Smile Politely

Ken Layne is bringing the desert to the cornfields on Friday

A coyote barks and howls, then you hear a robotic female voice:

“Transmitting from the Mojave wilderness in Joshua Tree, California; now is the time for Desert Oracle Radio, the voice of the desert.”

So begins each episode of Desert Oracle Radio, which is broadcast from KCDZ 107.7 FM in Joshua Tree, then shared with the rest of the world in podcast form. After this introduction, with a constant otherworldly soundscape provided by RedBlueBlackSilver backing him up, you hear the distinct low, rumbling, and slightly nasal voice of Ken Layne, writer and publisher of Desert Oracle Magazine and broadcaster of Desert Oracle Radio.

Though I know Layne broadcasts from the KCDZ studio in Joshua Tree, I visualize him in an  trailer in the middle of nowhere, a blanket of stars overhead and desert creatures lurking in the dark. For 28 minutes, Layne — in a somewhat stream of consciousness/random guy sitting next to you at the bar rambling sort of way — regales the audiences with personal anecdotes, history and folklore, and musings on the current state of our existence, all with some sort of a connection to life in the desert. I’m not going to lie, my first reaction was “Uh, WTF am I listening to?” After a few episodes, I found myself drawn into this desert world Layne inhabits. 

Layne wasn’t always a “desert oracle”, though he’s spent time living there at various points in his life. In the late 90s into the 2000s, Layne was focused on online journalism and political blogging, writing for Gawker and eventually owning the spinoff site Wonkette. He left that behind in 2012, and in 2015 began publishing his quarterly magazine featuring stories of the desert. The pre-Trump political media landscape was certainly frenzied, but of course that has increased exponentially. “In retrospect it was really pointing the way to the future,” says Layne. “It was all there: the Tea Party stuff, the celebrity outrage candidates…we had Sarah Palin, the sort of warm up act. At times it was fun. I got to spend some time on the road, covering campaigns, covering presidential conventions, but by the time I left I thought well, it’s still being covered like sports. It’s just a game, everybody shakes hands at the end.”

The idea for Desert Oracle was formulated in his mind well before he left the political scene. Why the desert? “From the time I could drive, I would spend as much time as I could in the desert wilderness, the national parks, the public lands. It had always been my primary interest, but our primary interests, as young adults, are rarely what puts food on the table…I’ve lived here a dozen years, been in various desert towns in northern Nevada, Arizona…it’s been part of my life for a long time.”

There’s a sort of mystery to the desert, and it can be sort of a polarizing place, with some turning up their noses at the thought of living in a place with oppressive heat and few natural resources. Others, like Layne, are drawn to its wide open spaces and promise of living life just a little bit off the grid (Joshua Tree is 120ish miles from Los Angeles). “When you’re out there, you really could just be utterly off in your own worldit’s a wonderful thing to be able to turn off the spigot of information that’s mostly terrible.” It’s become a more popular destination recently, which Layne attributes partially to the Instagram world we’re living in. “People got into the aesthetic of it.” 

There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of material. There are 140 episodes of the Desert Oracle Podcast and soon to be 10 issues of the magazine, and the first Desert Oracle compilation book was recently published. Layne shares plenty of his personal experiences, but finds other nuggets of information and interesting tales to weave in. “I look for things that are kind of mysterious and timeless, and have those classic elements of adventure or revelation or strife, survival. I love stories of artists and weirdos and mystics who’ve come out to the desert to be away from all the banal forces of society.” He offers examples of Georgia O’Keefe, working from her Ghost Ranch home in a remote area of New Mexico on one end of the spectrum, to the Manson Family hiding out in Death Valley. “The isolation, the immensity of the surroundings, the sort of harsh clarity of the place…sometimes you get artists, sometimes you get weird cult serial killers.” 

When he’s on the road, bringing his show to live audiences, he tries to find some local or regional lore to work in, and he’ll be doing that when he appears at PYGMALION on Friday night. He’ll be at 25 O’Clock Brewing Company from 8 to 9 p.m., with an added visualization component provided by NCSA. If you need more desert tales, he will follow up with a reading at Analog to wrap up the Literary Marathon for the evening. 

Do a little prep work, and pop the Desert Oracle pod into your headphones this week and immerse yourself in the Mojave for a couple of hours. 

You can learn more about Desert Oracle, and order issues or the book here.

Top image provided by PYGMALION.

Staff writer

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