One must have something of the poet or the artist or the dreamer to build his home upon a hilltop. Most men build theirs in holes and hollows. It is easier. — Marshal South
This time of year, the lonely peak in the Anza-Borrego Desert known as Ghost Mountain is consumed by heat. Soon after daybreak, the sun burns and thickens the air to the point where it hardly seems worth breathing. Amidst the dust and the silence, someone might, just conceivably, be inspired to camp for a few days. But to choose this place for a home, to try to survive here month after month, year after year, building a mud-walled shelter, conceiving children, raising them up from infancy, to do all that in the absence of not just roads or telephones or electricity but even of water (other than what could be hauled up the trail or caught as rainfall) — this, for most people, would be unthinkable. Yet Marshal South did this, and something more.
For a seven-year period between 1939 and 1946, South convinced legions of magazine readers that his “experiment” on the arid San Diego County mountaintop was something glorious. Through him, readers thumbed their noses at society’s strictures. Some were so inspired they wanted to follow South into the wilderness.
Anyone who read South’s monthly column in Desert Magazine came to know a defiant soul, ready to rail at the most benevolent of conventions and yet one who somehow managed to make his iconoclasm seem all-American.
His regular readers came to feel he was an old friend, if one with no past before Ghost Mountain. In all the words that he penned about his life in the realm of the native American, South never once disclosed that he himself was born in London in 1886. When he finally died, his obituary in the San Diego Union would state that he had come from England to the United States in 1902 (he would have been 16). The obituary also reported that South moved to California five years later. At some point, he married and had one son, whom he named Marshal Jr., but the marriage ended in divorce.
He was to marry again, in Santa Ana, in 1923. This time the 37-year-old South chose a woman a dozen years his junior. According to Marshal’s accounts, Tanya, his second wife, had once worked “long, busy hours in the fevered offices of Wall Street,” but in the late 1920s, both Souths apparently were trying to support themselves by writing. It’s unclear whether Tanya dabbled in any genre besides poetry, but Marshal wrote both poetry and fiction (at least a half dozen of his pulp Western novels were published in England). He also may have earned some money from journalism; he told one Julian resident that he had worked as a correspondent for the London Daily Times.
All this literary activity apparently stalled in the Depression. “We were broke,” Marshal later recorded. “The bottom had fallen out of our particular writing market and left us practically penniless.” By early 1931, a desperate Marshal lay awake at night, listening to the sound of the wind outside his Oceanside bedroom and thinking about times spent in the desert. "Oddly. I remembered again the things which an old Yaqui crone had told me once in a little village in Sonora,” he wrote a dozen years later.
Queer things, prophetic things — it was as though some compelling force was reaching out from those lonely lands that I remembered and was tugging at me "Let's go out and live in the desert” I had said to Tanya. And she had jumped at the suggestion with an eagerness which we have both talked about since.
What happened next has been recorded by Marshal in a few key articles The one that reached the widest audience was published on March 11, 1939, in the Saturday Evening Post. In that piece, he further explains the forces that drove him, at age 45, into San Diego’s barren wilds “We were tired ... out of step," he wrote. “We were temperamental misfits and innate barbarians and we were not equal to the job of coping with modem, high-power civilization.”
From his various written accounts comes this sketch: One day in February (of 1931) they packed their few possessions including books and bedding, into their aged Model T and headed over the Laguna Mountains then down into the desert, following the road that’s now known as S2. "On the second night we made camp in a little natural clearing in the midst of a wilderness of creosotes and yuccas It was a thirsty, silent land of dry, sandy washes; little, hemmed-in valleys; and rocky, barren mountains” After a night spent sleeping under the stars, serenaded by coyotes they woke up to explore a silent, rock-walled canyon. Then suddenly, they stopped.
They freed “[a] gulf filled brim to brim with a weird, level sea of misty blue distance, that was the almost terrifying ghost of the real, long-dead ocean which had once rolled there. On the farther shore of this phantom stretch of water; beyond Yuma and the Rio Colorado, loomed faintly the distant mountains of Arizona. While further to southward, gleaming like a silver sward upon the blue haze that was Mexico, lay the Laguna Salada, backed by the dim, pastel peaks that walled the Gulf of Cortez. Silence and immensity and an awesome peace that passed all understanding lay over everything. Without speaking we stood there together a long time, staring. Then we went back to the car and began to unpack."
South writes that “thin, ghostly trails” led from this canyon up the landmark that he and Tanya eventually named “Ghost Mountain.” He says over the course of a week, they investigated the mountainside, “seeking an easy trail to the summit. And we had convinced ourselves there was no easy trail.” He says their disappointment mixed with jubilation, however, because “paradise needs defense. Not easily would the despoiling hand of civilization find access here.”
Finally, they “cast caution to the winds and made a frontal attack,” with Tanya bearing an axe and a can of pineapple and Marshal shouldering a 7’x9’ palmetto tent. Upon a ridge not far from the summit, they came upon a "natural saucer” bordered by junipers, ocotillos, agaves, and giant boulders. “We dumped our burdens in the shade of a juniper and dropped breathless beside [it]. A tiny, jewel-eyed, turquoise-hued lizard, sunning itself on a weathered hunk of granite, cocked its head at us speculatively. Past our feet through the pattern of shade flung by the branches above us, a huge pinacate beetle, solemn and dignified as an old rabbi in a long frock coat, ambled, wrapped in meditation. Overhead against the dazzling glint of the blue sky a lone buzzard wheeled. All about was the drowsy hush of peace” In one article Marshal claims that as he and his wife surveyed this scene Tanya murmured, “It’s heaven,” and added, “Oh, why didn’t we come here years and years ago.”
