Randall Henderson, Man of the Desert

Randall Henderson photo










By: Jack Pepper

Founder and for 22 years editor and publisher of Desert Magazine, Randall Henderson has spent more than 50 years exploring the lands and mountains of the American Desert. Through the pages of Desert Magazine he has created a “living desert” for millions of people who otherwise would think of the desert as only arid wastelands. His book, ON DESERT TRAILS, published in 1961, is a factual and fascinating report of his desert experiences.

ALTHOUGH RANDALL Henderson’s name has not been listed in DESERT Magazine tor more than five years, letters and manuscripts addressed to him as editor and publisher are received every day. And they will probably be received for years to come, for the name Randall Henderson is synonymous with not only DESERT Magazine, but the entire American Desert.

No one conquers the desert, but Henderson and his “old timer” friends know the desert as only those who have lived on the arid lands before the advent of air-conditioned homes, cars and paved highways could know it. Those long time friends include Indians, so called “desert rats”, prospectors, artists, scientists, missionaries, and nationally known figures such as Senator Barry Goldwater and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.

Randall Henderson is not loved by every one of his associates, but he is respected by all. No man who has used his physical and mental strength to help settle the desert could be a Pollyanna. He has been called stubborn, unreasonable and a man too set in his own ways. If this is true, which his thousands of friends and admirers will vehemently deny, it is these very characteristics which were needed by the men who explored and settled desert areas. The true desert, even today, is not for the timid nor for those incapable of making decisions and then lacking the strength to put them in action.

This is a story of Randall Henderson. It is also an attempt to bring a better understanding to the new desert dwellers of the concept of the so called “old timers.”

Fifty-four years ago Henderson himself was a newcomer to the desert. While attending the University of California to study economics and sociology, he worked as a sports reporter on the Los Angeles Times. His editor, Harry Carr, advised him to “leave this city rat race” and work for a small newspaper, the dream of every old time newspaperman.

After graduating from U.S.C., Henderson took the advice and gave up his $21 a week salary on the Times for a $6 a week income as an apprentice printer on the Parker, Arizona weekly Post.

Two years later he joined the small staff of the Blythe, California Herald and later went to Calexico, a California town on the Mexican border where he edited and published his own paper until 1933 when he sold it to start a printing shop in El Centro. During those years he learned two things; every phase of the newspaper and printing business, and to know the desert as only one who hikes or rides horseback into isolated areas in all kinds of weather can know the desert.

Both of these accomplishments were necessary when Henderson and Wilson McKinney, a newspaper associate and now editor of the California State Teachers Journal, conceived the idea of DESERT Magazine while sitting around a campfire in the Santa Rosa Mountains.

With only $6,000 capital, 600 charter subscribers, a few local advertisers who invested more for friendship than monetary gain, Henderson and McKinney published the first issue of DESERT Magazine on November 1, 1937. In the first issue, Henderson’s editorial, which has been widely quoted for 27 years, entitled “There Are Two Deserts” was published:

One is a grim desolate wasteland. It is the home of venomous reptiles and stinging insects, of vicious thorn bearing plants and trees, and of unbearable heat. This is the desert seen by the stranger speeding along the highway, impatient to be “out of this damnable country.” It is the desert visualized by those children of luxury to whom any environment in unbearable which does not provide all the comforts and services of a pampering civilization. It is the concept fostered by fiction writers who dramatize the tragedies of the desert for the profit it will bring them.

But the stranger and the unitiated see only the mask. 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. To these the Desert offers rare gifts: health-giving sunshine— a sky that is studded with diamonds— a breeze that bears no poison —a landscape of pastel colors such as no artist can duplicate—thorn-covered plants which during countless ages have clung tenaciously to life through heat and drought and wind and the depredations of thirsty animals, and yet each season send forth blossoms of exquisite coloring as a symbol of courage that has triumphed over terrifying obstacles.

To those who come to the Desert with friendliness it gives friendship; to those who come with courage, it gives new strength of character. Those seeking relaxation find release from the world of man-made troubles. For those seeking beauty, the Desert offers nature’s rarest artistry. This is the Desert that men and women learn to love.

In commenting on this editorial today and in refuting charges by some that “the old timers resent new people coming to the desert and only want to keep it for themselves” Henderson says:

“The popular image of the desert has changed very radically during the 26 years since I wrote the editorial. Air-conditioning, good highways and other mechanical miracles of an advancing technology have brought a new dimension to the public concept of ‘desert’. The ‘pampering civilization’ to which I referred, has now come to the arid Southwest. Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson and scores of other communities in this land of little rainfall now offer all the swank and luxury of the ultimate in sophistication.

