With images like these, writer Marshal South enchanted the readers of Desert Magazine, and offered a glimpse of the primitive life he and his family lived for 17 years on a secluded desert mountaintop in a far flung corner of what is now Anza Borrego State Park.
The story certainly captivated us. In a curious sequence of events, we had the opportunity to experience the saga of Marshal South and his family in a uniquely personal way.
The Story of Marshal & Tanya South
It was 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression. A writer, poet, and artist, Marshal wrote that he felt “out of step” with city life. In his words, he and his wife Tanya were “tired, temperamental misfits and innate barbarians not equal to the job of coping with modern high-power civilization.”
The couple packed their belongings in a Model T Ford and headed off to explore the vast desert in search of a new home. They sought a place where they could live simply, with the freedom to pursue the creative and spiritual endeavors that they deemed more essential than the quest for money and material possessions.
They found their paradise on a remote mountain in southern California. Ghost Mountain, they called it, for the wispy ghost-like trails that wound up the mountainside. Barren of trees, with no source of water, the mountain is a hardscrabble landscape of boulders, agave, and cacti. Exposed to the winds, snow, and blazing sun, it is not a welcoming place. And yet, it is extraordinarily beautiful.
On Ghost Mountain, Marshal and Tanya created their version of utopia. They built a two-room adobe home, had three children, and lived as close to the land as is possible in such a harsh environment. Everything they needed for survival—including water—had to be hauled up the steep, rocky trail. The closest town, Julian, is 25 miles away on a winding mountain road.
For nine years, Marshal wrote a monthly column for Desert Magazine, enthralling readers who longed for a simple life. He wrote beautifully and seductively about the desert and their lifestyle. But the hardships of primitive life on the mountain eroded their relationship. Among other struggles, Tanya wanted the children to have the benefits of city life. They no longer shared the same dream, and their grand experiment ended in 1947 in a bitter divorce. Tanya took the children. Marshal died the following year from heart failure. For the rest of her long life, Tanya refused to speak of her experience on Ghost Mountain.
Our Journey Behind The Scenes
The story of Marshal and Tanya South captured our imagination when we first visited Anza Borrego State Park in 2004. At the visitor center, we happened upon “Ghost Mountain: An Experiment In Primitive Living,” an intriguing and beautifully crafted documentary about the South family. We made the journey to Ghost Mountain, where we climbed the steep trail and imagined what life must have been like in this spectacular but harsh environment.
On the way back from our day on the mountain, Eric said, “I think I know the filmmaker. I ran track in high school with a guy named John McDonald, and I know he went to school to become a filmmaker.”
Fast forward a decade. Eric has connected with his friend John on Facebook. Sure enough, he’s the creator and producer of “Ghost Mountain.” John tells us to let him know the next time we’re going to be in Anza Borrego. And so we do, and plans are made to meet up at the mountain for a special guided tour with the filmmaker who breathed life into the story of the South family.
A Special Tour Of Ghost Mountain
With our friends Ted and Katherine, we drive the 32 miles to Ghost Mountain from our campground in Borrego Palm Canyon. It is a fun reunion for Eric and John—they haven’t seen each other in almost 50 years, but there is an easy and immediate camaraderie and sharing of memories.
It’s a chilly day, with brisk winds and misting rain. As we begin our adventure, John sets the stage, sharing photos and tales of Marshal and Tanya South as we trek single file up the steep trail, climbing 1200 feet in one mile.
We reach the mountaintop to survey the same views that greeted Marshal and Tanya 85 years ago. Little has changed since they lived here, and it is just as magnificent as we remember from our visit a decade ago.
Life On Ghost Mountain
John describes the layout of the house—by the early 1940s, the two-room abode measured 15 feet by 40 feet. There were large windows facing east to capture the morning sun, an adobe stove for cooking, and a fireplace.
They collected native foods such as agave, cactus fruit, and chia seeds; grew a small garden; kept goats for milk and bees for honey; hunted rabbits. The land could not support them, though, and they depended on grains, potatoes, beans, and fruit bought on infrequent trips to Julian. Six months would sometimes pass before Tanya and the children went to town. They crafted their dishes from local clay; made cordage from yucca and plaited it into rope and sandals; wove cloth and blankets on a small loom; and made their own soap and beeswax candles.
John shows us the place where they obtained clay for their pottery, the rock kiln where they fired their creations, the pit where they roasted agave stalks, the garden site, the sundial, the secluded place amongst the rocks where Marshal built a simple retreat for writing. With the aid of John’s photos, we were able to visualize the daily life of the family: Marshal and Tanya hauling water up the trail, the boys dressed in loincloths and shooting with bows, the children sailing tiny boats made from walnut shells in a puddle of water.
Endings And Beginnings
Bit by bit, the home is being reclaimed by the land. All that remains are a few crumbling adobe walls, a rusted metal bed, and an empty doorway that frames the magnificent view. The clouds drift across the vast desert sky, ravens call hoarsely, and the wind whispers stories of the dreams of the South family and the native peoples who inhabited the land long ago.
As our magical time on Ghost Mountain comes to a close, John pulls out a silver flask of the finest Scotch whiskey. He hands each of us a tiny silver cup and pours us a shot as we toast one another: “To enduring friendship…to passion…to following our dreams…”