A skeptical reader might have noted that there were plenty of reasons. According to Marshal’s own description of the place the rocks and sagebrush and mescals so crowded the ridge that there was scarcely room to walk and “no space even for a tiny tent.” That first day, Marshal chopped and hacked at the undergrowth, and Tanya lugged the “ousted vegetation” to one side “Sweat ran down our faces and our bodies. Before beginning we had piled our clothes in the cleft of a great rock... [but] we were [still] desperately hot.” By the end of that day, they nonetheless had cleared a little patch, where they staked the tent. Then they returned to their camp at the base of the mountain.
The next day they transported “a few flimsy poles" up to the summit, where they cleared more ground and then nailed the poles together “in a sketchy framework for a larger shelter” That night, however, as Marshal and Tanya slept in the base camp, vicious winds (which haunted Ghost Mountain, they were to learn) ripped the sticks apart. Undiscouraged, the couple dragged rocks together to erect a low wall, then raised the poles again, this time wiring together the joints and comers and fastening the tent to juniper trees with yet more wire. “That night the wind gods came again,” Marshal writes. “They howled and yelled.” But this time the thin framework held, and two days later. Marshal and Tanya moved permanently to the mountaintop.
Before long, they christened their encampment Yaquitepec. Properly pronounced YAK' ee te peck’ (according to Marshal), the name simply meant “hill of the Yaqui,” a reference to a tribe of “fiercely freedom-loving” Indians in Sonora, Mexico. The first actual house that the Souths erected there was a hastily assembled structure made from 8’x10’ sheets of fiber board and roofed with corrugated iron, all of which had to be wrestled up the savage, mile-long trail.
But it was water, rather than shelter, “that chiefly worried us,” Marshal wrote. As a first measure toward establishing some drinking supply, the Souths paid S1.25 for a 50-gallon iron oil barrel. “With infinite toil we washed it clean and managed, between us, eventually to get it to the mountain crest." Barely had they set the barrel in place and connected the spout when a freak thunderstorm swept in from the northwest and rewarded them with ten gallons. "It was a good omen, that.... It encouraged us mightily.” Nevertheless, throughout their first year Marshal and Tanya hauled “practically all the water for Yaquitepec over 14 miles of desert and packed it up the mountain, climbing with it, 10 and 12 gallons at a time, slung on a sort of stretcher between us.”
In Marshal’s accounts of Yaquitepec, the years from 1931 through 1939 are treated in only the briefest manner. The "waterworks” expanded slowly, “First to a hundred-and-sixty-gallon galvanized-iron tank, which we picked up secondhand for three dollars and almost killed ourselves hauling up the mountain,” then progressing to cisterns made of concrete packed up the trail 50 pounds at a time. Buildings took shape only at the most sluggish pace, shaped from the mud and the meager supply of water.
Establishing the household must have been the most Sisyphean of enterprises — yet no reader would have known it from Marshal’s breezy summaries of those first years. “We had never known such complete satisfaction before.” Their first child, a boy named Rider Del Sol South, was born in January of 1934; Tanya went into Oceanside for the actual delivery. The Souths quickly introduced their newborn to the wilderness, and a second son named Rudyard was born, also in Oceanside, in December of 1937. By the time Marshal wrote the 1939 Saturday Evening Post article, he would report that the boys had grown into “bright, alert youngsters; both with the glint of the sun on their limbs and with a health that needs no doctoring.”
The Saturday Evening Post piece “attracted widespread comment” Randall Henderson, the editor of Desert Magazine told his readers in introducing them to Marshal South in December 1939. That month Marshal contributed to Desert Magazine an article about Bill and Lena Campbell of the neighboring Vallecitos Valley. However, “Marshal has promised there will be more stories from Yaquitepec for Desert Magazine readers in the future,” Henderson announced.
The first appeared in the February 1940 edition of Desert, and it read like a personal letter. Marshal painted a vivid word picture of the family’s 1939 Christmas tree, constructed out of “carefully cut branches of berry-laden mountain juniper” and decorated with tinsel and a silver star.
In ensuing installments, Desert Magazine readers learned that March was the month when Tanya and Marshal made jerky, and Marshal offered two detailed recipes for preparing the dried meat. Another month they read Marshal’s assurance that chia plant seeds — as fine as grains of sand — could be ground into highly nutritious meal and eaten as mush or baked in cakes. In yet another installment, he discoursed upon the making of tortillas. “Never, never attempt to use a rolling pin.... A tortilla must be patted out by hand, patted lovingly and with the discernment and care of an artist. Then when the limp disk of dough is of the correct wafer-like thinness, it must be dropped quickly on the sizzling hot iron sheet...” Sometimes the iron roof at Yaquitepec got hot enough to invite an entire batch of whole-wheat tortillas, he reported. “A few hours — and one turning — and they are dry and sunbaked enough to lay away in the storage sacks in the big earthenware cookie jar that is a product of our own hands.”
South concluded his chronicle of that year by writing about its most significant addition — a baby girl whom he and Tanya named Victoria. Then the articles stopped. But readers called for more dispatches from Ghost Mountain, and in May of 1941 Henderson announced a new series that eventually ran under the title “Desert Refuge.”
