There’s something about North America’s deserts that is difficult to put into words. Calling them weird, beautiful, foreboding, alluring, and so on doesn’t begin to accurately describe them. And as the writings of Mary Hunter Austin and Edward Abbey suggest, one must live in these arid landscapes to fully capture them and relate the stories they hold. Ken Layne settled in Joshua Tree in 2008, and his new book, Desert Oracle: Volume 1: Strange True Tales from the American Southwest, proves this notion true.
Layne’s writings serve as a field guide to a seemingly barren place that is paradoxically full of life and legends. He leads us into the Mojave Wilderness, a vast area containing gophers, coyotes, Yucca Man, a hermit ballerina, mysterious cacti, 10-foot-tall warriors, space aliens, and more.
Layne is a self-made desert sage. He was born in Louisiana and grew up in Phoenix and San Diego. In his early 20s, he bought a cabin near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and he has lived in the Sonoran, Colorado, and Great Basin Deserts as well as the Mojave, where he resides currently. He worked as a reporter in Southern California, became managing editor of the political blog Wonkette, published the novel Dignity, and then in 2015 founded Desert Oracle as a quarterly publication. This new book is a greatest hits of sorts, a compendium of 33 wild and weird stories from the quarterly as well as Layne’s podcast and weekly radio show (Fridays at 10 p.m. on KCDZ-FM, 107.7, in Joshua Tree).
Ken Layne joined Alta Asks Live on Wednesday, December 9, 2020.
As we noted in Alta, Summer 2019, Layne says that reading Desert Oracle is meant to be a visceral experience “like nearly stepping on a rattlesnake, or finding the fresh tracks of a mountain lion on a solo hike through a lonesome canyon.”
EXCERPT from “Hidden Cities and Secret Creatures of Death Valley”
It is the sort of story you sometimes hear after the whiskey has been passed around the campfire too many times, especially when hard-luck miners are in attendance. But at least one local Indian told a similar tale, also shared in Bourke Lee’s book: “A Timbisha guide named Tom Wilson claimed his grandfather entered an unknown tunnel along the Panamints and disappeared for three entire years.”
When he returned, he described a strange people who lived within the mountains and spoke an unknown language. They rode horses through the miles-long tunnels and dined well on foods unknown to Death Valley foragers. The grandfather was treated kindly and welcomed to stay, but eventually chose to return to his tribe. Tom Wilson had sought the entrance to this other world ever since.
John Wesley Powell, the great explorer of the Colorado River, was told a similar story in the 1860s while navigating the Grand Canyon. But in this version, the tribal elder was seeking his dead wife in an underworld peopled by a strange race. Powell was reportedly shocked, as the tale was nearly identical to the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Alta Journal caught up with Layne via email to discuss Desert Oracle.
Is there a central fact, mystery, or unanswered question from the first eight issues of Desert Oracle that inspired you to collect these 33 stories for the book?
The central mystery of the book is the desert itself, that peculiar American environment with its vast skies, strange wildlife, and the human characters drawn to the place whether for spiritual or criminal goals. About half the pieces first appeared in the periodical, with the rest starting off as campfire stories, radio essays, and desert-themed pieces I’d written for other publications.
Your book’s subtitle is Strange True Tales from the American Southwest. What is the strangest tale inside the collection?
The first desert place that really captured me was Death Valley, and two of the stranger and more ominous tales are set in that extreme environment: the 1920s-era story of a lost civilization discovered by a couple of miners, beneath the Panamint Mountains, and the far more sinister account of the Manson family planning to wait out the global apocalypse they’d begun by hiding in a secret paradise deep beneath Death Valley.
I’m guessing that the range of possible stories for Desert Oracle is as vast as the Mojave itself. What do you look for in deciding which strange tales to tell?
I live in the Mojave right now, but Desert Oracle has always been about the entirety of the American desert: Great Basin, Sonoran, Colorado, Chihuahuan, and Mojave. The periodical makes a point of moving around this landscape. And if I’m ever short of stories about the American deserts, there are plenty of deserts outside our borders.
What drew you to the Mojave Desert?
I’ve lived in the Mojave since 2008 and had this in mind since the 1980s, really since those first wanderings around Death Valley and Joshua Tree. It’s home. I need to feel a part of whatever environment I’m in, so I spend a lot of time wandering around, walking in the wilderness every day, driving a couple of hours for the hell of it. Empty roads and minimal people—I like it.
What has surprised you most about living in the Mojave?
It's surprising how people can live in this weird, beautiful place and barely notice [its magnificence]. A dozen years ago, it was tough to get on the internet, everything was far away, and it was easier to be separated from the rest of the world. More people were shaped by the environment, the climate, the isolation. Now it takes some effort.
When it comes to writing about the Southwest, Mary Austin and Edward Abbey loom large. What other writers should people read?
There are desert books in every genre, from the Bible to police procedurals. My interest is folklore, whether old or new, so I’m always looking for obscure old histories, first-person accounts. Edmund C. Jaeger, a pioneering desert biologist, wrote a lot of wonderful books that make the flora and fauna come alive. A weird character and excellent storyteller.
In addition to the Desert Oracle quarterly, you also produce a radio show and a podcast. How do you approach oral storytelling?
It’s all from the same effort: trying to catch some of the spirit of the place. In the right setting—sonically on the radio or physically around a campfire—hearing these desert stories is a very primal experience. The periodical is very deliberately designed to evoke this feeling of a distant voice of the desert.
What books are on your to-read-next list?
I don’t have a list like this. Books come all the time, and I read the ones that draw me in. The rest get donated.
Please give us the elevator pitch for your book.
Happily, when you publish your own periodical and produce your own radio show, you don’t need anybody’s permission beyond the approval of the audience.