Publishing the Best of the Desert: An Interview With Ken Layne

AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File

Ken Layne is the writer, editor, and publisher of the Desert Oracle, a bright-yellow “field guide to the desert that covers the “strange tales, singing sand dunes, sagebrush trails, artists and aliens, authors and oddballs, ghost towns and modern legends, musicians and mystics, scorpions and saguaros” of the Joshua Tree region in California. We spoke with him after the publication of a recent profile in Pacific Standard, in which he explained how he designs and delivers each issue himself to desert outposts with as little as 30 people. 

Aaron Gilbreath: You grew up in the desert. Where exactly did you grow up in Phoenix?

Ken Layne: I was born and mostly raised in New Orleans, far from any desert, but I lived in Phoenix during the formative middle-school years. First on the poor side around Buckeye and Seventh Avenue ─ old Phoenix, a shack behind my uncle’s house. Vacant lots, railroad yards. We had motorcycles and Chihuahuas. My classmates were mostly Latino and Native American. I made one friend, this very poetic character, and he lectured me all the time on Aztlán, the Chicano cause. It was all new to me. He kept the tougher kids off my back, which was nice. My grandpa had been a coal miner, along with his father, and they all moved out to the south side of Phoenix on the Black Lung train. At least that was the story I heard now and then.

The other place was a nice little stucco house with a swimming pool,  a suburban elementary school a few blocks away. Most everybody was a white kid from Illinois or Michigan. My dad and his twin brother started an air-conditioning service business, so eventually, we could afford our own house. There was this big urban cowboy sort of honky-tonk nearby, huge place on a nearby big intersection on the northwest edge of town. My parents used to go there now and then. Just north of Greenway Road was wild desert, dirt roads through foothills, crazy saguaros with owl nests hanging out.

AG: I grew up in Phoenix, too. The city itself felt like any other, but one unique thing was how you could drive in any direction and be in the middle of undeveloped Sonoran Desert in thirty minutes. When did Arizona desert start to work its magic on you as a kid?

KL: I never much saw the natural world before we moved to Arizona. I never saw mountains all around, or mountains at all. But it was purgatory for my dad, something he had to endure again to finally earn enough money to move to San Diego. That’s the usual dream of kids who grew up in Phoenix of the 1940s and ’50s, especially the poor ones: Take the highway out to the beach and never come back. There are three generations of Laynes buried in Phoenix.

I liked it up in the foothills, in that mostly wild desert that began just across Greenway. I got to go to a science camp at this since-submerged place up at Lake Pleasant. We held gopher snakes and tarantulas, walked out under the stars, listening for owls and coyotes. It was fantastic.

AG: After your family moved to California, you started exploring the desert on your own. What did you do on those trips? Why were these experiences formative?

KL: Had a group of friends, oddballs mostly, from different parts of town. Four of us went out to Death Valley one freezing winter, Christmas break from high school. Everybody had part-time jobs so we had this narrow window, maybe 48 hours. We drove up in the middle of the night — after one of the guys finished work at a pizza parlor — in this other guy’s grey-primer VW bug with holes in the floor and springs coming out of the seats. A very cold night. Didn’t do much more than drive around, watch the sun come up over the wild desert, hiked a little, explored old buildings. I took a bunch of black-and-white pictures. Drove back in the middle of the night, listening to weird AM radio stations. It was romantic. Still is. That is my favorite thing in the world, just driving a desert two-lane at night, could be West Texas or the Four Corners, but especially Nevada and East California. A weekday night, alone with the radio, a motel and more driving ahead. A vague destination or purpose, with time to take sketchy dirt roads, to walk around outside, stop in used bookshops and little roadside taverns with E Clampus Vitus neon signs.

AG: Those desert drives are deeply romantic. They’re a good place to make a life. It’s interesting because many residents of big desert cities loath the desert. They like the sun, the pools, the mild winters. Are you trying to reach those people with Desert Oracle and convert them to the landscape’s wonders? Or are you trying to reach the converted?

That is my favorite thing in the world, just driving a desert two-lane at night, could be West Texas or the Four Corners, but especially Nevada and East California.