Over the years, it provided readers with detailed insights into the mind of Marshal South. Many a month he devoted many a paragraph to recording the presence of pack rats and pocket mice, lizards and skunks, scorpions and centipedes and snakes both venomous and benign. Birds he noted with much pleasure. “[H]igh monarch above all our orioles and sparrows and wrens and shrikes and road-runners and ravens... is our condor” he mentioned one month. “He does not live here. But his home is somewhere within easy cruising range. And he pays us fairly frequent visits....”
At other times, South gave center stage to Yaquitepec’s small human inhabitants, sharing his offspring’s daily chatter, rendered faithfully down to every last comic mispronunciation. Rider was serious and mechanically gifted, Rudyard artistic and temperamental, while Victoria was a dancing sprite.
Totally isolated in this forlorn wasteland, they devised amusements that Marshal took obvious pride in recounting. They built “fairy houses” fashioned with little stones and “shaded by tiny twig trees and with proportionately sized bordering com patches, all carefully planted with bits of leaf and grass and cactus spines.” They collected — bugs, keys, nails, pebbles, pottery shards. They shaped and bored whistles from smooth, white ocotillo wood, and they herded their pet tortoises. At one point, 11-year-old Rider became convinced that if he worked hard enough he could succeed at devising a perpetual-motion machine. Rudyard, at age 7, took to writing his own stories and then setting them with the type of an ancient printing press possessed by his father. At 5, Victoria showed great promise at chess.
They were schooled by Tanya, seated at a big plank table under a shade arbor. Marshal often referred to these lessons in his columns, but he still got queries from readers about the children’s future. Early in 1946, he addressed the issue head on, claiming that his ultimate dream was that the children might grow up, many, and with him establish a self-supporting, cooperative “clan center” devoted to the production of "handicraft, art, publishing, and industry.”
And why not? By Marshal’s accounts, his brood had already proved itself to be a sort of waterless Swiss Family Robinson. They wove baskets from grass and whittled sewing needles from Juniper twigs. They dipped candles made from beeswax and then fashioned a chandelier from “a hefty limb” of desert mesquite. From local clay, they made pottery that they fired in pits heated by burning dead mescal butts or ancient yucca trunks, both of which had to be gathered laboriously.
When problems arose, they always solved them with swift ingenuity (or so the columns suggested). Once, for instance, when a protracted dry spell had emptied one of the family’s cisterns, they had painted its interior as a waterproofing measure. Not long afterward, a “grand thunderstorm” had filled it, but to everyone’s horror, the newly dried paint made the rainwater taste and smell so bad that the children spat it out. “And then,” Marshal wrote,
I recalled something about the properties of charcoal. And we did have charcoal. There was quite a heap of it left-over and wind-cleaned remnants from baking fires that had been swept out of our old beehive mud oven. We hunted out a big stoneware crock [and w]hen it was cleaned out and filled with the odorous and undrinkable water I heaped in a generous amount of the clean juniper charcoal, covering the whole crock with a floating layer almost six inches deep. After letting it stand for a day we experimented, siphoning off the clear water from below the charcoal layer. Success! Taste and odor had almost entirely disappeared.
Some Desert readers wrote letters to the editor begging for more such detail and for less of Marshal’s theoretical pontifications. But there was no chance of stifling the latter.
The desert patriarch’s philosophy was an antiwar, pro-ecological brew seasoned with its own oddball flavors. He preached the moral superiority of bare feet, for example, and informed his readers that Nature intended for hair to be uncut. Clothing he saw as a "body-choking impediment,” and electric lighting assaulted man’s “sensitive eye nerves” and ruined his vision.
Such positions were minor subtheses of Marshal’s overarching theme. "Civilized man is so insulated in his houses, his paved cities, his shoes and his insulating armor of clothes that he is immune to natural vibrations.” he declared. In July of 1941, he wrote that humanity had lost "the knowledge of how to live.... Dazzled by a greed for material things, it has sold its birthright for a ‘mess of pottage' Pottage that is now, alas, red with torrents of blood."
Marshal occasionally admitted that the Souths themselves weren’t always immune to the enticements of progress. At one point, in order to save precious fuel, the family resorted to building a crude kiln for firing pottery, even though Marshal had earlier crowed that the Indian-style ‘‘old way” — keeping a bonfire going over the assembled pieces until the pots were baked — was best. Another time. Marshal led two donated burros up the mountain to serve as pack animals despite his own previous warning that the “inevitable end” of such a step would be “grim ruin.”
About other inconsistencies in the "glorious experiment in primitive living'’ he was even more circumspect, never deigning to justify, for instance, the exuberant Christmas celebrations that unfolded at Yaquitepec. Every December, Tanya would “boil and bake and mix” homemade fruitcakes and plum puddings; a shimmering, ecologically correct “tree” would be constructed; and talk of Santa Claus would temporarily displace reflections on the noble Indian life in Marshal’s column. In fact, Yaquitepec itself was hardly representative of any form of native American culture (as impressive as it may have been as testimony to the Souths’ industriousness). By the early 1940s, the house had grown to a sturdy structure graced with glass-paned windows and a substantial chimney, something that, though rough, wouldn’t look that incongruous today on some lot in Lakeside Inside the family slept on box spring mattresses, and sometimes at night they caught broadcasts of operas on a small Majestic radio, a present from a friend.
