He has a few 'deep' conversation that don't get very deep, aren't well developed, and leave you believing that the friendship Don and he shared was mostly left on the trail and not placed in the book. The character of Paul is left sounding a little stupid, while being lovingly described as being a greatly deep and spiritual person. Don's character is left sounding like everything in his life is a joke (albeit many of them funny - but some sounding very staged) and that he cannot finish a complete and deep thought to save his life. The deep thoughts are there, all right, and they come out in snippets, but as far as stringing together a coherent thought from concept to presentation - he just can't get the job done.

Much of the book is like this. He states early on that he hates journaling and from his recollection of his journey chronicled in this book, you can see that that is very true. The times he had look to be recreated many years and beers after the fact where he is left with a mash of good feeling to sort through instead of the crispness of the moment. Thus, you are left wishing he could take you there instead of tell you about it.

With all of this said, if you are looking for a good book about a journey of a young person who is trying to figure some deeper stuff out - this is it. I had a blast with this book and went into hoping for a travel type book. The writing is a little unpolished and newbie-ish - but this seems to leave you with the feeling that this could be you on this trip and writing this book.

I think this not only reflects where the writer was in his career (this is a republishing of a earlier book with a different title) as well as his intent. He stated that with the rewrite he wanted to leave the deeper theological books behind and just tell a travel story. He does that fairly well here. It is no opus, but it is a good tune.

If you are looking for a spiritual book, Blue Like Jazz, like every other reviewer recommends is you book. If you want a book to make you yearn for getting off your butt and going hiking, or road tripping, this is it.

I want to give this book 3.5 stars, but Amazon won't let me. The MAN has held me down. ;)
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