KL: The only propaganda angle is desert conservation, encouraging people to love these places for their wildness, for their desolation and spooky beauty. I try to make something that looks good in a desert home, that you’ll leave out when you’ve got people coming over. And maybe you learn about the animals, learn about the plants and the seasons, the folklore and history, both recent and ancient. And maybe you already have a backyard full of native plants and ground squirrels and roadrunners, and you want to encourage more of that, defend the wild desert where that’s still the norm.

People who love a place will fight for it, whether or not they live around there full-time, whether they’re in Palm Desert or Scottsdale, surrounded by strip malls and golf courses. You can still see the mountains! The best of the desert isn’t where most people live, anyway, all crowded together. The best of the desert is walking alone on a sandy trail, or being lost in a wilderness area and figuring out how to get back, or sitting alone in the rocks while creatures go about their business, or driving some mysterious road in the middle of the night, watching for cattle on the road and military drones and UFOs.

AG: The desert West is many things: its poisonous critters, prickly plants, spaciousness and deadly heat. It carries the burden of a distinctive mythology and politically charged climate. But it also evokes a feeling, a kind of mystic awe and reverie. Desert Oracle somehow manages to capture that elusive experience in its pages. Can you talk about trying to bottle that desert feeling?

KL: I like having minimal information when I’m exploring: rumors, oddly-worded signs, a sense of menace around a truck stop or a rest area, weird motels, out-of-date interpretive displays, Civilian Conservation Corps’ bunkhouses and trail stairways, the cheery and somewhat suspicious oddballs you meet in a campground outside Trona or Tonopah. With the Oracle, I try to keep it sparse. Easy on the eyes. I don’t want to give anybody eye strain. In telling stories of UFOs and Yucca Man and past civilizations and failed real-estate schemes, I want to dryly transcribe the weird stuff. I don’t want to oversell it. Like somebody calling you in the middle of the night and reading the police reports out of the paper in Barstow or Pahrump, like a radio announcer in a long war. I trust that the people who enjoy the Oracle are the people who read this kind of thing at night and get a sense of dread and romance that makes them feel alive to all kinds of possibilities. Alive and alert.

Like any old southwestern newspaper or quarterly, Desert Oracle is presented without fanfare. I don’t explain things too much. You can look up the rest if you get obsessed. And you will probably get obsessed with some of this material, and then you’re diving down internet rabbit holes and raiding used bookstores in the High Desert, seeking evidence. I despise those “Explainer” things that are so popular in the online media. “Here’s a complex subject that could provide years of intellectual pleasure should you pursue it, but we’re going to post some glib, error-ridden thing that nobody even bothered to proofread, and then you’ll be all set!”

AG: Preserve the mystery while sharing bits of it. Desert writer Edward Abbey was a big influence on you. How’d you first discover him? What did his writing and life teach you?

KL: After that first Death Valley trip, I was raiding the high-school library for regional books, anything about the wild desert. Desert Solitaire was there, with all the nature books. And like everybody who falls in love with the desert and that book at the same time, the deal was done. Abbey wrote beautifully, of course, but he also had that swaggering thing that appealed to me at that age. The brave poetic writer, etcetera, a lifetime of screw-ups, moments of beauty and transcendence.

You’ll find when you start hiking and learning about the wildflowers and the animals, some scold will often appear and start lecturing you, telling you all the things you’ve got wrong, everything you don’t yet know — the people who suck the joy right out of a place in their constant campaign to be validated as some sort of self-appointed expert. Abbey never did that, and that’s one reason why it’s so easy for people to fall for him. He’d often explain that he wasn’t a naturalist, wasn’t a biologist or geologist. He was a philosopher. In one of his books, Abbey claims his favorite desert birds are the turkey vulture and the “rosy-bottomed skinny dipper.” It’s very welcoming. A good teacher makes it enjoyable, makes it a pleasure to accumulate those little bits of knowledge we have about the desert, about the natural world in general.

AG: Abbey influenced me, too. I spent my undergrad years bushwhacking southern Arizona’s deserts and mountains alone. When I found Abbey’s books, I realized I wasn’t some crazy loner, just an enchanted youth fascinated by this place’s magic, and that I could try to write about it, too. He was my first role model desert rat. Do you identify as a “desert rat”?