Marshal didn’t dwell on these incongruities, nor did he allow much unpleasantness to intrude upon his literary province. Not that Marshal never wrote about the harsher aspects of life at Yaquitepec. He would, for example refer to the heat, which in the summer “hovers around 110 degrees and often goes higher?’ But though the children might “scan the horizon anxiously” for thunderclouds, “there is health in heat and in sunshine” Marshal reminded readers in more temperate zones. “The dry heat of the desert is charged with benefit for the human body.”
The winters brought freezing storms in which the family surely must have huddled miserably in front of Yaquitepec’s skimpy fires, but such scenes never made it to the pages of Desert Magazine. Marshal wrote only about his children “having a grand time snowballing” and wolfing down bowls of snow covered with honey.
He was an unreconstructed Pollyanna even in reporting upon what happened in October of 1942. Desert subscribers were jolted to read then that the South family members had abruptly padlocked their door and turned their back on Ghost Mountain. “The reason is water — or rather, shortage of water. The meager cisterns... proved inadequate for a family of five with two goats and two burros,” an editor’s note explained.
The Souths had thus piled their earthly possessions into an old jalopy and a discarded two-wheel trailer and took to the road in search of another desert homesite, one with a water supply. As they limped throughout much of the Southwest, homeless, often having no idea where they would camp for the night Marshal somehow continued to produce his monthly chronicles. “There is the sound of grinding,” he wrote one evening. “Out by the car, where the little hand grain mill is attached by wing-nut bolts to its ‘on the trail’ position on the running board, Tanya is grinding flour from ... hard small-grained red wheat... Victoria has gone to sleep on a blanket stretched besides me in the shade of the cottonwood.” Yet rather than being frightened or discouraged, the children thought the exile to be “too gloriously exciting,” Marshal claimed. “For them this home-search could go on indefinitely.” While he himself allowed that it would be “good to root down for a while and weave a thatch above one’s head and call it ‘home,’ ” Marshal himself insisted, “there is joy to seeking. Joys and surprises that spring up unexpectedly to cheer hard trails as though with a magic bloom of flowers.”
The family never did find a new home In November of 1943, Marshal declared that it was over. They were back at Yaquitepec. “The dream place had been found,” he exulted. “Nor does it lessen the satisfaction that we found our ideal on the very spot from which we had set out.” How had the family failed to find some better spot (particularly aided, as they were, by numerous suggestions from Desert readers)? And what about Yaquitepec’s inadequate water supply? Marshal ignored these unspoken questions.
In the months and years that followed, his writings would continue to give the strong impression that the family was virtually self-sufficient in its isolation, obtaining the vast minority of Yaquitepec’s drinking water from the heavens. Yet that was far from the truth. “We were his water supply,” states Buzz Mushet. Today Mushet is a mechanic in Julian, but in the early 1940s he was a young boy living with his family on the Banner Queen Ranch, located near the bottom of the Banner Grade, near Julian. The Mushets ran a trading post out by the highway, and once every few weeks, the Souths would trundle up in their old Model A Ford sedan. “They had all these five-gallon cans, and they’d fill them with water and haul them back down there to the bottom [of Ghost Mountain]. Then as they needed them, they’d carry them up.”
Water wasn’t the only essential commodity they were importing into their supposedly uncivilized stronghold. In his column, Marshal often mentioned different food items consumed by the family, but always these were the hardy stuff of people living off a desiccated land. There were succulent roasted mescal hearts, cactus strawberries, and jojoba nuts; slow-cooked stews and juniper berries and hard (but healthful) winter breads. There were even "cool green salad[s]” coaxed from the toughened bosom of Ghost Mountain itself in little vegetable gardens.
Virginia Smith read accounts of these things in Desert and was fascinated whenever Marshal South would come to Julian, where she lived with her parents. “He’d have these sandals made out of yucca, and he’d be wearing a loincloth!” Smith thinks her mother, Alice Blanc, got to know the Souths through the Blanc family’s business, the Julian Garage. In any case, Alice (who’s now dead) eventually visited Yaquitepec, and on a few occasions she took along teenage Virginia, who was particularly impressed by two things. She remembers that the Souths hid their Model A at the bottom of the mountain and brushed away its tracks so that strangers couldn’t find their holdout. The other memory of Yaquitepec retained most strongly by Smith is that, contrary to her expectations of unsullied primitivism, “they had the hugest can dump you ever did see.”
Canned goods, then, were among the supplies the Souths purchased at the Mushet ranch with the $40 per month they earned from Desert Magazine; they also scrounged some items from neighbors or “Desert Refuge” fans. “[Marshal] wanted you to think he was doin’ everything on his own, but without a few groceries and stuff, they couldn’t have survived,” sniffs Buzz Mushet. Although his father Bill spent long hours talking to Marshal, Buzz apparently found the Souths so bizarre as to be repulsive. “They never took a bath! You couldn’t get within five feet of them. That type of thing.” Rather than the literate, resourceful charmers known to Marshal’s readers, the South boys in Buzz’s eyes were “weird... almost like wild animals, because they hadn’t been around people or anything,” Buzz says. “I remember I had a bicycle on the ranch, and this Rider, the oldest one, wanted to ride it I let him get on it, and he went down the hill and fell off and broke his arm. And he just went crazy! He kind of scared me because he was runnin’ around and he wanted the axe. He said, ‘It’s no good anymore. It’s broken. I’m gonna cut it off.’ It was really weird.”
Even under the best of conditions, the family presented townspeople with a bizarre spectacle. Rudyard’s hair was a wild brown explosion, while Rider wore his flaming red tresses in ill-kempt pigtails that almost reached to the middle of his back. The children were dressed in little more than rags, and their feet were clad in such creations as Marshal once described in his column: “Thick, felted soles of cloth, after the Chinese pattern. A gay bit of heavy woven stuff, in designs of red, yellow and blue, for the uppers.”
