How Ken Layne Created a Publishing Oasis in a Desert Town of 8,000 People

Ken Layne's quarterly magazine, Desert Oracle, tries to give readers a sense of the profound solitude—and weirdness—of the Mojave Desert.
By Max Genecov,

On a clear Wednesday morning in January, Ken Layne arrives at his tiny converted homesteader cabin office of the Desert Oracle in Joshua Tree, California, to find a very fat dead cat outside the front door. Layne doesn't know to whom the cat belongs—well, belonged—or why the cat was left dead on his porch, but there it is.

Layne lets out a grunt and, after stepping past the cat and dropping his bag at his desk, he is back out the front door, off to grab a morning coffee. During the walk to the café, Layne barks into his phone at Siri, working through different permutations of the phrase "San Bernardino County Animal Control." Eventually, he gets through to the proper authorities. When Layne returns to his office, this time with coffee in hand, he finds the cat is still there. Animal control's sluggish response time isn't entirely unexpected. There's a lot of wide-open space in San Bernardino County, the largest county in the entire United States. That's especially true in Joshua Tree, a town of 8,000 year-round residents; in the vast expanse of the Mojave Desert, it can take a while to get from Point A to Point B.

Back now inside the office (where the cat's smell seems to have seeped through the walls), Layne rummages through the objects on his cluttered desk, surveys the boxes of issues ready to ship, and tunes his satellite radio to the Tom Petty station. The workday has begun.

Since his days as a child living on the suburban edges of Phoenix, Arizona, looking out on the unpeopled expanse outside his window, Layne has harbored a deep love for the desert. As a boy, Layne went to a summer camp in the desert, where he learned about the local animals in the Sonoran. What started as a curiosity grew quickly into an obsession, one that his family and friends met with loving bemusement. The fact that everyone else around Layne hated the desert only made it more interesting, more personal, more romantic. When he moved with his family to California and got a car, exploring the desert became all the easier, and Layne started to meet the unique people who chose to live out in the desert. Reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire as a teenager taught him to think about and experience the desert even more deeply.

Eventually, Layne became involved in all sorts of media, starting in local Southern California news before bouncing around Europe working in radio, television, and newspapers. He came back to the U.S. in the early 2000s and found his home in Joshua Tree in 2003. His work was full-time blogging at that point (Gawker, then Wonkette, where he became a co-owner, then the Awl for a bit), always reporting on the national zeitgeist while he was in Joshua Tree, isolated from whatever cultural moment—Mark Foley's scandal, Sarah Palin's rise, Pope Benedict XVI's abdication—he was writing about. By 2014, Layne had grown bored of the national writing routine. "I get tired of jobs after about three years. The longest was six years at Wonkette," he says. On top of that, his favored kind of "clever word-based digital media," as he calls it, was on its way out. In particular, the freedom of that kind of work was going way, wasn't "happening" anymore. The revolution was over. He felt it long before Gawker's implosion.

Leaving his professional paradox behind, Layne could focus on what was around him, chiefly because he felt what was around him could act as a lens to all sorts of issues and ideas he cared about. And so Layne dreamed up Desert Oracle, originally as a radio show (among Layne's many lives, he once worked in radio in Macedonia) before quickly shifting his vision to focus on a small magazine, with a geographic focus on 10 regional desert cities.

Now six issues in, Desert Oracle has always looked the same: 40 pages or so, yellow and black cover, and monochromatic words and pictures. It's supported entirely by subscribers and by those who choose to pick it up in, say, the gas station in Shoshone, California (population: 31), or at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. The magazine runs a mix of old stories—long-dead adventurers' journal entries, railroad ad copy, and (also long-dead) naturalists' musings—and new ones—on everything from botanical oddities and desert cryptids to alien sightings and the Yucca Man (the desert equivalent of Bigfoot).

Layne designs the Oracle all by himself. The ideal is four issues a year, but, as he's without even an assistant, the pace is a little slower than that. Layne has given himself entirely to the magazine. When we meet, he's wearing an olive hunting shirt with a Desert Oracle iron-on patch; his license plate reads "D ORACLE."

Layne was finally able to revisit the radio show idea this past summer, crafting a 28-minute episode every week (which he says requires about 12 hours of work) and broadcasting it at 10 p.m. on Fridays on a local station in the high desert surrounding Joshua Tree. (The show reaches most of its audience as a podcast, though, a concession that Layne is willing to make for the sake of visibility.) The show features some interviews, with the likes of the owner of his local Cactus Mart store, but the bulk of it revolves around Layne's dreamlike monologues, delivered in his croaky Tom Waits stage voice.

Layne's goal is for people to stumble upon the radio signal as they're sitting around a campfire or driving through the solitude at night. Like anything Layne seems to produce, the show is difficult to process yet strangely reflective of the place he calls home.

