In late August, smoke from the California wildfires made it difficult for Ken Layne to step outside his home in Joshua Tree, California. But that didn’t stop the writer and producer from doing what he does every week: recording Desert Oracle, a radio program that airs each Friday evening on California’s KCDZ 107.7 FM and also as a podcast. “I have no doubt the climate situation will be fixed by the same species that got us here: humans,” he told his listeners in a nasally voice backed by eerie synth music that one might expect to hear in a sci-fi film. “The question is this: does this happen when you’re alive or after you’re gone?” By the middle of the episode, Layne was on a different topic entirely, asking listeners if they’d like to conduct a psychic experiment with him.
Desert Oracle is hard to explain. For one thing, it’s not just a radio show—it’s also a (more or less) quarterly print periodical with the same name. Both mediums cover an odd mix of desert-related miscellany, from the political and paranormal to the historical and environmental. In any given episode or issue, Layne might dive into the dangers of consumer culture or the strange dreams he’s having because of the pandemic. But mostly he focuses on local lore: stories of missing hikers, ghost stags, and Yucca Man sightings (the regional equivalent of Bigfoot). The project’s tagline is “The Voice of the Desert.”
The desert is a strange and complicated place, and the depth and weirdness with which Layne explores it has earned the radio show and publication a cult following. The print periodical has more than 3,700 subscribers throughout the United States, and another 3,000 to 4,000 copies are distributed in shops in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. The podcast carries a five-star rating, with more than 430 reviews on Apple Podcast. And this month, MCD Books, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is releasing a collection of the periodicals as Desert Oracle, Volume One: Strange True Tales from the American Southwest.
“We are a fractured and confused people in this strange century,” Layne writes in the collection. “Most of what once connected us to a place—knowledge of the land and the animals, origins of the regional beasts and abominations, shared rituals and traditions—has been lost or taken away. We are strangers in our own land. But it doesn’t have to be like that.”
For 30 years, Layne, now 54, maintained a successful career as a journalist and political blogger, co-founding several tabloid and alt-news publications, like Tabloid.net and LAExaminer.com (both now defunct). He garnered the most notoriety in the early 2000s while working with Gawker Media and later as co-owner of political satire site Wonkette.
In 2014, Layne decided to leave digital media behind. “My sense was that nobody who is consuming digital content really cared if the writing was good,” he says. Less than a minute after one of his articles would be posted on Gawker, there would be 100 comments. Nobody was actually reading the stories.
At 48, he wanted to do something more meaningful. It took Layne about a year to figure out what that should be. He decided on two things: First, he wanted to create an old-fashioned print periodical, believing that people who put the time and effort into purchasing something would make a better readership. Second, the project was going to combine all the things that mattered to him: desert history, conservation efforts, and the paranormal.
Layne moved to Joshua Tree in 2003 and has been enamored with the desert since he was a kid. But until this point, it hadn’t played much of a role in his career. “You get to a certain age, and you realize you don’t have a lot of time left to put off starting over again, if you’re going to do it,” he explains.
So he made the jump and started building his new publication. Layne settled on the name Desert Oracle, a nod to the sometimes ominous-sounding names of 19th-century newspapers and to the town in Arizona where one of Layne’s idols, writer and explorer Edward Abbey, kept a post office box.
Initially, Layne didn’t put much thought into the traditional meaning of the word “oracle’’: a priest or priestess through whom a deity speaks. But as the project grew, he realized he had become a voice in the wilderness, warning listeners about the dangers of humanity’s lack of purpose and our tendency to ignore signs that we’re killing our planet.
Even the ghost stories that fill Desert Oracle’s pages and soundbites serve a greater purpose: saving the desert. “The mission of Desert Oracle is desert and wilderness conservation,” Layne told me in an email. He often sneaks the conservation messages into his show and his publications. The first issue, published in 2015, included a list of small desert land trusts that readers could support. “I’ve been doing stuff with the Mojave Desert Land Trust since then, too, and I like to believe I’ve injected some lifelong conservation and ecology ideas into people’s heads,” Layne continued in the email.
And the desert needs saving. Massive population growth in the Southwest has put increased stress on limited water supplies and other natural resources. That overuse, combined with climate change, is leading to longer periods of drought, higher temperatures, and an increased risk of forest fires. This year, tens of thousands of desert acres have burned in unprecedented wildfires, and the Joshua tree became the first plant to earn government protection because of climate change.
Layne is not alone in combining environmental activism with the spiritual or paranormal. The U.S. environmental movement has early roots in the spiritual, starting with the transcendentalists. Layne points to John Muir as an example: he was a mystic, transcendentalist, and early environmental activist. “He really explicitly connected spiritual pursuit, and particularly an American Western open-air approach to spirituality and ecstatic experience, with the preservation of wild places,” Layne says.
There’s just something about the desert’s spaciousness, its quiet, its dangerousness, and its staggering beauty that appeals to seekers of all kinds.
Layne has seen and heard a lot of strange things in the desert: dresser drawers opening on their own 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 dead bodies. For Layne, the paranormal and the spiritual are two sides of the same coin, and as he explains on his radio show, “Anybody who spends much time in the High Desert eventually has some sort of experience with the anomalous.”
The desert has a history of attracting those seeking purpose or answers. As Layne pointed out in our interview, there’s a reason the prophets of most major religions sought out the desert landscape. There’s just something about its spaciousness, its quiet, its dangerousness, and its staggering beauty that appeals to seekers of all kinds.
Not all of those seekers have good intentions, however. Desert Oracle also tells the stories of cults that have formed in the Mojave, such as the one that inspired Charles Manson. He includes the stories as “an acknowledgment that the things that push and pull people tend to be somewhat universal, and seekers are maybe a little easier to get involved in something that they’ll later regret.”
After this historic year, perhaps more people than ever are seeking purpose, or simply an escape, and the desert has a little something for everyone. If you want to have an experience with a UFO, a ghost, or God, the Mojave is a good place to go, and Desert Oracle can be your guide. The periodical is an invitation to explore the desert, and Layne made it intentionally pocket-sized so you can carry it with you. “The publications that you can put in your jeans pocket or whatever you’re wearing when you’re walking are the ones that usually get read, even if it’s not the best, right?” he says. “I wanted it to be small and kind of intimate.”
Layne’s not-so-secret hope is that those who learn about the desert and choose to explore it will also fall in love. As Layne says in his introduction to the new collection, “If this landscape affects your soul in this manner, you may have no choice but to join the noble and holy effort…because when you love a place that is what you do.”