“The children always looked so forlorn and ratty when they’d come to town. I used to feel sorry for them, especially the older boy,” recalls Virginia Blanc Smith. Another woman who owned the Julian building supply store recalls pitying Tanya. “I just always felt that... it was certainly a difficult way for a woman to live. So very untidy. Her hair was untidy.” Despite that appearance, Tanya’s quiet common sense and active mind seem to have deeply impressed virtually every woman still alive to remember her. “She was a good person,” testifies Mildred Redding, wife of the Julian school superintendent. “Both of them were good people,” chimes in her 87-year-old husband Ray. "[Marshal] just wanted to prove he could live this natural life.”
Ray says Marshal several times dropped in his office at the Julian High School, just to chat with an understanding soul. "We talked about many things,” Ray says. South seemed “really highly intelligent” and not at all dogmatic or fanatical. “He was very easy to talk to. I remember our conversations were very pleasant.” Among the topics of their wide-ranging discussions was education. “He was justifying his education of the three youngsters.
"In a way, he was an odd mixture of being a social creature who was also very private.... There were many people who didn’t understand Marshal, and I can understand why they didn’t. In my book he was peculiar.” The courtly educator immediately amends that “That isn’t the right word. He was different. 'Course, we’re all different.... And of course, he wore the long hair, which wasn’t very well understood....Shall we say he was a hippie before his time.”
“He’s probably what started all this hippie stuff,” declares Buzz Mushet with disgust. “[The Souths] weren’t a normal family at all. They were nudists. There was a trail going from the bottom of the mountain up to the top where they had their shack up there, and they had a box at the bottom that said, ‘If you come to visit us, please leave your clothes in this box.’
”Marshal had indeed erected a sign to that effect at the base of Ghost Mountain and had even publicized it once in the magazine. But Virginia Blanc Smith, who remembers the Souths as being “very friendly, very outgoing people," reports that she and her parents never disrobed on their visits to Yaquitepec, and “growing up, I don’t ever remember anybody saying they had to.”
One person who clarifies this apparent contradiction is Grace Crawford, who moved to the desert with her family just two years after Marshal and Tanya and who met them through mutual friends. Crawford, a woman with the appearance and mental acuity of someone decades younger than her 90s, lives today in Hillcrest, where she recalled her first invitation to Yaquitepec. “Marshal said, ‘You’re supposed to take your clothes off.’ Well, at the time they asked us to come up, it wasn’t very warm, and I’m a person who feels the cold. If you live out in the desert, you get so you’re that way. And I said, ‘I'm not comin’ up there and taking off my clothes, it’s too cold!’ ‘Oh,’ he said. I didn’t mean it for you. I was just joking! You can wear all the clothes you want.’" Crawford says Marshal then explained that the sign was intended to discourage those who approached Ghost Mountain with the intention of gawking at the notorious family.
In fact, when she did finally make it up the mountain, Grace noted that Tanya too was clothed (“ ’cause she said she was cold”) but the bareskinned Marshal “stood there shiverin’ and shiverin’ and shiverin’.” Crawford says when she teased him, Marshal huffily declared that he wasn’t cold, “And I said, ‘Why are you shivering and standing on one leg at a time?’ ” Because their homes were widely separated and their lives were full, the Crawfords and the Souths saw each other only occasionally. Grace, moreover, wasn’t dazzled by Marshal. She thought his thick English accent was a bit comical in one who so obviously aspired to be Indian, and though he was pleasant enough. “He wasn’t the kind of an oddball that I’m in tune with.”
Tanya, though, she liked very much. “We were very companionable. We saw things alike.” Tanya told Crawford she was the offspring of intellectual New York Jews whose family thought she had married beneath her. A very bright and well-educated woman. Tanya generally acceded to her husband’s wishes, according to Crawford’s recollection. “She was compliant.”
Crawford recalls that when she first met the Souths, Tanya didn’t seem to be particularly unhappy. “[Tanya] had her children and, you know; when you have little children, you’re happy with them. She was a person who could adapt herself to anything. Some people can’t. Some people aren’t happy if they don’t have what they want or what they’re used to. But she wasn’t that type.”
In a letter written to friends in Altadena in December of 1939, Tanya certainly sounded upbeat. Two-year-old Rudyard was climbing “rocks like the little sure-footed Injun he is,” she reported. “And it is a pleasure to see him and Rider manage around here.... We had such a happy, merry Christmas. Some of our friends, neighboring cattle people, arrived loaded with stuff.... And of course, our tree is really beautiful.” In another passage, she mentions that “Marshal is so busy! You must excuse him for not writing. You cannot imagine the amount of work he has to do. The writing— and so much of it right now!”
Tanya added monthly writing duties to her own list of chores in the late spring of 1941, when she began contributing poems that ran in conjunction with each "Desert Refuge" feature. They’re short (usually eight-line) verses that most often deal with moral themes: "Perfection” "Sincerity,” "Growth," “Purpose,” "Aspiration.” Tanya’s poetry seemed written by a stoic, one sometimes content through the sheer force of her will but at other times touched by despair, as in "Star Trail,” written in November of 1942.
Oh Life, what riddles have you wrought!
With all our striving
With every ounce of work and thought
And hard contriving.
We still find conquests to be won
Beyond our gaining.
