By Ken Layne,
MCD & Farrar, Straus, Giroux
There’s a voice beaming over the Mojave, coming from a small radio station in Joshua Tree, California, that once a week offers some insight into the weirdness and mystery that characterize American deserts. It’s the Desert Oracle Radio. It’s also a podcast and quarterly magazine. And now it’s a book.
But the path from a magazine to a hardcover collection of essays, Desert Oracle Volume 1: Strange, True Tales from the American Southwest wasn’t quick or straightforward.
“I had very few buyers or subscribers for a couple of years. But I printed the extra [magazine issues] as most publishers will do,” said Ken Layne, the author of the book and the writer, editor, and publisher behind Desert Oracle.
“Once more people started subscribing to the magazine, listening to the radio show, they bought up all the back issues, which I was kind of living off of for a while.”
With some exposure and write-ups in major national outlets, the popularity of the magazine grew and listeners clamored for more.
“Suddenly, I had no more stock. So the idea with the book was to take some of the bigger pieces and the pieces that people talked about. And mix those with some new things,” Layne said.
True to form, Layne was taking a stroll on one of the desert trails around Joshua Tree during our call.
The essays are a result of a lifetime of love for desert landscapes, lore, and wildlife. There’s no patronizing talk about protecting wild areas. Instead, there’s a narrative that blends history, science, and the unexplained.
“I want to encourage the continued protection of these places. And there’s a lot of dry scientific reasons why it’s good for everybody. And I try to avoid those because there’s plenty of environmental groups or whatever, who tell you how important stuff is for carbon sinks or wildlife corridors, clean national parks and forests,” Layne said.
“And it just happens to be my personal mix of interest. I love folklore and I love the land. And I don’t think there’s any line separating them. In fact, it’s a very modern idea that land conservation is a science removed from the history and folklore and legends of a place.”
And for all the stories of UFOs and sasquatch-like creatures (called the Yucca Man in the Mojave), the most bizarre, fantastical, and intriguing remain the stories with flesh-and-blood people at the center.
“We’re always the weirdest animals,” Layne agreed. And weird we are indeed.
Doc Springer, a “self-appointed doctor of medicine and theology,” a peddler of a modern-era snake oils for body and soul, or Marta Beckett, a ballerina, who “found a place as creepy as her imagination” – an old community hall in Death Valley Junction she renamed Amargosa Opera House – are among the few who stand out.
But long before white settlers made it all the way out there, original peoples braved it well, with traces of their art and civilization still drawing in newcomers. “What is known is that people have lived in Pahrangat Valley [Utah] for at least twelve thousand years…Those first inhabitants were the Patayan and Anasazi,” we read in the book.
As I read through the essays, I couldn’t help but think that the desert is, ultimately, an accepting place. It may be dangerous, but it seems inviting. That is if you have the right mindset. And historically, the desert has been an escape for misfits, or those who have a legitimate reason to run away from it all. It’s an inspiration, and quite often a spiritually liberating place.
It can bring out the best and the worst in men. It holds a certain kind of grip on the imagination and after decades of romanticizing the desert, followed by pop culture phenomena such as UFOs and a conspiracy theories of all kinds, it appears to promise answers for those who seek them.
Aleister Crowley, famous occultist, old western marshall Wyatt Earp, L. Ron Hubbard, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab cofounder Jack Parsons are just a few characters whose paths cross, in one way or another, in a single essay. These individuals were both drawn to the desert’s mysteries and contributed to its myths.
“There’s still pockets like the small, small towns that have just immense amounts of public land, surrounding them in between them in the next settlement, like Panamint Springs, outside of Death Valley, or Ely, Nevada, which is close to the Utah line. And so they do still tend to attract people who don’t need this society as much as those who reject society,” Layne said.
Deserts were also a crucible for a lot of modern America’s culture – from music to pop culture, to the nation’s dedication, at times wavering, to wildlife preservation.
Just think of the beatnik prophet William S. Burroughs, whose formative years were spent at an all boys ranch school in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Years later that very facility would become a home of the U.S. nuclear weapons program and usher an atomic era that heavily influenced Burroughs’ dystopian work.
Another champion of the American deserts was Alan Cranston, a former U.S. Senator from California. Later in his career he would become responsible for the introduction of the California Desert Protection Act, a law that turned Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments into national parks and added a new one (Mojave National Preserve) to the list.
Layne is far from romanticizing the desert himself but rather lets it do its own bidding and there are plenty of wonders to go around – from natural to supernatural.
But he’s far more interested in telling you about the discovery of a Poorwil, “… a bird that has not forgotten its dinosaur heritage,” a creature so bizarre we’re still not sure about its ways, than convincing you space aliens are real at any cost.
His style is crisp and straighforward, the proverbial fat is trimmed and his conversational tone pulls you in. That’s the payoff of thoroughly researched writing and an understanding of its mechanics. You get more with less.
“Stories was everything and everything was stories,” Harry Crews, a Southern author once said about the people he grew up around in rural Georgia. “Everybody told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was their understanding of themselves. It was letting themselves know how they believed the world worked, the right way and the way that was not so right.”
I think the Desert Oracle, in all of its incarnations, follows in that tradition of storytelling, from ancient to modern times. Whatever mysteries it tackles, it reveals more about ourselves than anything else.