We were out till sunrise and at six Mike had to work the breakfast shift. He tells us to come in for breakfast, but Paul and I have already eaten pretty well and need to hit the road.

"I can't thank you enough for letting us stay, Mike," I tell him.

"Dude, stick around," he says. "You've got nowhere to go."

"We're trying to get to Oregon. We should probably hit the road," I say.

"Oregon is only about eight hours away. Leave tomorrow."

I look over at Paul and he shrugs his shoulders. We are at the kitchen table and Mike's mom has made us coffee. Mike refills my cup.

"You're not putting me out," he says. "You always feel like that and it's not the case. What's the rush with Oregon anyway?"

"No rush, really. I've just wanted to see it and that's where we're heading, you know."

"Go if you want." Mike shrugs.

"I've got a better idea," I say. "Join us, Mike. Come with us."

"Yeah!" Paul says.

"I can't," Mike sighs.

"Why?" I ask.


Paul chimes in again: "Come with us, Mike. Have you ever been to Oregon?"

"Never been," he says.

"You'll love it."

"Mike," I begin, "we're going up to Ridgefield to see Danielle."

"The girl we met in Colorado?"

"Yes," I tell him.

"The girl in the red dress?" he asks, perking up.


"What red dress?" Paul asks.

"Go take a cold shower, Paul," I tell him.

"She's a babe," Mike says to Paul.

"I knew it," Paul says. "Tell me about her, Mike."

"Look at this guy," Mike says. "Acts like he's got a shot."

"She's that pretty, huh?" Paul says.

"She's that good-looking."

"Yeah, yeah, tell me more," Paul asks.

Mike starts explaining to Paul how we met Danielle. He tells him how smart she is and that she's a great soccer player. "We were all really close that summer in Colorado," he says. "We were inseparable. We'd climb Red Mountain for sunrise. She was funny, huh, Don?"

"She was funny?"

"Used to watch old black-and-white movies or something. But, man, that red dress."

"I know," I say.

"What red dress?" Paul asks.

"She had this red dress on, our last day there, long and formfitting, you know. Man, she looked good. All of us were like, um, maybe she isn't just a tomboy, you know."

"No kidding. There's a woman in there, for sure," Mike adds.

"I've got to meet this girl!" Paul exclaims. "Let's get out of here. Mike, come with us."

"Can't," he says. "I have to work. You guys have a good time." Mike meets my eye and holds a fist over the table. I tap his fist to mine. "Say hello to Danielle," he says.

With Paul at the wheel, we drive west to Interstate 5 that will take us through Oregon and into Portland.

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The van enjoys the flatness of the valley. We found our pace about one hundred miles ago and the van has not wavered, choked, or coughed in complaint since. We are sailing through America's bread basket, cabbage and beets and fruit trees and fields of grapes.

Paul tells me we should make Oregon by sunset, and then Portland before midnight, or shortly thereafter. I ask him if we intend to drive the night, and he shakes his head, saying he doesn't know if he can make it.

"Is this a pilgrimage?" I ask my friend.

"A pilgrimage?" he asks.


"What do you mean?" he inquires.

"Are we on a spiritual pilgrimage?"

"I don't know. I don't know what a pilgrimage is, I guess."

"I think it's when you are looking for the answer to something, or when you are trying to figure out God," I tell him.

"Are you trying to figure out God?" Paul asks.

"I don't know. I think I did, a bit, back in the canyon, but then you have to kind of jump into it, don't you? I mean, you have to see and believe the world is God's, that He is there and He made it for us. You have to see things poetically."

"What was all that crap you were talking about with Mike's mom? All that stuff about making out with your girlfriend?" Paul asks.

"I don't know," I tell him. "I don't really feel like being on a pilgrimage yet."

"You don't feel like looking for God?" he asks.

"No," I say. "I don't. I mean I know He is there, but what if I want life to be about something it isn't? What if I want life to be about getting paid and getting married or just being happy in the pagan sense?"

"Getting paid?" Paul asks, shrugging his shoulders. "I don't know. Just because you want life to be something doesn't mean that is what it is. What if life is about something else, and it doesn't matter what we think?"

"I know what life is about. But what if I don't like it?" I say.

"Tough, I guess. It is what it is."

"What if that sucks?" I ask.

"What if it does?" he says. "I guess there isn't anything you and I can do about it. It's like you were saying, you know, about having to take a crap and being born with somebody else's DNA and all, life is just what it is, and it isn't like we are given a lot of freedom."

"Gravity and all that crap," I say.

"Gravity and all that," Paul confirms. "Not a lot of options."

"And that sucks," I say, putting my hand out the window to cup the wind.

"What if it doesn't suck?" Paul says.

"What do you mean?"