And pause amazed with effort gone.
With humbleness so deeply part.
With grief for storage.
Let us not wholly lose our heart —
Oh Life, breathe courage.
Month after month, Tanya's poems could be counted on, as much a fixture of the Desert Magazine cap as was her husband’s column. But her presence as a character in Marshal’s column changed subtly over the years. Whereas in Marshal’s earliest writings about Ghost Mountain she had appeared prominently, a serene Earth Mother, her husband referred to her less and less over time, until finally, throughout 1946 he was to use her name just once (and then only in a reference to her having cleaned some windows).
In retrospect Marshal’s growing silence regarding Tanya was one of the only hints as to the events overtaking the Souths’ marriage and Yaquitepec’s future. Another omen, perhaps, was a defensive note that seemed to sound more and more frequently in 1946. In May, for instance, he mentioned that a friend in the city had asked him if he was really happy living out in the desert.
“Don't you ever feel," she said, “that you and your family are missing something?"
"Yes." I agreed. “I think we are. Transportation strikes, for instance. And newspaper scare heads. And jazz. And nervous prostration. And other things”
"No." she said. “I didn't mean that. But isn’t there anything you’d like?”
And to that I had to say no ... that as far as I was concerned. I had found Happiness and Opportunity....
Even in October 1946, Marshal was still chattering on in his column about Rider’s passion for stamp collecting and Rudyard’s latest creation: an electric "doorbell” for the household. "Yaquitepec rocks along in contented fashion," he assured his readers. Those readers who also subscribed to the San Diego Union must have been no less than dumbfounded, therefore, by the story that appeared on its pages November 14,1946. "Life atop a lonely hilltop — far removed from the beaten path — palls after 15 years. Mrs. Tanya South told Superior Court Judge Arthur L. Mundo in divorce court as she sought support and custody of three children.”
Other Desert readers absorbed the blow two months later, in a column written by Randall Henderson. “The news was no less disillusioning to me than it will be to thousands of Desert readers, a majority of whom have been sympathetic toward the unconventional way of life the Souths had chosen,” he stated. Henderson went on to say that after hearing about the divorce he had driven out to Ghost Mountain to talk to both Tanya and Marshal "[i]n the hope that I might contribute something in the way of ‘Operation Salvage.’ ”
I would sum up their domestic difficulties in this brief sentence: "Two temperamental poets lived so close together in such a small world they finally got on each other’s nerves."
That explanation omitted so much that it verged on falsehood. As half the town of Julian was aware. Marshal had fallen in love with another woman. Some people were scandalized as the celebrated scribe of Yaquitepec left his wife and children on the mountain for long stretches of time in order to be closer to his inamorata in Julian. And Tanya was furious. Says one acquaintance of hers at the time, “You know, you stick by a guy like she did with him, and then he falls for somebody else — well, that’s not going to go down very well.”
The object of Marshal’s passion, Myrtle Botts, can’t comment on what went on between her and Marshal: she died in 1974. But her daughter Jeri has strong convictions about the relationship. And Jeri says there are few subjects she would rather discuss more than Marshal South. “I knew Marshal very, very well. We were buddies for a long, long time.... And I figure when you talk about people, they’re not really gone”
Lovingly, Jeri shows off old photos of Marshal. One taken years before Ghost Mountain reveals a thin, sensitive-looking man who could have been an early British film star. He sports a dark, dapper mustache In the later photos, taken during his years in the desert, the mustache has disappeared, but Marshal’s hair, by then gray, hangs well below his shoulder blades. In most of the shots he wears a solitary earring, usually far more elaborate than his few scraps of clothing. Except for being as thin as a teenager, he bears a strong resemblance to Ricardo Montalban in The Wrath of Khan.
Jeri says she’s not sure exactly when or where Marshal met her family. It might have been at the Cozy Lunch, the restaurant owned by her parents through about 1932. Or it may have been at the town library, where Jeri served as the librarian from the time she was in seventh grade all through high school. Upon being graduated in 1935, Jeri moved to San Diego and turned the library job over to her mother, who continued to hold it until she retired in 1968. Both Tanya and Marshal "spent a lot of time at the library,” according to Virginia Blanc Smith. "They took out a lot of books.” So there they certainly must have gotten acquainted with Myrtle.
"She only had a high school education, but she was so brilliant!" Widely read, Myrtle “was talented and very similar, maybe, to Marshal,” Jeri believes. “She was less flamboyant. Mother was very dignified and reserved. But there was a kinship between them....” Like Marshal, she adored the desert and “could walk 50 miles a day in [it] like it was nothing.”
By the mid-1940s, Marshal was sending Myrtle letters and poetry expressing a passion so lyrical that, in Jeri’s opinion, anyone would have been honored to be the object of it. “I should live so long to have somebody write even one of those poems to me!” she exclaims. Myrtle was naturally honored and moved by them, her daughter says, but never to the point of being tempted to cheat on her husband. "She loved my father!” Jeri insists.
She explains further that Myrtle and Marshal had “a very trying relationship sometimes.... You know, you can get very bored and absolutely sick of someone worshipping you 24 hours a day!” But at the same time Marshal was irresistible, not just to Myrtle but to the entire Botts family, it seems. "Grandma loved him too,” Jeri says, and Marshal reciprocated the affection. Jeri still cherishes a long, clever birthday poem, by turns playful and sentimental, written by Marshal to her grandmother. As for Jeri, Marshal called her his "Egyptian princess” and fashioned for her beautiful handmade jewelry.
