Ken Layne: The desert is very good for revelations.
In 1983, teenaged San Diegan Ken Layne had a revelation in Death Valley. “The teenage boys in my crowd would take whoever’s car that was working that weekend” — often, it was restaurateur Sam Chammas’s VW van — “and head out to Death Valley, Joshua Tree, or Anza-Borrego to free-range wander. No phones, no parents, but we were actually doing pretty wholesome things — hiking and camping.”
The desert is very good for revelations, says Layne. “You can have utter peace and quiet if you need it. It’s a place where you can live a mythic existence if you try — if you go outside and engage. That’s something we almost don’t get anymore. A place of romantic belief.” Think of “Saul on the road to Damascus. You have this blinding light coming down from the heavens; it’s like the Close Encounters poster. He fell to the ground, and he had the typical response that many [UFO] contactees have. His eyes burned, he couldn’t see.”
Layne’s revelation was more mundane, but still personally significant. “I came home and thought, Who knows about this? I went to my high school library and found Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Afterwards, “I thought, I will live in a desert wilderness and be a writer. It took a while, and that’s good. You don’t want to do it when you’re 16, and probably not when you’re 30. But when you’re in your 50s and you’ve been a newspaper reporter and a musician and all these things that require being around a lot of people…”
The musician part was with the Outriders; Layne was mentored by local stalwarts Country Dick Montana and Buddy Blue Seigal. “They weren’t that much older, but they seemed so much wiser. They knew all the stuff. Talking to them was like taking two years of American literature courses.”
The reporter part ranged from Lakeside’s Back Country Trader to Gawker’s political blog Wonkette, which Layne ran from his home in Joshua Tree, eventually bought and later sold. “Breitbart tried to run me out of business. I thought to myself, ‘If you did something people like, think of how that might change the dynamic.’”
Today, Layne is the editor, publisher, writer, designer, and distributor for The Desert Oracle, a black-and-yellow print quarterly with a circulation, six issues in, of 5000. The current issue covers, among other things, car camping in the Castle Mountains, the jackalope, and the alien-conspiracy Krill Papers, which, Layne writes, “have a familiar feel today…because they’ve fed the paranoid mythology that has become modern American culture.”
“Joshua Tree was one of those zeitgeist places I’ve always run to,” says Layne of his belief that a print journal based on his personal interests could thrive in the desert. “I went to Prague in the early ’90s. There were so many people drawn from all over the world — bohemians, artists, the sort who show up in such places throughout time. Also, Coachella added to the interest in high-desert living. And when you do something in a location, you become part of the locale.”