KL: I like any dramatic, moody landscape. But I guess I’m most at home in the American desert, and mostly the parts of the Great Basin and Mojave with a minimum of other people. Harry Oliver mastered the “desert rat” thing with his Desert Rat Scrap Book that he self-published for 20 years starting in 1946. (Oliver was a self-taught architect and set designer who worked with director Cecil B. DeMille and built the Tam O’Shanter and Brown Derby in Los Angeles, before retiring to Thousand Palms to become a full-time desert rat.)

That’s a particular thing, that sort of cornball comedy, relocating the ornery hillbilly or farmer to another environment that is baffling to the city people. It’s a very American archetype, and I guess I picked up a little of that for the radio show, for my campfire stories. For myself, I seem to be moving toward something more like the early desert hermits of early Christian Egypt. Probably a one-room stone cabin that’s a daylong walk from the nearest person. I don’t want to farm or collect junker cars or have domestic animals or shipping containers everywhere, and I don’t want to see any human works: no power lines, no satellite dishes, no other houses, no visible homes. Come into the little town every week or three for a dinner out and a martini, check the PO box, then “See you next month.” Boy, that would be nice.

The people who enjoy the Desert Oracle are the people who read this kind of thing at night and get a sense of dread and romance that makes them feel alive to all kinds of possibilities.

AG: In his posthumous Abbey biography, The Red Caddy, desert rat Charles Bowden wrote: “Desert worship is a suspicious matter to desert rats. It is as if talking about what is out there will diminish what is out there. Also, as a group, we feel damn foolish admitting what we feel out there.” What do you make of that?

KL: Well I don’t feel foolish about it. And I don’t mind talking about it, now and then. But when you’re visiting with other desert people, you don’t need to convince each other of anything. It’s usually the new convert who needs to wax poetic and all that, and that’s a normal part of infatuation.

It’s a good feeling, building this link to a place, a bioregion, the part of the Earth where you’re going to settle in. People can go overboard at this stage but that is all right. Enthusiasm is necessary and generally in short supply. Most of us who choose to live in low-population desert places are looking for a minimum of human interaction anyway. A little goes a long way.

AG: In the recent Pacific Standard article about Desert Oracle, you describe how a black triangular object hovered beside your car before shooting off through the clouds ─ a UFO. What about that experience influenced your magazine’s vision or aesthetic?

KL: It is entirely possible that my preference for black geometric icons and dingbats influenced how I saw that particular UFO — and by “UFO” I mean an unidentified thing you could loosely describe as “aircraft” but more as “pulsating 100-foot-wide manta ray hovering silently next to your car, before it vanished in a point of light over the distant clouds.” It’s also a very popular UFO shape, seen for hundreds of years: the black arrow or triangle. They are still seen, often on country roads or desert highways. It’s a really particular kind of experience, from the many eyewitness reports I’ve read over the years. Usually goes from a brilliant light on the horizon to this enormous thing hovering nearby to a light streaking away in the opposite direction, at the speed of a shooting star. Robert Bigelow, the Las Vegas billionaire who had the Pentagon’s UFO study contract that the New York Times recently revealed, ran a black-triangle study for many years. After my own sighting in late 2001, I contacted them and was interviewed by one of their people. They eventually put out a report that said people see these things fairly often, and whatever they are remains unknown.

Desert Oracle #4, the UFO cover from 2015, has a UFO typographic symbol as the only cover art. It’s an “Adamski disk,” something George Adamski saw (or faked) around Desert Center, near the southeastern corner of Joshua Tree National Park. Just this black symbol on yellow cover stock. I love everything about that. It’s my favorite cover so far, and it’s echoed by the radio show’s art, the podcast logo you see on your phone when you listen to the show. My signs at the office in Joshua Tree look like that, too. It puts you in the right frame of mind.

But it initially felt kind of cheap to make a cover out of what is basically a printer’s dingbat, a wingding. I had been commissioning artists to do illustrations for the covers before that one, and the first couple issues have good covers. But the really stark covers are my favorite.