Even Louis Botts "thought Marshal was marvelous because of his education," Jeri says. "My father admired Marshal beyond belief." The passionate poems directed at his wife didn’t bother Louis "because there was nothing going on, and nobody knew better than my folks did,” she says conclusively.
Jeri tends to discount the destructive impact of Marshal’s love for her mother upon Marshal and Tanya’s marriage and offers her own unique explanation for why that union faltered. She claims that county welfare officers visited Tanya up on Ghost Mountain and filled her head with promises of the better life she could have in the city, with public assistance. Jeri alleges that Tanya “was very satisfied” with life at Yaquitepec. “Then suddenly she got a burr.... I think she had no problem until the welfare department started telling her how bad off she was.”
The papers filed by Tanya and Marshal in their divorce case don’t really explain what precipitated Yaquitepec’s final crisis. In an affidavit, Tanya described the isolation of Ghost Mountain (11 miles away from the nearest neighbors) and stated that there the family had "no fuel for heating or cooking other than the wood they are able to gather" and “that for the last three years the defendant has not helped [me] and the three minor children gather fuel....” Marshal exclusively controlled the 1929 Ford and had informed Tanya that she and the children could “walk any place they wish to go.” Moreover, he was “a very hot-tempered person” who on two occasions had “struck and beat [Tanya] severely and tried to kill her....” Most bizarre was Tanya’s closing allegation “That approximately one year ago [Marshal] wanted to go to South America to organize a polygamy colony and he became very angry with [Tanya] and struck and beat her severely when she refused to go... with him; that the defendant told [Tanya] that he wanted his freedom so that he could remarry; that he also told [her] that one reason he wanted to remarry was so that he could have more children by another wife.”
Marshal didn't dispute any of these things in a letter he wrote to the judge in January of 1947, nor did he suggest that the judge should not grant the divorce “....My wife was originally a city girl. She has no love for the country.... And my wife has never accepted wholeheartedly my ideas. She has always complied unwillingly."
Marshal also was agreeable to Tanya’s being awarded the 160 acres on Ghost Mountain, which the Souths had won through a 1939 homestead patent. However, Marshal begged the judge to attach a proviso that the land not be sold until Victoria reached legal age “I ask this NOT FOR MYSELF, but solely to protect both my wife and my three children....” Tanya “did not realize” Marshal stated, “that since the time she has lived in a city and earned her living as a stenographer she has grown much older. She is now almost 50. She will find it very hard to get stenographic positions.... If the ranch is awarded to her, without any proviso, someone will very likely talk her out of it...”
The divorce case was heard early in 1947. Jeri Botts sat in the courtroom, and she recalls that Tanya seemed most concerned about the children’s long hair. “She stood up in court and said [the long hair] was psychologically bad for the children. That... and she thought they should be going to school.” At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge gave Marshal the Ford and the old printing press and ordered him to contribute at least $25 per month toward Tanya and the children’s support. Tanya got custody of Rider, Rudyard, and Victoria, plus the property and all “improvements, household furnishings and fixtures there on” — with no restrictions on when she could sell the homestead.
Tanya and the children didn’t stay there long but soon moved to a four-room unit at the Frontier Federal Housing Project, not far from the present-day intersection of Midway Drive and Sports Arena Boulevard. As they settled into their promising new life, Marshal’s future couldn’t have looked bleaker. He was 61 years old, penniless, suddenly stripped of his regular income. He settled into the Julian Library, sleeping on a little cot and using the attached bathroom. “A lot of people made a fuss about it. They thought it was terrible and all. But I didn’t see anybody else in Julian standing on their heads to help him,” Jeri says tartly.
At the library, Marshal not only acted as janitor but also left his artistic mark, painting an elaborate frieze that wrapped around the four walls of the large room. Filled with Indians, cowboys, pyramids, covered wagons, mountains, an ocean, a town, and more, “He did it for Mother,” Jeri says with feeling. (In fact, it still ornaments the Julian Realty, which now occupies the former library building at 2127 Main Street.)
In April of 1947, Marshal also began writing once again for Desert Magazine, contributing a gushy profile of the Mushets and their Banner Queen ranch. A report on the health seekers at Agua Caliente followed in July, and in August the magazine announced a new series from Marshal South to be called “Desert Trails.” His December installment once again turned to the subject of health, examining why the desert restored health to some invalids so magically but failed others. “To get benefit from the desert,” Marshal contended, “you must be in tune with it.” He then revealed:
When I first came to the desert... it was with the shadow of a weak heart hanging over me.... Little by little ... I was packing heavier and heavier burdens up that 1200-foot rise which lay between the limit of wheeled transportation and our mountain-crest home. As nerves and bodily strength grew better, the doubtful heart grew better. Until there were few burdens that baffled me Regularly I used to carry up ... hundred-pound sacks of grain, potatoes, cement and other supplies. And I have never been very husky. Never in my life has my weight exceeded 140 pounds.... So I think I am right in saying that the desert will, in most cases, heal you.... It’s just up to you.
Once again, Marshal’s brave, confident words masked a very different reality. Jeri Botts says that in fact Marshal’s heart condition was by then so grave that his doctor warned him to stay away from mountain elevations, such as Julian. “He went out to the desert and laid out on the ground,” she says. Friends took him supplies, but in letters to Myrtle, Marshal wrote that he sometimes lacked the strength to open cans. “It’s mindboggling to read his writings [in Desert] and then to read his letters,” states Jeri. “He had so many beautiful thoughts and beautiful ideas (in the magazine articles). Everything was so uplifting. And when these (personal) letters came there was such depression. No will to live. They were survival letters. Nothing beautiful. Just downright survival. He had a very, very bad heart condition, and once he got out and was trying to make it on his own with nothing... he had to have stress beyond belief."
