Ken Layne opens Desert Oracle, Volume 1: Strange True Tales from the American Southwest with a message of caution—or, perhaps, of inevitability. “It wasn’t supposed to go like this,” he writes in second person, using direct address to project the fate of an imagined Mojave Desert visitor whose car breaks down at the height of day. The scene is a setup, really, for a list of tips on traveling safely. (“Water, and lots of it,” Layne insists. And: “Don’t waste that phone charge!”) But it lingers because of its specificity. “You had so much life left to live,” Layne laments, “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.”
For Layne, the desert’s danger, its desolation, is part of what makes the landscape so alluring. “The most stunning parts of the Mojave Desert, both natural and man-made,” he enthuses, “are nearly always empty of people.” In Desert Oracle, Volume 1, he gathers 33 accounts of folklore, history, and personalities, ranging from the supernatural to the mundane. There is Yucca Man, “eight feet tall, an unbearable stench, the eyes glowing like red coals”—a southwestern version of the Sasquatch that has appeared in a variety of guises and under a variety of names. There is poor Jared Negrete, a 12-year-old boy who got separated from his Boy Scout troop on a 1991 hike near Big Bear.
Searchers, Layne informs us, “found his canteen, his beef jerky, wrappers from candy, some footprints that matched his shoes.” They also found Jared’s camera, which held one shot taken after he got lost. “Only his eyes and nose appear in the photo,” Layne reports. “Even without the emotional clue of the mouth, the picture is heavy with dread. His eyes are haunted by dire circumstance. It is the last glimpse of a boy who was never seen again.”
If you’re familiar with Layne’s work, you know he has a taste for such stories; there are many in this book. Most come from his quarterly digest Desert Oracle, which he began in January 2015. (Since 2017, he has also produced a weekly radio show, Desert Oracle Radio, which airs on Joshua Tree’s “only radio station” on Friday nights.) And yet, to think of Desert Oracle, Volume 1 as a compendium is to miss the point.
Layne’s digests, after all, can be hard to come by. He distributes them himself to a network of small shops “scattered across the Southwest.” Whatever else it might be, then, this volume functions as a reclamation project, a way to showcase his work for a wider audience, to bring the desert home to everyone.
And why not? “A revelation in the desert is available,” Layne notes, “in our time.” In support of this, he not only tracks mysteries and odd encounters but also fills in the cultural record, devoting one entry here to Marty Robbins, the cowboy singer who wrote and performed the country classic “El Paso,” and another to Beat writer William S. Burroughs, who as a boy attended boarding school at the same Los Alamos, New Mexico, facility where Robert Oppenheimer would later test the first atomic bomb.
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” Oppenheimer recalled of the experience, quoting the Bhagavad Gita. “I suppose we all thought that, one way or another,” he explained. Like many in the desert, he considered himself a mystic. It is a point of view with which Layne, to some extent, identifies. Among his heroes is Edward Abbey—the subject of two essays in this collection—the curmudgeonly novelist and conservationist who died in 1989 at age 62.
“Let it all simmer for thirty years and it becomes the whole American desert, with its starkly gorgeous landscapes and beautiful myths and stucco strip malls and endless political jabbering about the same half dozen subjects,” Layne writes of Abbey’s work, which includes the groundbreaking environmental memoir Desert Solitaire (1968) and the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975).
The sublime and the ridiculous, in other words.
A similar observation might be made about this book, which traverses “the desert so vast yet so vulnerable, high culture and low culture and no culture, country songs and western movies, flute concertos and European philosophy, Coors cans bouncing off the asphalt and into the Russian thistle, Baskin-Robbins girls in air-conditioned shopping centers, and hairy old satyrs drunk around the campfire again.” What Layne is describing is the desert as vernacular. Or maybe as a mirror, reflecting back at us our most elemental selves.
In that sense, Desert Oracle, Volume 1 seeks not to explain the desert but more to illustrate the ways it cannot be explained. “Contacts in early human civilization established a protocol,” Layne writes, “a pantheon of tricksters and saviors and jealous gods demanding sacrifice and allegiance.” This is the desert as it was, but also, he suggests, as it remains. It is the last frontier of human mystery and weirdness, a place where “people see things…if they come with the right kind of eyes.”