Trip Way, Way Out in the Desert in ‘Desert Oracle’

“It wasn’t supposed to go like this, wasn’t the plan at all.”

Well, that’s a hell of an opening sentence for any book, but especially one that’s a collection of the weird and the wonderful tales of the desert Southwest, where plans going poorly is often the hook of adventure. The book is Desert Oracle, by Ken Layne. And okay, that’s not technically the opening sentence of the book either, but it is the first line of the first story in this anthology of the arid and the weird. That story is about the unprepared and what the desert can do, and often does, to those who find themselves without water, without transportation, on a dusty, cracked two-track, their pursuit of an Instagram-filled weekend of posting gone suddenly, terribly, wrong.

The introduction begins with this: “Within these pages are many mysteries of the desert. Some are cruel and terrible, others sublime, and a persistent few remain inexplicable by our current metrics of understanding.” See, that’s kinda the whole book. One tantalizing lede after another across all 33 stories that ramble and wander through the desert, but never stumble, never get lost.

Layne was once a member of the digital pop culture literati, he was an owner of the hipster political website Wonkette, and wrote for Gawker and Awl. He’s lived in Joshua Tree, California, in the Mojave desert for nearly 20 years, and left behind his former life shoveling digital content into the internet maw about five years ago.

Now, he hosts a radio broadcast/podcast, and produces an occasional periodical, both called Desert Oracle, and this book of the same name is a collection of essays that appeared in those periodicals.

Take Layne’s hand, walk into the desert and be greeted by a host of dreamers, mystics, and wanderers. L. Ron Hubbard and his rocket scientist buddy who were trying to tear open a hole into space and time out there in the desert are in here. Edward Abbey gets two chapters. Tiburcio Vasquez, the real-life inspo for Zorro zips through the pages. Even old Wyatt Earp saunters in.

Did you know Charles Manson hoped to escape into a desert tunnel somewhere outside Death Valley, drawing his followers deep down to wait out the apocalypse he hoped to ignite above? He did, and his wanderings are chronicled here. Or how about in 1954 when President Eisenhower on a visit to Palm Springs disappeared and was reported to have died of a heart attack only to have the Associated Press quickly retract the story? The government said he’d had emergency tooth surgery, but the dentist they’d told reporters they took the president to had no recollection of working on Ike’s teeth. It just so happened that same evening, UFOs were spotted over the area. Was Ike whisked away for a secret meeting with aliens? Some of those roaming the desert today still think so.

UFOs play a fairly important role in this book. As do wandering monsters resembling Sasquatches and giant, mobile cacti—desert ghost stories. And it makes perfect sense. Part of the reason people go to the desert whether to visit or make their home there is the sense that anything can and does happen there. Boundaries between civilization and a kind of hostile, unknowable nature blur and shift at the margins of desert towns. Spend enough time out there, and you just might start believing in underground cities of gold patrolled by alien visitors.

“Our own species has always been fond of these harsh, arid places,” Layne writes in the introduction. “The first civilizations rose up from desert sands: Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley. The wilderness of antiquity was wild desert. And that’s where our philosophers and prophets went to meditate on mountaintops, to abandon society for awhile, and sleep under the stars or within limestone caves.”

And Layne means to convert the reader into a desert rat like himself. The desert, as fragile as it is formidable, needs all the help it can get, help that can only come from those who love the place.

“Out here, beyond the robotic grip of civilization in disarray and disrepair, I promise you will feel human again, if only for a little while. Should this experience of old wonder appeal to you, then you will be back as often as possible, and you may have no choice but to call the desert home. And if it’s home, you have no choice but to defend it.”

Anyway, it’s a fun, weird little page turner. 5 stars.

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