Day three: Barstow, CA

By Tom Ehrich

BARSTOW, CA -- The road sign east of Bakersfield said, "World's sweetest oranges," so I stopped for two of their finest.

I asked the exuberant clerk when I would hit the Mojave Desert. He said, "25 miles ahead." Is there any road across other than the four-lane? "No, not really."

I wondered if they tore up the old highways when they put in new. As if the vast arid expanse of the Mojave could only handle one road at a time.

Never mind. Just as I took several wrong turns yesterday and had to change my route, so today I would have to set aside my plan to avoid four-lane highways. Desert-crossers can't dictate the terms.

Even from an SUV on a busy highway, the Mojave gave me appreciation for what early pioneers endured as they chased gold and farmland in California. Scrub brush (creosote bush, I learned later), rocks, everything dry and hard, mountains looming in the distance as a reminder that it could be worse.

I did wander off the road and through the town of Mojave, near Edwards Air Force Base, and discovered desert with small houses in place of brush. I wondered, perhaps uncharitably, what Washington poobahs think when they travel here to watch test pilots try out new military aircraft.

After two days on the road through California-beyond-cities, I recognize some basic truths: eat when you see food, don't mess around with stops that should have motels but don't, stay within reach of Interstate junctions.

I also rethink my general dream of reflecting deeply while I drive. The road here is too demanding for wool-gathering. Pay attention or die. It reminds me of experiences like parenting infants and moving to a new house: get through it as gracefully as you can, and think about it afterward.

That's quite Biblical, of course. The books of the Bible read like a combination of history and travelogue. In fact, it was centuries later when writers sought to make sense of their present day by remembering, even inventing, their past. Biblical literalists are wasting their time when they read Genesis and Exodus, for example, as historical documents.

So it probably will be with this journey across America. I will store up glimpses and shreds of recollection, and then stop for the night and make sense of them, and then later, back home, I will see the themes and threads of the journey.

What do I see of God thus far? A Creator with a rich imagination. Parent of a people who press on through life and difficult terrain. Not sitting in prim judgment over people who take wrong turns or fail to catch the finest wave. A God who helps a man waiting for food at Grill It to give respectful attention to an odd man talking compulsively.

I see a generous God, not the pinched and parched brute imagined by people who want God to loathe whatever they loathe. This God is helping people cross their deserts, not scornfully monitoring their sex lives and doctrinal correctness.

A desert requires compassion and forgiveness.