"And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread."
I was in a physical desert, once. I was driving cross-country in an old Chevrolet with a girl named Patsy, 10 miles into the Mojave Desert in mid-July. The air temperature was well over 100 that day, and we had a six-pack of 7-Up ponies and two packs of Twinkies for the road. We were singing a Bob Seger song loudly and poorly when steam started rolling from beneath the hood and the car lost power.
I eased to the shoulder and got out to see what I could see---the heat stunned me when I stepped out onto the pavement. The shoulder felt soft beneath my feet. I popped the hood. No busted hoses, just water spitting up from the overflow and an impossibly hot radiator cap. I was only out there for 20 minutes before I started feeling light-headed and clammy. Damn. Too hot. I weaved to the passenger window and told Patsy to give me one of the 7-Ups.
"I drank them," she said.
"All of them? Just now?"
I told her to get out, we couldn't stay there, we'd die. We started trudging back toward Needles once I convinced her it was safe to get out of the car, that the rattlers were under rocks and even if they weren't they wouldn't rush out to bite her on the road. We were lucky; a family in a pickup truck going east pulled over and we crossed the sandy median and got in the back. A local shop towed the car and told me the radiator was clogged, that I shouldn't have filled it with water in Oklahoma because everybody knows Oklahoma water clogs radiators.
The rest of the trip up to Eureka (way up in northern CA) was a nightmare of driving 35 mph through the cold nights to keep the car as cool as possible, and sleeping in cheap motels with chugging air conditioners all day. Patsy fretted all the time, seemed she was scared of everything, and I started regretting making the trip with her. By the time we got past Monterrey, the car wouldn't go over 35 without overheating, and more than once I had to trudge back to some pond we'd passed 5 miles back to fill milk jugs with brown water just to squeeze a few more miles out of that car. We finally abandoned it in the parking lot of a bar in Los Gatos and caught a Greyhound bus the rest of the way.
But this was about the desert, wasn't it? Not Patsy, or that old car, or the wild careening ride in that Greyhound when I slept standing up, leaning against a tall Mexican lady who never seemed to notice me through her girth. I slept for 20 straight hours when we got to Eureka, and never spoke to Patsy again. She got a ride to San Francisco with some other man and flew back to Virginia. The first night after she left I wandered down to the ocean with a bunch of guys I met at the bar, and we built a fire out of driftwood and watched the phosphorescent surf curl up the sand, like a liquid glowstick.
It was cool up there, never hot, even in the middle of the day, and I said, "Sometimes a guy just needs this kind of thing," and told them to go on back without me and I slept on that beach. I woke up cold and wet, stinking of stale woodsmoke, but somewhere in the night the desert was swept out of me by the wind from the Pacific. I doubt a 7-Up would have done that.
I didn't believe in anything then, I just ran on instinct and the next best thing that came along, but I think I can look back at that night on the beach, listening to the fire and the other guys being silly and loud, but all I paid attention to was the wind off the ocean. It felt like it was blowing through me in a straight line, and behind it I felt the boom of the surf that sometimes made the sand tingle beneath me. I knew it was all way bigger than me, greater than me in a spiritual way that dumbfounded and comforted me. It was, I believe, my first and completely intuitive encounter with my God.
And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone.'"