The Desert Magazine 1937-1985
By Michael Vermette
I’ve been in love with the desert since I was a kid. I grew up in San Bernardino and spent a lot of time exploring the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. After many years away, I’m again spending time exploring the desert back-country and seeing first-hand the evidence of the people, places, and events that took place when the desert was a true frontier. Whenever I run across an old cabin, I have the same questions. Who lived there and what was their story? What was their life like in such an isolated environment? While we can still find evidence of their existence, their stories are fading over time. Knowing the history of what I’m seeing has always made my explorations more enjoyable. I love to talk to the “old timers” about the desert but they’re also getting harder and harder to find nowadays.
One of my favorite resources for planning my wanderings is “The Desert Magazine.” If you’re interested in desert history, Desert Magazine will give you hours of enjoyment and allow you to better understand the rich history of our local deserts. You will conclude, as I have, that we’re lucky to live in this part of the world where rugged individualists paved the way for our modern Western spirit. I’m sure many of you have either heard of Desert Magazine or have even read issues and articles. I’ll attempt hereto pass on some additional info to those people and perhaps introduce some new people to a great resource for desert history.
In 1937, a man named Randall Henderson started up a modest little magazine that was simply named “The Desert Magazine.” The magazine contained articles about the deserts in California, Arizona, and Nevada written by people who experienced much of the history first hand and who clearly loved the beauty and serenity of the desert.
In the first issue published in November 1937, Henderson wrote an editorial titled “There Are Two Deserts.” This editorial set the tone for the many issues to follow. He said of the two deserts that “One is a grim desolate wasteland. It is the home of venomous reptiles and stinging insets, or vicious thorn-covered plants and trees, and unbearable heat. This is the desert seen by the stranger speeding along the highway, impatient to be out of ‘this damnable country’.” He also wrote “The other desert -- the real desert -- is not for the eyes of the superficial observer, or the fearful soul or the cynic. It is a land, the character of which is hidden except to those who come with friendliness and understanding.” From the tone of Henderson’s writing, you can see that he loved the desert and for this reason he was able to attract hundreds of authors who shared his understanding of the beauty to be found there.
If you aren’t already familiar with Desert Magazine, here are a couple of ways to find all 534 issues published between 1937 and 1985:
This website is apparently a labor of love dedicated to preserving the history of Desert Magazine. The clean and organized format allows you to read selected articles from various issues and to download copies of both single issues and annual archives from 1937-1985. There is no charge for downloading issues or archives and the website is free of ads or commercial banners. If you enjoyed it or found it useful, use the ‘Contact’ tab to let the author know his work is appreciated.
This website is a loyalist’s attempt to preserve and continue the legacy of Desert Magazine in the form of “The Desert Magazine of the Southwest.” It contains archived issues in convenient “flipbook” format. Unfortunately, the issues cannot be downloaded but it is a great place to read selected issues and browse their indexes. You can purchase a set of two DVDs containing all 534 issues in PDF format.
The spirit of Desert Magazine lives on. A writer by the name of John Grasson has published a new magazine titled “Dezert Magazine” (note the ‘z’ in the spelling) at http://dezertmagazine.com styled much like the original magazine and containing updated information of interest to all desert explorers. And yes, some of you may have noticed that the Desert Explorers Newsletter is also carrying on the spirit!
As to the original Desert Magazine, Randall Henderson continued on as publisher until 1958. You may have heard his name before as he played an important role in establishing Joshua Tree National Monument (now Joshua Tree National Park). Henderson graduated from USC in 1911 and initially worked as a sports reporter for the LA Times in college. He died in 1970, 12 years after selling Desert Magazine. The magazine was subsequently sold two more times.
Desert Magazine’s headquarters started out in El Centro, CA in 1937 but moved to Palm Desert in 1948. It continued to publish during WWII when the Army, represented by General George S. Patton, established the Desert Training Center. The center, needed to train the U.S. Army for the expected invasion of North Africa, covered 18,000 square miles of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. Over 1.2 million men were trained at the Desert Training Center between 1942 and 1944. Many of the men trained there eventually moved to Southern California after the war and became readers of the magazine.
There is something for everyone in Desert Magazine. The writers, fellow explorers, and original ‘desert rats’ wrote stories about the indigenous people, miners, residents, artists, mineral collectors, plants, animals, and geology of the desert. Their tales often give us a glimpse of the human story behind the book history of the Southwest. You may also enjoy reading the advertisements that reflect the culture and technology of the era.
As you read through the issues, you’ll find that during the final years in the 1980’s, publication became spotty and the magazine struggled to stay alive. The magazine was published monthly until 1979, then with occasional gaps in issues until 1982, and then only sporadically thereafter until it finally went out of business in 1985. Attempts were made to re-start the magazine, but none lasted very long. You’ll find archived copies of “American Desert Magazine”, one of the several follow-on attempts, on several websites. While the enormous popularity and authenticity of Desert Magazine led to attempts to copy the format, none fully captured the spirit and authenticity of the desert found in the original.
In the last couple of years, I’ve used stories and articles in Desert Magazine to plan trips to local areas. The maps accompanying the article can give you an area and using Google Earth will likely pinpoint the location. Just knowing what was there in the early days can lead you to some great locations that may now only be ruins or rusted remnants. Some of the places talked about in the magazine are now in Wilderness Areas and are no longer accessible by vehicle. On the plus side, those places are often more intact and they can still be accessed by hiking trails or walking old abandoned roads. Knowing the history of a place before I visit makes it all the more enjoyable and fun to talk about around the campfire.
One of my favorite stories in the magazine is about “Pegleg Pete”, who supposedly found a very rich gold nugget field somewhere in the Chocolate Mountains. The story goes that the nuggets he found had a very distinctive color, having gained a ‘desert varnish’ from laying on the surface. Many have looked for Pegleg’s gold but it was never reported found. In 1965, the editor of Desert Magazine received a package with some gold nuggets from a man who claimed to have found Pegleg’s gold. The nuggets sent to the editor matched the story of Peg Leg’s ‘black’ nuggets. The mystery discoverer corresponded several times with the publisher, but his identity was never discovered. This fascinating story is contained in several issues of Desert Magazine starting in March 1965. The story was told again most recently at DesertUSA and can be found at https://www.desertusa.com/desert-prospecting/pegleg.html
I have a theory that every civilization needs a ‘frontier’, or place where rugged individualists and genuinely independent folks can go who just don’t fit in elsewhere. We don’t really have that kind of frontier any more but perhaps space exploration will provide one for future generations. In the meantime, I’ll just go wander around desert landscapes and breathe a bit easier.