The desert is scorched and full of terrors.
On the surface, the inherent danger is the absence of water, the basis of life. But deeper than that, the life that does exist seems wired to lash out in a savage instant, as in the sting of a scorpion or the sudden strike of a rattlesnake.
It’s a place of puzzles and mysteries. A place of desperation and delirium. And often, it’s a place for those who prefer not to be found.
“There is a breed of desert men, not hiding exactly but gone to sanctuary from the sins of confusion,” John Steinbeck wrote in Travels With Charley. “These men have not changed with the exploding times except to die and be replaced by others like them.”
They are keepers of secrets, of passed-down tales concerning the wonders of the desert. These fables abound: varying accounts about a pair of prospectors who discovered untold riches deep in the hills but died or lost their treasures before returning to civilization. Vague directions to sand-covered ruins left behind by Ancient Peoples. Rumors of a Spanish galleon beached by some great flood. And of course, the fervent reports of UFOs.
But for all the desert’s frightening enigmas, Steinbeck also recognized the spiritual power of the sandy, desiccated expanse: “The great concepts of oneness and of majestic order seem always to be born in the desert,” he wrote.
We came here to explore both the terrors and the wonders. The bounds of this issue stretch from Death Valley in the north to the Salton Sea in the south. In between lies the Inland Empire: a vague territory formed by a Venn diagram of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.
In the pages that follow, you’ll visit the decaying resort towns around the putrid Salton Sea, explore the Mojave’s dubious reputation as a good place to hide a body, and be introduced to the Desert Oracle, a periodical edited by Ken Layne, whose love for these parched lands has led him to become their champion and chronicler.
Who could love a place whose main descriptors draw on dark and evil language? These wilds are dotted with valley of Death, Devil’s Hole, Furnace Creek, and so on. But if hell is on earth, perhaps a bit of heaven waits for those who have eyes to see. In his 1901 tome, The Desert, John C. Van Dyke sees beyond what so many have written off as a useless badland: “The waste places of the earth, the barren deserts, the tracts of forsaken men given over to loneliness, have a peculiar attraction of their own. The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation, are the very things with which every desert wanderer eventually falls in love.”
Perhaps he’s right.