Since the 1990s, I was designing websites that mimicked tabloid newspapers, black and white with some primary spot color. And whenever a “real designer” came in, everything got crowded, too much of everything. Too much color, too many elements. The ultimate nightmare is the modern Internet page, with fifty different things blinking and yelling at you, a sewage mix of every color, every bad style of graphic, crowded and miserable. So I do it all myself now. I just learn as I go.

I’ve always liked one-color printing. Cheap offset printing, no two pieces exactly alike, blocky type, colored stock. I love that kind of poster art, like Eastern European political posters, or Southern California punk-rock flyers. The desert component was the regional press, these small shops in the Southwest that printed up their own field guides, rockhound books, trail & wildlife guides. You could buy them at gemstone shops in the desert, or gift shops at the state park. They had single-color printing for the usual reason—it’s cheap—but generally with desert-colored cover stock, so you’d have the utilitarian and modern 1950s and ’60s typesetting and graphics in black on a yellow or orange or sand-colored cover. Keep it sparse. All of that goes into the design for Desert Oracle. I used to run the photo-typesetting machine at this little backcountry weekly, at night when the regular typesetter was gone and the editor had his column ready after going through a few coffee mugs full of Bushmill’s, and I loved the limited choices for headlines, captions, and body text. The sans serif choices were News Gothic and maybe the Avenir or Futura families, and you could do so much with variations of shape and font size. Then you had easy-to-read serif fonts for text columns, Times New Roman, Schoolbook and such things. Add a little black-and-white illustration from the “Old West Clip Art” books. That combination is nice to read, just nice to look at.

Anyway, I suspect the really dramatic close-up UFOs are at least partly filled in by the brain of the observer, the witness. There’s a whole episode of my radio show, #25, on this subject. Jacques Vallee and John Keel often wrote about it. And it’s entirely possible that my own convincing UFO encounter on a desert highway triggered the part of the brain that produces or processes spiritual experiences — Saul on the road to Damascus and all that, the children at Fatima, people who “see” a spaceship from Star Trek or elves from a fairy tale — and that our aesthetics and culture fill in the details, the “message” if you get a message in the process. Or maybe not. UFO theories aren’t terribly interesting to me, all these 20th-century science-fiction tropes. In the return of Twin Peaks last year, there’s something like a mass UFO sighting in a small-town New Mexico. A girl and a boy are walking at night and she picks up a Lincoln penny. And then this Abe Lincoln robot-hobo is terrorizing the town, staggering through traffic, etc. That made a lot of sense to me.

AG: “Crowded and miserable” — that describes both the modern Internet pages and certain popular urban desert trails I’ve hiked. Part of each Desert Oracle issue contains reprints of naturalists and explorers writings, alongside original pieces. How do you find older material?

KL: Mostly it’s chosen as intentional propaganda. Mary Hunter Austin was really the first Edward Abbey. She wrote The Land of Little Rain, about the California desert, and she was this bohemian character, a socialist, an artist, an important early feminist in the literary and theater scenes. And she wrote beautifully about the desert, in a way that reads very well today. People should read Mary Austin. And it’s public domain, so I can afford it. Same with John Wesley Powell, who most desert people know as this great explorer, the guy who recommended that the United States leave the desert Southwest alone, as it could not support huge populations with its scant water. But he also wrote with style and wit, and you feel like you’re there with him, around the campfire after a day of adventure. I feel a kinship with Powell. His family, like my paternal family, originates in the West Midlands and wound up around the Ohio River, and we both had many early Methodist preachers in our line. His life was a series of adventures, his morals were good and progressive for his time, and he looked at the Southwest with the right eyes. We should’ve listened to him more, but much of the federal desert land we have today is the result of the land-conservation philosophy he helped create, and the recommendations to the U.S. government after his great explorations of the Colorado River and the interior West in general. It was in the last years of his life that the General Land Office ─ what became the Bureau of Land Management in 1949 ─ finally transformed from a land-giveaway agency controlled by the railroad monopolies to a bit more of a conservation mission. He’d be heartbroken to see “Lake Powell,” which is a monument to everything he was against. And of course we’re all still fighting about public lands and water rights, and there are a handful of welfare ranchers and deadbeats like those Bundy people who are paid instigators of an anti-American effort to strip us of everything that’s in the public domain, everything that is part of the Commons. One day we’ll stuff all those nutbags in a rocket and drop ’em on an asteroid somewhere. “It’s all yers, Clive!”

