Exploring the wild and weird world of the Desert Oracle


MYSTERY WIRE — Throughout history, seers and mystics have sought refuge in the desert for solitude, wisdom, and sometimes, madness. But one man seems to have found his groove in the barren wilderness.

His name is Ken Layne but might be better known now as the desert oracle. Layne has spent years exploring American deserts and telling the stories of colorful characters, magical tales, and mystical encounters.

The Desert Oracle

Journalist and explorer Ken Layne (Photo: Coachella Valley Independent)

Layne had a successful career in the world of high tech but felt the pull of the desert and never looked back. He now publishes the Desert Oracle.

Layne is a throw-back to journalism before the internet. He mainly sends his magazine to subscribers and shops who support the work he does. You won’t find all of the magazine contents on-line, but you can read some of his writing on his personal website.

He has said in the past he believes readers get much more out of a physical magazine rather than just scrolling online.

“I’d pick up these little booklets,” Layne said of growing up traveling the American west. “The booklets would be things like Death Valley Jeep trails, or lost mining camps of the Eastern Sierra, or cemeteries on America’s loneliest road in Nevada, and they all kind of look the same. They were small, kind of like the size of old maps that you’d put in your map box. And so you could put them in your pocket.”

It’s a style Layne has used for his magazine. It is small, with a basic yellow cover and black text and pictures.

Layne’s turf stretches from Texas to California through the Chihuahua, Sonoran, Mojave Deserts, and far north into the Great Basin Desert.

The Desert Oracle covers many topics with room for mythology, history, science, and a thin veneer of magic. “The desert is just filled with weird characters, strange history, outlandish schemes, magicians, UFOs, monsters,” Layne said in a recent interview with Mystery Wire photojournalist Matt Adams. “To me is just the most interesting place in the world and is all just out in our public lands, our backyards, wherever we live in the southwest.”

Layne has compiled his quarterly magazine into a book that you can buy online. Media across the country continue to find Layne’s stories and years of exploring an interesting topic.

“It’s kind of a pocket size book about the mythology, the folklore, the flora and fauna of our American Southwestern deserts.”

Ken Layne, Editor and Publisher of Desert Oracle

Recently The Guardian featured Layne in a story with this intriguing headline: Out in the wild: how Ken Layne created an alternative to clickbait in the desert.

MORE: Ken Layne writes about Ken Layne

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Searching for Pahranagat Man

The last time Mystery Wire encountered Ken Layne, it was part of a pilgrimage of sorts to find a strange petroglyph that exists only one place on earth, in an extremely remote section of the Mojave Desert. Layne was hunting for the alien-like Pahranagat Man.

Layne has investigated  petroglyphs all over the Southwest, but was pretty excited about this particular outing to see some of the most impressive and mysterious rock art anywhere.

“These look like classic monsters or aliens or gods people have seen that pop up in our culture all the time but the Lincoln County Pahranagat Men are also in the place where our mythology of the aliens are,” said Layne.

Some of the world’s most important and spectacular rock art is hidden in the rocks and valleys of Southern Nevada. Ancient petroglyphs, carved by the original Nevadans as many as 500 years ago,  depict otherworldly images of animals and creatures, including a mysterious figure found nowhere else on Earth. 

Mystery Wire went into the Great Basin Desert in Nevada to find “Pahranagat Man.” It is probably just a coincidence that the alien-like figure of Pahranagat Man is found in Lincoln County and nowhere else, the same county that is home to Area 51.

George Knapp and journalist Ken Layne look at petroglyphs in the Mount Irish area. (KLAS-TV)

But it is tricky to assign meaning to petroglyphs or to guess what the original artist was trying to convey.

The pockets of water and greenery that brought the first humans into Southern Nevada more than 11,000 years ago still retain cultural significance for the ancestors of indigenous peoples. Pahranagat Lake in Lincoln County is thought to be the equivalent of the Garden of Eden in some tribal lore.

In a few special places here and there in the desert, it is possible to look back through the centuries to get a glimpse of what life was like before Nevada existed.

Some of the images etched into rock speak for themselves. They depict game animals that were hunted by the nomadic family groups that periodically camped there because of the water and food sources.

But other images are anyone’s guess. Something coming out of the water? A celestial event? A big-headed, bug-eyed who knows what? Because so many ancient people drifted into the region over the centuries, it is not even clear who made what, or when.

“These would be the ancestors of modern day Shoshone and Paiute,” Layne said.

A single panel, showing what appears to be an extended family, must have been carved during many visits over many years. The existence of the petroglyphs is evidence that these were special, maybe even sacred places.

Shamans Knob atop the Mount Irish site, has an astonishing concentration of rock art, including the best known depiction of the namesake figure, Pahranagat Man himself. Because it’s public range, it falls to the BLM to protect and preserve these irreplaceable artifacts.

Pahranagat Man at Shaman Knob on Mount Irish in Lincoln County. (KLAS-TV)

“What do they say? Art is in the eye of the beholder?” BLM anthropologist Jake Hickerson said. “You can’t talk to the person who made it, so i’m not one to say you are wrong in your interpretation. You know some motifs are very obvious, the bighorn sheep on Mount Irish, that’s one of the highest concentrations in all of Nevada but then you get into the more abstract figures, say Pahranagat Man.”

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Hickerson says the traditional interpretation of the classic Pahranagat Man and alternate images of the same figure, might represent shamanic activity, things seen by  holy men on spiritual quests, or sentries posted to watch for intruders but no one really knows. Not even modern descendants.

Layne, who finally got to see Pahranagat Man for himself, leans as always toward more exotic, mystical explanations.

So, if we’ve got something that looks like an alien, maybe it was an alien, maybe it was a UFO like some of the images we’ve seen,” he said. “Then you see something that looks like a phantom with a sort of twisting devil tail and horns and arms. It’s a coincidence. There’s only one Area 51, and there’s only one place on Earth where you can see Pahranagat Man.”

Mount Irish is part of the Basin and Range National Monument. It takes some effort to find the petroglyphs, and a two-hour drive to Lincoln County, a valley that is adjacent to Area 51, but the trip is more than worth it. 

Rock Art Around Las Vegas
BLM list of petroglyph sites

There are other petroglyphs closer to Las Vegas in the Valley of Fire State Park, in the Sloan Canyon area on the southern edge of Las Vegas, and at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area just west of Las Vegas. Suffice to say, there are rules in place to protect these resources.

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