‘Try Not to Die’

Ken Layne examines how plans for a stylish, Instagram-worthy adventure can go wrong—very wrong—in this satirical excerpt from Desert Oracle, Volume 1.

desert oracle volume 1, ken layne
Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times

From Desert Oracle, Volume 1: Strange True Tales from the American Southwest

It wasn’t supposed to go like this, wasn’t the plan at all. The plan was to get out of town for a few days and explore the desert. Fill up the Instagram feed with abandoned gas stations and cracked asphalt two-lanes snaking through forests of Joshua trees. Beers at a roadhouse, impulse buys at a boutique on Highway 62, a night under the stars from the safety of an Airbnb hot tub or campfire ring.

And now it’s a late summer day, well over a hundred degrees, not a stylish swimming pool or outdoor cocktail bar in sight. You’ve been sitting in the car, the doors flung open, the burning air wrapped around you, suffocating and dense and so very dry. An empty cardboard coffee cup in the drink holder. An empty plastic water bottle crumpled under the seat. It is midday. Which means, in seven or eight hours, the ball of orange fire in the sky will finally sink behind the mountains and the temperature will sink down to ninety-five degrees or so, if you’re lucky.

Something gave out, the gas in the tank or the city tires or the transmission or maybe the rear axle, snapped in two by a boulder partially buried in the sand on this godforsaken dirt road you never meant to be on, never consciously chose to take at all. The voice of the navigation robot was as sure as ever: “Turn right at the gas station,” even though there was little left of that particular gas station, and the road itself was forlorn and untroubled by recent tire tracks. There was something you were headed for, an art exhibit on the open desert, a historic mining site, a location from a television show you remembered, a sweeping view of the national monument. It doesn’t matter now. Unless you write it down, nobody will ever know why you wound up dead on a rough sandy track that could charitably be called a jeep trail.

Even if they find your remains, which might not happen for years, your personal story will not be told. Maybe there will be a local news article somewhere. “Human Remains Found Hours from Nearest Settlement,” that kind of thing. If anybody remembers you, maybe they’ll clip it out of the newspaper, bookmark the website page. You had so much life left to live, so many things you never got around to doing. And now all you’re going to do is become a sunbaked skeleton picked over by vultures and ants, one bony hand stretched out ahead. Maybe at the end, you thought you were almost home. 

Excerpted from Desert Oracle, Volume 1: Strange True Tales from the American Southwest, by Ken Layne, published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, December 2020, copyright © 2020 by Ken Layne, all rights reserved.


Desert Oracle: Volume 1: Strange True Tales from the American Southwest, by Ken Layne

MCD Bookshop.org

Ken Layne publishes Desert Oracle and hosts its companion radio show and podcast from a haunted old compound in the great Mojave Wilderness, one of four American deserts he has called home.
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