Then there’s Zane Grey, who is always kind of dismissed as this cowboy-book hack. When I finally got around to reading his stuff, I found it interesting and sort of poetic. He was living in a desert cabin and crossing the Southwest on horseback at a time when it was really a commitment to be out on the desert. I like reading something and realizing what I assumed about it was wrong, that there’s real value to the stuff, and then I like to spread it around if I have the opportunity. The old pieces also give you a sense of time as part of the space of the desert. All these times layered over the desert: the U.S. Calvary camels crossing the Mojave, Charles Manson hiding out in the Panamints, Minerva Hoyt sleeping under the stars in a desert canyon, Shoshone and Paiute stories of great ships in the sky, red-eyed monsters in the night.

AG: You must have a large home library.

KL: It’s spread out between home and the Oracle office and a storage unit. I’ve got most of the desert-related books close at hand, but one day soon, I hope, it will all be assembled together, at my secret ranch house that is many happy hours away from busy little Joshua Tree.

AG: What is your ideal Desert Oracle piece? What elements do you gravitate to in material?

KL: It’s not completely clear. It is mood more than subject. I’ll start off with a bunch of ideas for each book and sort of see which ones I still like when it’s time to fill the text columns.

AG: Lots of people who love magazines think it’s nuts to try to start a magazine. Charles Bowden often worked eighty hours a week running his magazine from a cluttered Tucson office. In his words, “The magazine is an obsession and I am at my happiest when I am obsessed.” You’re a one-person operation: You have to fill it, design it, distribute it, sell and promote it. You go store-to-store. How much time does Desert Oracle take? What sacrifices does independent publishing require of you?

KL: It’s one of those times right now when I haven’t had a day off in three months. It’s not always like that. Summer is slower. I can bum around a little more. Each book takes a good 60 days to put together, I’ve slowly figured out — two months full-time. And then I do all these other jobs that are part of Desert Oracle: a weekly radio show that needs to be written and produced and edited, these live performances at museums, hotels and campfires, talking to the reporters, running the goddamned social media accounts, invoicing and delivery, shipping out orders, tax returns, bookkeeping, postal permits. Somewhere in there you try to write and edit and design and proofread this little magazine. It’s every day all the time, and it’s depressing to always be so far behind on everything, but it’s ultimately a satisfying thing to invent and halfway manage to pull off. I had a whole thing in mind: Not just a print book with this certain look, but a radio show, live events and the sparse office with books and maps and yellow file cabinets — this specific desert thing layered over the existing reality, to make the existing reality better, cleaner and more romantic.

But it’s not a sacrifice at all. A sacrifice is working for some media corporation where everybody’s always in fear for their jobs, for their lives. It would be nice to have more money,  to be able to afford to hire a couple of people who see the vision, who would enjoy contributing to the thing. One day. Or not. I’m aware that it’s a singular pursuit and might always be that way.

AG: People either imagine magazines being these lucrative enterprises with fancy editorial parties and celebrity photo shoots, like Vanity Fair, or they imagine them as money pits that devour all your savings before leading to nicotine addiction and divorce. What are the financial aspects of running an independent magazine?

You cannot run your own business and be a good parent to your intellectual property unless you understand how the business works, at least how it works for you.

KL: Desert Oracle has been barely profitable since the first issue. It doesn’t make much, I rarely pay myself, and I run a tight ship. But I’m deeply against going into debt for things. You have to play whatever angles you’ve got, whatever strengths you’ve got, and see if that works, try something else if one thing falls flat. Stick to the vision but always be ready to go with it, wherever it goes. Having a small-but-loyal readership, a cult following, etcetera, can work out if you run a tight ship. You have to do pretty much everything, and you have to get some satisfaction from it.

