Desert OraclePosted: February 25, 2022
Desert Oracle: Strange True Tales from the American Southwest
MCD (December 8, 2020), 263 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $17.99
There is something about the desert that draws people to it. That was certainly the case at one time in my life. When I was in first grade we moved to Barstow in the San Bernardino County high desert for my dad’s job. We were only there for three years, but the desert’s beauty and mystery stayed with me. When I was in college and thinking that maybe I’d have to take a year’s leave of absence to earn some money, I thought about living in Barstow. I even drove up there one day just to visit the place.
So all these many decades later, an article in the Sunday newspaper about Ken Layne caught my attention. He is himself a desert rat and produces both a periodical and a local radio program called Desert Oracle. That prompted the publication of this book.
Layne writes about the desert and all its weirdness. He reminds us it’s easy to lose your life just a short distance from the parking lot at a national monument, but taking a few basic precautions can help ensure your survival. He tells us about the odd and strange people of the desert. He writes about the supernatural: unexplainable occurrences, a strange civilization of giants supposedly living beneath Death Valley, and, of course about UFOs. He has a thing about UFOs. But Layne also writes about the natural world of the desert and its wildlife.
The author offers some insight into the life of Edward Abbey, who, Layne tells us, drove a bus for Death Valley High School for a short time in 1966. He describes how Abbey worked on his writing in a corner of a saloon next to a legal brothel in Ash Meadows, just on the other side of the Nevada state line. Layne points out that Abbey’s now famous book, Desert Solitaire did not become popular until the paperback edition came out when “it was quickly embraced by hordes of long-haired backpackers filling the national parks of the Southwest.”
Layne writes in a lively and engaging manner and knows how to turn a phrase. In talking about the bird called the poorwill (not to be confused with the whippoorwill) he writes, “They migrate, unless they don’t, while the migration of some common poorwills consists of heading up from the valleys to the mountains in summer, like mule deer or the seasonal staff at Furnace Creek.” (Furnace Creek being the location of the headquarters of Death Valley National Park.)
Layne concludes the book by writing:
There are many good and noble reasons to protect the wilderness that remains, to be wise stewards of the only planet we’ve got at the moment. Keeping a wild, open landscape available for our encounters with the mysterious and the divine is as good a reason as the rest and maybe the best one of all.
If you have ever come under the enchantment of the desert this book will not disappoint you.