In late August, smoke from the California wildfire made it difficult for Ken Layne to step outside his Joshua Tree, California home. But that didn’t stop the writer and producer from doing what he does every week: recording Desert Oracle, a radio program that airs every Friday night on California’s KCDZ 107.7 FM and also as a podcast. “I have no doubt that the climate situation will be remedied by the same species that brought us here: humans,” he told his audience in a nasal voice supported by eerie synth music that you would find in science fiction Film could expect. “The question is, does this happen when you’re alive or after you’ve left?” In the middle of the episode, Layne was dealing with a completely different topic and asked the audience if they would like to conduct a psychological experiment with him.
Desert Oracle is hard to explain. For one thing, it’s not just a radio show, but also a (more or less) quarterly print magazine with the same name. Both media cover a strange mix of desert-related diversity, from political and paranormal to historical and ecological. In any episode or issue, Layne could delve into the dangers of consumer culture or the strange dreams he’s had because of the pandemic. But mostly it focuses on local lore: stories of missing walkers, ghost deer, and Yucca Man sightings (the regional equivalent of Bigfoot). The slogan of the project is “The Voice of the Desert”.
The desert is a strange and complicated place, and the depth and craziness with which Layne explores it has earned the radio show and release a cult following. The print magazine has more than 3,700 subscribers in the US and an additional 3,000 to 4,000 copies are sold in stores in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. The podcast has a five-star rating with over 430 reviews on the Apple Podcast. And this month, MCD Books, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, publishes a collection of the journals as Desert Oracle, Volume 1: Strange True Tales from the American Southwest.
“We are a broken and confused people in this strange century,” writes Layne in the collection. “Most of what once connected us to a place – knowledge about land and animals, the origin of regional beasts and atrocities, common rituals and traditions – has been lost or taken away. We are strangers in our own land. But it doesn’t have to be that way. ”
Layne, 54, was a successful journalist and political blogger for 30 years and co-founded several tabloid and alt-news publications such as Tabloid.net and LAExaminer.com (both now discontinued). His greatest fame was in the early 2000s when he worked with Gawker Media and later as a co-owner of the political satire site Wonkette.
In 2014, Layne decided to leave digital media behind. “My feeling was that if the writing was good, nobody who consumes digital content really cares,” he says. There were 100 comments less than a minute after one of his articles was posted on Gawker. Nobody actually read the stories.
At 48, he wanted to do something bigger. It took Layne about a year to figure out what that was supposed to be. He chose two things. First, he wanted to create an old-fashioned print magazine, believing that people who put the time and effort into buying something would create a better readership. Second, the project was supposed to combine all the things that were important to him: desert history, conservation efforts, and the paranormal.
Layne moved to Joshua Tree in 2003 and has been in love with the desert since childhood. But up until that point it hadn’t played a huge role in his career. “You reach a certain age and you realize that you don’t have much time to start over if you want to do it,” he explains.
So he made the leap and started building his new publication. Layne chose the name Desert Oracle, a nod to the sometimes ominous-sounding names of 19th century newspapers and the Arizona city where one of Layne’s idols, writer and explorer Edward Abbey, kept a mailbox.
At first Layne did not give much thought to the traditional meaning of the word “oracle”: a priest or a priestess through whom a deity speaks. But as the project grew, he realized he had become a voice in the wilderness and warned listeners of the dangers of the futility of humanity and our tendency to ignore signs that we are killing our planet.
Even the ghost stories that fill the pages and soundbites of Desert Oracle serve a bigger purpose: saving the desert. “Desert Oracle’s mission is to protect the desert and wilderness,” Layne told me in an email. He often sneaks the conservation messages into his show and publications. The first issue, published in 2015, included a list of small desert land trusts that readers could support. “I’ve been working with the Mojave Desert Land Trust since then, and I like to believe that I put some ideas in people’s heads for lifelong conservation and ecology,” Layne continued in the email.
And the desert must be saved. The massive population growth in the southwest has placed increasing strain on limited water supplies and other natural resources. This overuse, combined with climate change, leads to longer periods of drought, higher temperatures and an increased risk of forest fires. This year tens of thousands of acres of desert burned in unprecedented forest fires, and the Joshua Tree was the first plant to receive government protection due to climate change.
Layne isn’t the only one who associates environmental activism with the spiritual or the paranormal. The US environmental movement has early roots in the spiritual, starting with the transcendentalists. Layne cites John Muir as an example: he was a mystic, transcendentalist, and early environmental activist. “He really tied the spiritual pursuit, and in particular an American Western open-air approach to spirituality and ecstatic experience, to the preservation of wild places,” says Layne.
There is only something about the vastness of the desert, its tranquility, its dangerousness and its breathtaking beauty that appeals to seekers of all kinds.
Layne has seen and heard many strange things in the desert: dresser drawers that open by themselves in an old building in Death Valley Junction; a vanishing car on a country road; strange lights in the sky over the exact area where hikers would later discover two bodies. For Layne, the paranormal and the spiritual are two sides of the same coin, and as he explains on his radio show: “Anyone who spends a lot of time in the High Desert has at some point some experience with the abnormal.”
The desert in the past has drawn those looking for purposes or answers. As Layne pointed out in our interview, there was a reason the prophets of most major religions visited the desert landscape. There is only something about its spaciousness, its tranquility, its dangerousness and its breathtaking beauty that appeals to seekers of all kinds.
Not all of these seekers have good intentions, however. Desert Oracle also tells the stories of cults that formed in the Mojave, such as those that inspired Charles Manson. He includes the stories as “an affirmation that the things people push and pull are usually somewhat universal, and seekers may become somewhat more easily involved in something they will later regret.”
After this historic year, more people than ever may be seeking a purpose or simply an escape, and the desert has something for everyone. If you want an experience with a UFO, ghost, or god, the Mojave is a good place and Desert Oracle can be your guide. The magazine is an invitation to explore the desert, and Layne has purposely made it pocket-sized for you to take with you. “The publications that you can put in your jeans pocket or whatever you carry while walking are usually read even if it’s not the best, right?” he says. “I wanted it to be small and intimate.”
Layne’s not entirely secret hope is that those who learn about the desert and explore it will also fall in love. As Layne says in his introduction to the new collection, “When this landscape affects your soul in this way, you may have no choice but to join the noble and sacred endeavor … because if you love a place, you do too. “
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Main Photo: Courtesy of Ken Layne