March 10, 2015

The Desert Oracle Is Your New Favorite Guidebook

by Rick Paulas

The Desert Oracle is a new print quarterly, and it's amazing. I could try to come up with the perfect 100 words to sum up its contents, but I'll let its website speak for itself: "A pocket-sized field guide to the fascinating American deserts: strange tales, singing sand dunes, sagebrush trails, artists and authors and oddballs, ghost towns and modern legends, musicians and mystics, scorpions and saguaros!"

Despite having a website, the quarterly's contents are only available in an honest-to-goodness printed-out pamphlet form. It can be picked up in a handful of shops strewn throughout the desert, or you can purchase a one-year subscription for a measly $15. It's worth it.

I spoke to Ken Layne, the quarterly's creator, about the project.

Where did the idea come from?

Ken Layne:
I've been roaming the deserts for 30 years, and living in one godforsaken lizard-filled wasteland or another for probably a dozen years total. And desert people do get a little peculiar, after a while. You get used to the space and the quiet and the light and the silence. Get outside and away from the TV and life is full of small, strange moments, like finding a young rattlesnake bouncing over your dirt driveway while you're taking the beer bottles out to the recycling bin on a summer night, or the sudden realization that a lone coyote is tracking you down a desert canyon, or instantly knowing that's the International Space Station moving over your part of the sky at dusk.

I had to leave the desert for a while, and was having another existential crisis that no amount of salary or page views or retweets would ever fix. So I spent most of a year wandering around, back and forth across the Sierra, up and down the 395, and all over the Mojave and Great Basin. Since the early 1980s when I started writing for little Southern California papers and magazines, I knew I'd end up being the editor and publisher of some eccentric thing. It was just a matter of seeing the publication clearly before I ever started work on it. One day last summer, it appeared more or less fully formed, and then it was just a matter of figuring out how to make it exist.

What was behind the decision to go with a print version as opposed to a website?

I've been doing online writing and websites for 20 years now and it was a lot of fun for a long time. But it's a mature medium now, big companies and big numbers. And websites all look the same now, especially because most people view them through a Facebook or Twitter viewer on their phones.

The desert is a physical thing. People who love the desert physically miss it when they're away. The air is different, the space is generous, and I thought I might be able to capture some of that in a physical artifact -- something that comes by mail just four times a year, that you can read and enjoy in a personal and solitary way, no "sharing" required.

In the first issue, you have a piece about Art Bell's Coast to Coast show. To me, that voice and content encapsulate the tone of the desert for me. Why do you think that the show fit so well with the desert landscape?

Art Bell lives in the High Desert around Pahrump, not far from Area 51. That geography is in his voice and was always felt in his late-night radio show. It makes an ideal soundtrack for a late-night drive on a lonesome road. When his show was at its peak in the 1990s, it was really "community radio" for weirdos and desert rats.

Where are these going to be available besides getting a subscription?

I'm distributing the Oracle myself, so it's for sale at places I like in the kind of desert outposts I like: Joshua Tree, Amboy, Old Town Yucca Valley, beloved southwestern bookstores such as Back of Beyond Books in Moab and Antigone Books in Tucson. I'll find a few more places to put it with each issue, but for now here's a list of shops in four southwestern states where you can get a single copy.

What are you favorite SoCal hikes/campsites?

My most beloved hike was my daily walk when, for many years, I lived across from Black Rock Canyon Campground in Joshua Tree National Park. Out the door and west along the park boundary, connecting with the West Loop and the trails up to Warren Peak and Eureka Peak -- many spots where you can sit and stare out at the snowy peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio. You can go all the way back to Black Rock Canyon spring and there's a huge flock of pinyon jays living there in the forest. This is prime Joshua tree woodland, with junipers and Mormon tea and all kinds of critters you will see on a regular basis: bobcats, black-tailed deer, my coyote-pack neighbors, gopher snakes and rattlers and rosy boas, tortoises, roadrunners, jackrabbits, antelope ground squirrels, families of ravens including a mysterious old albino raven that was seen around for many years, etc. I never saw the bighorn sheep, because they're shy and rise earlier than I do, but the evidence was everywhere. (One day I found the sawed-off, bloody horns of a mature ram dumped on the side of a dirt road just outside the park. The Fish & Game ranger came out and took a report.)

There's a place called "Section 6" and another called "Coyote Hole" not far from what we call "downtown Joshua Tree." Wonderful places, the latter with a real desert spring, and both are easy enough to find if you're interested. Boulders and chuckwallas, spring flowers and cactus blooms. You can camp in the rocks at the first place. (Please do clean up your mess, give a hoot, and don't act surprised when the locals pass by your remote campsite on their morning dog walks or bicycle rides.)

The wildest and most remote walks in urban Southern California are along the shore. A few years back, I walked the California Coastal Trail from Tijuana to San Francisco, and discovered some stunning wild shoreline here and there. There's a stretch between the very southernmost point of San Onofre State Beach, where there's a mile or more of parking-spot "campsites" on old Pacific Highway, and you walk down whatever canyon (always follow the surfers hiking down with a board under their arm), and you immediately forget Interstate 5 is about a thousand feet away, running parallel down the coastline. The canyon walls are full of chaparral, but also ferns and other fog-fed greenery. The spookiest part of this walk, headed north toward San Clemente, used to be walking over the nuclear plant's seawall -- which is part of the structure, so it hummed and vibrated as you walked across. And then you go through these 1940s-style Marine Corps beaches and cabins that are part of Camp Pendleton, palapa shade structures, woody wagons, it's a kind of time travel.