"What if, you know, if we just give in to it, and say this is what it is, then it gets good, and it's fighting it that makes it so bad."

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I think about that for a second but don't know how much I like it. It feels like we don't have a lot of options. And don't get me wrong, I feel like life is good, but it just feels like, as a human, we aren't given a lot of options. It feels like, outside a relationship with God, you know, life doesn't mean anything. Which is fine, but what if you just want a little break? And I know this sounds terrible, but what if?

"I think that sucks," I say after a few minutes. Paul lets everything be silent. He is putting his free hand out the window now, cupping the air.

"You on a pilgrimage, Don?" he asks.

"I don't know," I tell him.

"You on a pilgrimage?" I ask.

Paul doesn't answer for a second. "Maybe we're all on a pilgrimage," he says. "Maybe it's all one trip, one big road trip through the cosmos, through the nothingness. Maybe we're all going somewhere. Or really, maybe we are all being taken somewhere."

"Where are we going?" I ask.

"Maybe it isn't for us to decide, just to give in to it."

"What is it?" I ask.

"It is whatever God wants it to be," Paul says. "Maybe we are just supposed to trust that He won't beat us up when we get there. Maybe we are supposed to trust that He is good."

"Maybe so," I say. And after that we don't talk about it anymore. I start closing my eyes to try to get some sleep but it is useless. I lean back in my seat and look out over the miles and miles of farmland, all the green stretching back behind us, out toward the mountains, all the earth making all those crops, everything happening in its own time, a sustainable planet held together by some kind of mystery that physicists call Mother Nature, as if to pretend they aren't all believing fables. As if to pretend we aren't all believing fables.

"You tired?" I ask.

"Very tired. We didn't get much sleep last night."

"I know. I'm feeling a little tired too."

"You think you could drive?" Paul asks.

"How far is Oregon?"

"About three more hours. We should hit mountains pretty soon. They aren't too big, but we should start seeing them."

"I can drive," I tell him.

Paul pulls the van to the shoulder. He gets out and stretches, bending over and arching his back. He sets his hands against his sides and leans backward. I slide over into the driver's seat as Paul gets in on the passenger's side.

Steering the van back to the road, we rock and sway, bumping over the edge of the shoulder. I look over at Paul and only a mile down the road he is sleeping. I speak his name and get no answer. His mouth is open a little. He's out.

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Fifty more miles has us in hill country and approaching mountains. We've been out of Visalia for six hours now. If Mike was right, we should hit Oregon pretty soon. These hills are thick with evergreen. Redwoods line the road. The trees become enormous within fifty miles, tall and broad at their bases, and the ground has the look that it is permanently wet.

Another two hours down the road and Paul is still asleep. The interstate has woven through the redwoods and I've gotten some energy off the change in landscape, the shift to cool, moist air and the feel of Narnia. The mountains have given way to subtler slopes, but we go up and down all the same. Gradual climbs and quick descents. I start thinking again about what Paul was saying, about how we have to submit to whatever God has us on this journey for, about how we just have to agree that it is all His. And I know God made stars and friends and love and poetry to dazzle us, but there really is a part of me that wants some freedom, that doesn't want to have to do everything right or be religious anymore. It's not a serious struggle, but it's like I said about how and why questions, when you know the why, you are just kind of trapped, and when you only ask how and never ask why, you can be happy and ignorant. Even if God is taking the cosmos somewhere good, I begin to wonder what He does with folks who just want out.

* * *

After another hour, driving into the night, my eyes grow heavy and my mind has trouble staying in the now. A forest kind of dark has laid itself over the landscape. There is moonlight in the sky, but it's having trouble sifting through the tall trees to find the road. I find myself having to be very intentional about staying in my lane when a car comes at us from the distance. I find myself justifying a quick closing of the eyes, catch myself thinking about my eyes being shut, then open them quickly, and shake my head to wake myself up. But it's no use. I'm fading.

For a change I weave between lanes, running my tires over the divider reflectors. The thumps give me a jolt and that helps a bit. I roll down the window and stick my head out like a dog. I sing to myself. I talk to Paul, who is asleep in the back now. I honk the horn. I talk to the trees. Something ahead catches my eye. I slow, pull the van to the shoulder, and park it like a car at a drive-in movie. A large brown sign stands some thirty feet in the air, reading "Welcome to Oregon." I pull the van off the road and park underneath it, get out, and smell the clean air. I walk into the forest a few feet and take a pee. I zip up my pants and stand real still to feel the silence. I walk back over to the van and slide the door open, climb over Paul, and lay my head on a pillow.

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Used by permission. Adapted from Through Painted Deserts by Don Miller (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Copyright 2005).

Related Elsewhere:

Through Painted Deserts is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.

Christianity Today has a special section on pilgrimage and travel.