It will come as no surprise to frequent readers of this blog that I love semi-arid spaces. If I have my choice to point my little campervan North to the Redwoods or South to search for elusive flowers in one of California’s deserts, I’ll always choose the latter. I’m not sure how I came to embrace the desert as my happy place. It might have been in Seventh grade when we moved from my dad’s mostly eastern postings to Tucson Arizona. It might have been the first time I camped out under a desert sky with such clear stars that the Milky Way threw a shadow on the land. However, I’m sure that certain authors have solidified my love of desert spaces. Of course, Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and John Wesley Powell are first and foremost on that list. But I’ve also discovered others. There are eccentrics like Minerva Hoyt, the wealthy Pasadena society woman whose love of the desert and willingness to lobby her famous friends (Franklin Roosevelt among them) are largely responsible for preserving the land we now know as Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
I’ve been rereading the writings of these desert lovers in lieu of being able to load up the campervan and head to the desert myself. Several times I’ve gotten myself ready for a desert trip, then backed out as Covid surged up yet again. While I’d be safely distanced in a desert campground where I cook most of my food myself, I would have to route myself through small desert towns that are begging people not to bring their germs into areas that are underserved by health facilities. So I continue planning up trips for the future and rereading the words of my desert heroes.
Lately, I have a new way to get in touch with the deserts without actually going there. And I found these new mentors for all things desert in unlikely places…well unlikely for me. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a podcast before a few months ago. But I ran across this article in, of all places, The New Yorker. And that’s how I discovered the wild, wacky, and wonderful Desert Oracle Podcast from the inestimable yarn spinner and desert chronicler, Ken Layne. With an artist’s eye, a poet’s language, and the voice of your favorite crazy uncle, Layne, from his studio in the tiny town of Joshua Tree, spins stories that could only happen in America’s deserts. There are stories of alien encounters, murder and mayhem, desert lore and mysteries, and people and events that seem endemic to where the brittlebrush grows and the sky stretches to infinity. To add extra atmosphere, Layne backs his yarns with the sound of coyote howls and the new age soundprints of a local Joshua Tree musical group. Apparently Layne writes books and gives live performances as did Mark Twain in an earlier era. In fact, Mr. Layne may be our own 21st Century Mark Twain. As I listen to his delightful podcasts, I think of the description the original Mark Twain had Huckleberry Finn say about his own writing: “Most of it were true, but some of it were stretched.” But, of course, it’s the “stretched” part that makes the writing so compelling. Check him out.
My second new desert mentor I found in an equally unlikely place, YouTube, which has never before compelled me to do much more than find tutorials on Photoshop editing. Was it an algorithm that led me to Wonderhussy Adventures? I can’t remember, but I’m telling you Wonderhussy is a character, did she not exist, that fiction, probably in the person of Ken Layne, would have to invent. In short, she is a former Las Vegas resident who spent the last 20 years or so cobbling together an eccentric living from various gigs as a photo girl at casinos, a street performer, and a nude model. But her real love is combing the deserts for odd historical sites, artifacts, and strange geological formations. There isn’t an abandoned mine shack, the site of a long-ago massacre, a hot spring in the middle of nowhere, an alleged UFO site, or dusty desert burger joint that she won’t explore. Sometimes she even brings a little Vegas with her in the form of some of her huge collection of costumes and props. So she might be touring you around a site associated with Charlie Manson’s Family while dressed as a Vegas showgirl and sipping a Martini. Her latest ongoing adventure has been a move to what she calls her “desert compound” on the edge of Death Valley. I’ve probably added several dozen hiking and desert oddity stops on my travel plans thanks to her. I highly recommend that you pay her YouTube channel a visit. Tell her I sent you. Because, I don’t know how, but I’m going to get her and Ken Layne together at my campsite somewhere in the desert to make them one of my patented gourmet campervan meals served with a few bottles of our best Rhone style wine. We’ll watch for UFOs, contemplate the stars and share our love for the desert.