There’s this idea that artists — designers and writers and musicians, that whole crowd — are supposed to be dupes when it comes to money, when it comes to contracts. You cannot run your own business and be a good parent to your intellectual property unless you understand how the business works, at least how it works for you. As a one-person publication, you can rarely afford consultants or “professional services.” I will not skimp on attorneys but I do my own accounting, I do my taxes. I am my own subscriptions-and-circulation consultant, I figure out the postal permits and the databases and the wholesale and retail mix. I design the envelopes and postcards, the invoices and the business cards, my work uniform, all that. I clean the bathroom and change the printer ink, and take packages and issues to the post office, proofread the issues and process the photos. There is always something to do.

You’re going to have do most everything, so you might as well make it the way you want. You have to create the whole world you will operate within, from your physical office to your daily schedule.

AG: Every generation includes ambitious people with literary aspirations who have something to say, and they start magazines and independent presses. Many universities have graduate publishing programs. What insights can you share with these folks about running your own magazine?

KL: If you’re doing something small, something that’s mostly your labor and vision, then stick to what makes you satisfied. Don’t let people bully you into putting a lot of stuff in the book that doesn’t please you. Don’t feel obligated to run anything. Don’t give out excess free copies if you depend on selling those books. Treat your readers and your retailers well. Answer their emails, at least the nice ones. Listen to them, because your loyal readers can point you to a lot of potential material, and because they’re people with interests very close to your own. You will meet good people and new friends through such work. They will generally forgive your mistakes and tardiness if they believe your work is done in good faith.

If the publication begins to get some attention, and you can make a living from it, then you are part of a proud American tradition of the small-town publisher, the country newspaper, the regional quarterly: Poor Richard’s Almanack, Leaves of Grass, the Territorial Enterprise, the Los Angeles Free Press. It’s a great life, especially if you pick a cheap area to live.

AG: One of Abbey’s problems, particularly with Desert Solitaire, is that his books’ popularity drew more people into his beloved quiet spaces than he was comfortable with? As his friend Charles Bowden put it in The Red Caddy, Abbey “launched thousands of maniacs into the empty ground and pulverized one of his favorite backwards of the Colorado Plateau.” As a publisher, does that concern you?

KL: Of all the human uses of the desert, people visiting national parks and monuments to sight-see and hike and camp is the best. And you want to convert these people from “Oh this looks great on Instagram” to “I will donate time and money for the rest of my life to non-profits that defend and protect wild desert.” We’re fighting this mafia federal government right now, these Russian mobsters trying to upend our beloved new desert national monuments, trying to upend California’s Desert Renewable Energy Plan, which was put together over a decade of hard negotiation between the Bureau of Land Management, the state government, the environmental groups and the renewable energy companies, years of public meetings and reports and science. These attacks on the environment and our parklands are completely out of step with California, with the modern West, where people place tremendous value on these weird wild landscapes that are near enough to all the big cities for people to escape for a weekend. The California parks and monuments are a steam valve for the densely packed California cities. It’s important.

I’ll complain like any local crank about the tourist traffic and how you can’t eat out most of the time, because we have very few restaurants and they’ve got lines out the doors in tourist season, which is now a solid nine months a year. But these are people here to appreciate the desert landscape, the flora and fauna, the run-down cabins, the wind and the sand. That’s good. We need these people on our side. Too many of these people is a good problem to have.

I’ve spent half my life out here chasing illegal hunters, trash dumpers and off-road motorcyclists tearing up the desert. It’s a lot easier to run off some illegal campers from Oakland or wherever. I always tell them where they can legally camp or point it out on their map.

AG: Endurance and armor are important survival strategies for desert creatures: come out at night, hunker down by day, grow slowly and develop a thick skin. Where do you see the magazine in five years?

KL: Hopefully it’s still here — hopefully we’re all still here! — hopefully publishing on a tighter schedule, maybe with a couple of employees, an editorial person and a production or layout person, maybe another several thousand subscriptions, some income from the radio show, some other things in the works, and mostly I hope I can do more driving around and walking around the desert. I had planned on a “couple days a week” made-up job as publisher and editor of the Oracle and that part of the scheme has not yet worked out. But it’s all right. Better than the usual alternative: Go bust and go back to working for somebody.