Of the people living in Joshua Tree, Layne imagines his work is most enjoyed by the "intentional desert residents" who came out to Joshua Tree and its environs for the same reasons of secluded beauty and personal growth that he did. This is, in fact, most people in Joshua Tree—the population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to Census data—but Layne is happy to have some long-time residents of the town as subscribers and retailers. But he knew that people would be interested throughout the desert and even in the country at large. At first, Layne focused on about 10 desert towns for marketing, taking the Oracle everywhere from Sedona to Moab. He would walk into stores and interpretive centers, knowing that most wouldn't ever work but trying to sell nevertheless. But then he would show the guide to some people and he'd "see that sparkle," and they would entirely understand what he was going for. The Twentynine Palms Inn was one such early adopter; all guests at the hotel can find a complimentary copy in their room.

Joshua Tree National Park.

"The Desert Oracle is one of those things that is so good you want to initially keep it to yourself, but we fought the urge and ordered the publication by the case knowing that these collections of stories would resonate with our guests," says Breanne Dusastre, the marketing director at Twentynine Palms Inn. "There isn't anyone else out there curating and telling stories the way Ken Layne is."

Layne knew the whole enterprise would work when he headed into the Back of Beyond Book Store in Moab, Utah, with the first issue, and they bought 100 copies on sight. Building on this relationship, he is helping Back of Beyond celebrate the work of the store's founder (and a major influence on Layne), Edward Abbey, with an issue of Desert Oracle commemorating the 50th anniversary of Desert Solitaire. It's a special coalition Layne's formed between hipsters scattered across the country looking for curiosities, retirees, and desert rats who want to feel more connected to their chosen homesteads, and it's an unexpectedly lucrative one. Retail sales have started to compete with subscription revenue, and new stores are always reaching out.

Other journalists see the value in Layne's vision as an intellectual achievement as well as a business one. Lifehacker named the radio show a staff pick in September, calling it "as moody, weird, and beautiful as its print predecessor."

Choire Sicha, an editor at the New York Times and a former colleague of Layne's at Gawker and the Awl, speaks highly of Layne like some sort of madcap mystic:

Ken Layne is a well-known kook who believes that the United States government is tracking our movements and communications while being infiltrated by foreign forces and concealing the existence of aliens, and also believes that multiple shadowy forces are propagating disinformation to us as a captive audience, all while we are being mercenarily monetized by international corporations against our will and without any oversight or recourse. Unfortunately, although his views seemed aberrant or insane to many of us over the years, it turns out that he was completely correct all along. So whatever weird or upsetting thing he believes about the business of media and journalism stands a greater than average chance of being not just correct but possibly visionary.

Layne, for his part, is his characteristically subdued and inscrutable self when discussing his success: "If you have a vision and do it competently, then all the things you're interested in will come to you."

The reason that the Oracle works is that it's always trying to elicit that feeling, the awe and wonder that the desert reveals to you when you listen hard enough. Layne believes it's not an accident that religious awakenings, UFO sightings, walkabouts, and other revelations occur in the desert. It's a consequence of solitude, stark beauty, and the tenacious life that only the desert has.

Layne had his own UFO experience in the early 2000s, and it informs the work he does in the Oracle today. While driving with his wife along a desert highway, a black triangle—a giant, silent, manta-shaped aircraft seen by hundreds over the past century and some connect to Native petroglyphs—zoomed from the horizon to right next to their car. They pulled over, got out, and watched it vanish as a light shooting up through the clouds. "It didn't feel like Area 51. It felt like something ancient and inexplicable. It felt real but maybe it wasn't at all." He compares this fantastic experience with something mundane and beautiful, like seeing a redtail hawk come down and sit on a tree outside your window. It's a primal moment of witnessing, of beholding what the world can do. It's more about being open, and to be open you have to be appreciative and aware of the phenomenological landscape of the place, including the other people scattered about trying to do the same thing. That's one of the many paradoxes of the desert: in order to communicate those deep desert thoughts, for them to have any purpose beyond the hermetic, you have to talk to those fellow desert rats like the ones who slap Layne on the back at lunch or make plans with him to share town gossip.

Another paradox, one more relevant to the future of the Oracle, is that, as more people come out to enjoy the solitude of the desert, the solitude starts to disappear. It started to wane within the city of Joshua Tree itself when exiles of the last financial crisis began to move into town and build business and, crucially, AirBnBs out of the old meth houses. Layne himself has a plot of land out in the boonies bought up for a couple cabins built to his own specifications. They should be built by the summer. But the Oracle itself is made to give people the feeling of the desert, even if it brings more people out there. Ultimately, Layne thinks that all this faddish attention will turn into greater conservation efforts of the existing desert wilderness. The more of the desert he puts out into the world, the more of the desert he gets back.

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