“The desert has not changed, except where the landscape is being reconstructed to serve the needs and cater to the whims of hordes of vacationing visitors. But the lure that brings them here is something that hardly could have been envisioned half-a-century ago when I came to this desert land. To the old-timers, before the days of air-conditioning and automobiles, the desert was a challenge, its summer heat something to be endured, horses and buckboards quite adequate for our transportation needs. For recreation we explored canyons, tramped hills and mesas in quest of rare minerals, and played poker by the light of a kerosene lamp. We lived close to the good earth, arid as it was, and found it no hardship.

“A few of those who come to the desert today still derive their satisfactions in hiking along ancient Indian trails, camping at remote waterholes, learning the names and the habits of the wildlife species whom they accept as friends, and finding beauty in the desert sunsets.

“For a great majority of those who come today the lure is golf courses, temperature – controlled swimming pools, floor shows in swanky dining rooms, and speculation in the zooming property values of resort areas.

“Yes, there is a bit of nostalgia in what I am saying. But the desert has lost none of its natural charm. There are still thousands of little known canyons to be explored, trail less mountains to be climbed, rare species of plant life to be discovered, and lovely places where there is solitude for those who are aware of the tonic value of close communion with the natural world.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, wrote John Muir, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.

“That was true when John Muir lived. It is a truth of even greater significance today, for these are confusing times. While humans push and crowd and burn themselves out in a crazy stampede for more profits and higher wages and the satisfaction of personal vanities, Nature goes along in her own serene way, undisturbed by the petty bickering’s of the passing parade of homo sapiens.

“As one of the old-timers I do not resent the coming of golf carts and heated pools, cocktail parties and fabulous profits in real estate. I can live with these things. But I do object to the Chamber of Commerce fiction that they are a gauge of ‘progress’. For the desert has taught me that the professor in my philosophy class of long ago was right when he told me that true progress takes place only in the human heart and mind in the broadening of vision and understanding, the strengthening of the qualities of tolerance and generosity and humility.”

In starting DESERT Magazine in 1937 Henderson not only created the first and only publication devoted to the American Desert, which it still is today, but opened a market for many writers and artists who were first published in DESERT. These names include Nell Murbarger, Lucile and Harold Weight, John Hilton, Nina Paul Shumway, Dr. Edmund Jaeger, and scores of others too numerous to list.

With World War II, Henderson, who had been a pilot in World War I, again enlisted and asked for an assignment in the African deserts, “because I felt I could be of more service.” During his three years overseas the magazine was run by his daughter, Evonne Riddell, Lucile Weight and Bess Stacy. “Maybe I should have left earlier,” he recalls, “because under the direction of the girls the magazine showed a profit for the first time.”

While in Africa he decided to move the location of DESERT Magazine to Palm Desert. The move was delayed until Henderson and others were able to get the road from Indio to Banning paved and establish a Palm Desert post office. His longtime dream to house DESERT Magazine in a large building with a museum of the desert and have it as a meeting place for writers, artists and scientists was fulfilled when the present building was completed and the first issue published in the new building on August 1, 1948.

But the desert museum section was not to materialize. Cost of the building because of high post-war prices far exceeded his budget, preventing him from establishing the museum. Instead he converted the large front room into a gallery which turned out to be an excellent idea. The West’s greatest painted have exhibited there. Henderson was active in establishing the fine Desert Museum in Palm Springs.

In World War II Henderson’s son and former hiking and constant companion was killed in action with the Second Marine Division in the South Pacific. With no one in his family to assume the position as editor and publisher of DESERT Magazine, on his 70th birthday Henderson decided to sell the publication. Two years later he retired as publisher. Today, however, at 74, he is still active, exploring the desert and writing articles for DESERT and other publications to bring knowledge of the desert to others and to fight for the preservation of wilderness areas and the desert he knows and loves.

From the March, 1964 issue of Desert Magazine

NOTE: Randall Henderson passed away on July 4th, 1970. His obituary, was published in the September, 1970, issue of Desert Magazine


2 thoughts on “Randall Henderson, Man of the Desert

  1. I have two sons, so when I read of Randall Henderson, I think of his son as well. I find myself dwelling in his shoes; The elder Henderson is serving in the Army Air Corps in North Africa, and he receives word his Marine son, his pride and joy, has been killed in action in the Pacific. One of those unspoken horrors of any parent is that you may find yourself burying your own children. Does he break? If he did, not for long. Henderson writes his own son’s obituary. Whatever accolades, or short-comings, he might have had, here he earns the title hero. I think the obituary that appears in the Desert Magazine rivals his Two Desert editorial for gentle revelation. Its heart-rending, it shows some quirks of the man and the son, it shows character greater than I can imagine.


  2. Pingback: Randall Henderson Trail | Nobody Hikes in LA

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