Desperate times, desperate measures, etc.

Monks On the Desert Highway: The Greenfriar Superhero Origin Story

Big ideas come a little easier in the desert wilderness. It’s quiet and it’s severe, and there’s space to think.

I lived alongside Joshua Tree National Park for some of this century, and toward the end of my time there became friends with Jay Babcock, the editor of the underground culture magazine Arthur. Jay was furious about a “Dollar General” chain store coming to our little crossroads town, a town already precariously balanced between its funky handful of locally owned businesses and the usual plastic-letter banality of self-storage units and Subway sandwich franchises.

We were drinking wine at my house one night while Jay ranted about the Dollar General and how people had to do something to stop it, but the only good option was years of effort away: elections, incorporation, and zoning to protect the desert landscape and little town’s feel. Meanwhile, a lot of otherwise-interested citizens didn’t even know which rectangle of desert along Highway 62 had been marked for takeover by this smaller-scale version of Walmart.

“Let’s go out there on the weekends wearing green monk robes,” I said. “Protest the destruction of the Holy Desert by the corporate vultures who prey on small businesses in small towns.”

Jay said something like, “We could wave and smile at the people going by on the highway, get them engaged in the operation of their community.”

Both of us were working on variations of this idea before we met. I had been imagining a kind of eco-warrior religious order, as characters in a kind of sequel to my short novel Dignity. But I couldn’t get the green-cloaked characters right—they were too austere, too boring, too much John the Baptist and not enough John Belushi.

Jay lived with his partner Stephanie in a compound of High Desert cabins, where he immersed himself in the life and writings of Peter Berg, a founder of both the 1960s’ radical community/performance group the Diggers and “bioregionalism” as a civic ethic. Why not do some roadside theater for a good cause?

We were out on Highway 62 a couple of weekends later, with a campground-style wooden sign claiming the property as a “community nature park” and a white tent for shade and lemonade. Crucially, we had our hooded robes of coarse green cotton, for we had become Brother Jay and Brother Layne of the Greenfriars. (The monk robes were easily found on Amazon.)

A wide range of Joshua Tree society was represented by those who drove up or walked up to see what the weirdos were doing. There was an old dude walking back to his trailer after a Sunday morning visit to the liquor store up the road, and there was the actress and performance artist Ann Mangnuson, who keeps a home in the High Desert. A carload of fundamentalists stopped to talk with us about matters of the soul, as did various eco-builders, artists and other local eccentrics.

When our “nature park” was crowded with German tourists, local realtors and my own small children, a woman of maybe 25 pulled up in a battered compact car and just stared at me through the driver’s side window. She looked like she had been crying for hours, maybe all through the night.

“I saw you waving to me when I drove by,” she said when I walked over. “I knew it was a sign, so I had to turn around.”

She saw a friar beckoning her from the California roadside. Of course it was a sign. She was vague about the big decision and the people and factors it involved, and it wasn’t my place to ask for details or come up with a rational plan of action or yell at her to get it together. I had put on this weird uniform and now I was supposed to listen, nod, and provide some words of compassion to a total stranger.

The Greenfriars finished our first ministry at the Joshua Tree Saloon across the road, invited there by other locals who bought us pints and talked about the daunting hassles of living out in the Mojave Desert. We listened, as we did from our tent at the farmers market a few weeks later, running a shade-and-water station for a new community group of bicyclists. We were ready for a certain degree of outrage or mockery. Instead we got memories of Catholic school from total strangers, and rock climbers sharing their tales of meeting Buddhist monks in the Himalayas. Others would walk or pedal over, state their religious affiliation or proud lack thereof, and dive right into the very deepest questions of morality and mortality, or at least the pressing need for bike lanes on a highway busy with convoys of tanks and troop transports from the 29 Palms Marine base.

I left the desert later that year, after a decade in various arid outposts. The Greenfriars couldn’t really figure out what to do next, anyway. Was the goal to be a local protest group or an Internet meme or an actual movement? Should the friars start a brewery? Register as a 501(c)3? Were a couple of bearded desert libertines supposed to become street preachers?

We did none of those things—not yet, anyway. But the highway friars did bring a little attention to Dollar General’s plans to build an ugly and unwanted thing in our little desert town, and Jay and the anti-Dollar General citizens kept fighting, both in the courts and along Highway 62. A local stuntman even set himself on fire in protest, in a perfectly Southern Californian variation of self-immolation. (That event raised $4,000 for the legal fight.)

And here is the happy almost-ending: Dollar General’s plans are currently blocked by the courts. It’s not over, but it’s headed that way.

As for me, I kept kicking around the idea of the Greenfriars. They were good characters. They needed to do something, something important. And when this website was coming together and we faced the usual modern nightmare of finding an available domain name that made sense, I remembered I had purchased Greenfriar.com a couple of years earlier. And this site found its name. The artist Patrick Moberg did a series of charming drawings that completely ignored what I asked for, and of course I loved all his little Greenfriars so much that we now use them throughout the site.

And now we’re here. What’s next?

Ken Layne is the editor of Greenfriar.

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