In September of 1948, he wrote Randall Henderson that he had been released from a San Diego hospital only to suffer “a heart relapse.” He spent a few days with the Mushets at the Banner Queen, then returned to “Burro Spring, a half mile from Agua Caliente,” where he reported being “very weak.” A week or two later, around the middle of October 1948, Myrtle and Louis Botts persuaded Marshal to return to their home with them. But just as the desert had failed to restore his health a second time, Myrtle’s ministrations also failed, and Marshal died of heart disease on the evening of October 22.
The Bottses paid for the simple funeral. After a service at the Julian Baptist church, Marshal was buried in Julian Cemetery beside the body of the legendary prospector Charley McCloud. Surprisingly, Marshal’s son from his first marriage made the trip down from Torrance to mourn his father. Tanya and her children did not attend.
“We’ll miss Marshal South,” Randall Henderson eulogized in the December 1948 Desert Magazine. “He was a dreamer — an impractical visionary according to the standards of our day...” Then Henderson added this analysis:
Marshal s tragedy was that he would not compromise If he had been a hermit [his experiment] would have worked very well. But Marshal was not a hermit by nature He wanted to raise a family — and impose upon |them] his own unconventional way of life.
Therein lay the weakness of his philosophy He despised the rules and taboos of the society he had left behind and immediately set up a new and even more restrictive code for his own household. And therein lies the explanation of the break in the South family life...
Henderson printed one final word from the South family in April of 1949, a brief, breathless "Sequel to Ghost Mountain” written by Tanya. Rudyard was captain of the (Dana Junior High) school baseball team and doing brilliantly at school, and readers would “never recognize our flame-topped Rider!.... He is his mother’s great pride, a freshman at [Point Loma] high-school....” Victoria was “beautiful!” — class secretary and an avid reader. And Tanya herself had recently passed a Civil Service examination. “God has been very bountiful with love and mercy, and the fruits thereof,” she concluded.
The South children did “take a terrible beating from their peers,” recalls Betty Quayle, one of the teachers at the junior high. Although the boys’ hair had been cut it still was “longish,” she remembers, and they wore clothes that were obviously homemade. Word about their colorful past had spread, moreover and to the other children the young Souths were “alien creatures,” Quayle recalls. "It took them a long time to adapt.” Nonetheless, all of them were very bright and did well academically, says Quayle, who knew Victoria best and was later invited to her wedding. Although Quayle felt “very compatible" with Tanya and "very fond” of the whole family, “they were not people who let you in at all,” she adds. And Ghost Mountain clearly seemed to be something they wanted to put behind them.
In fact, Rider South made no mention of his unorthodox youth when he ran for a San Diego City Council seat in 1961 (at age 27). The brief biography that appeared in the Union at that time stated only that he was born in Oceanside and had gone to school in San Diego, including San Diego Junior College as an aircraft mechanic apprentice. An aircraft mechanic at North Island, the youthful Republican included in his platform removal of parking meters all over town, lower taxes on home and business improvements, elimination of the sales tax, and city support for organized drag racing. (He won only 450 votes, coming in behind seven other candidates but ahead of two.)
Rider continued to live in San Diego until not long ago, when he moved out of state; there he declined to be interviewed by the Reader. Nonagenarian Tanya today lives in an East County condominium complex. Rudyard completely changed his name — first, middle, and last — at the age of 19. For this story, Tanya refused to be interviewed; she has turned down all such requests over the years, including a 1983 query from a state parks historian named Carol Roland who was researching Yaquitepec and recommending that it be made into a “cultural preserve.” At that time, Tanya wrote Roland that “the idea of establishing a cultural preserve to ‘honor’ the stark, miserable existence that Yaquitepec represented is quite absurd to me. Marshal has glorified our existence on the mountaintop in his articles in the Desert Magazine. He was a superb fiction writer. I definitely do not want any personal involvement whatsoever in this project.”
Roland says Yaquitepec still enjoys no special historic or cultural designation and may never get one until an overall plan is written for the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The park bought the Ghost Mountain property from Tanya in 1958, paying her $950 for the 160 acres. Since then, the park staff has improved the trail leading up the mountain and installed at the base a very official marker, which briefly tells the story of “Yaquitepec — One family’s attempt to live off the land.” Some years ago, one of the rangers even led guided hikes up the mountain. That ranger says one day, one of the hike participants took him aside afterward and commented, “You paint a real flowery picture of this whole situation up here. But it wasn’t quite like that. It wasn’t much fun at all.” The man turned out to be Rider, the ranger learned.
Today, out at Ghost Mountain, spears of the agave that Marshal loved so well still mark the lonely landscape Here and there the red dirt sparkles with golden flakes of mica. As the trail mounts upward, it passes long-spined hedgehog cactus and its equal brother, the barrel cactus; Mormon tea and many-fingered cholla reach out as if to snag passersby. Varieties of sage scent the air, which in the late spring seems alive with thrumming bees and teasing butterflies and the burr of hummingbird wings. At the top of the trail, however, lies a scene of hushed ruin.
Most of the stout adobe walls that once sheltered the Souths have crumbled down to their foundations. In places, rusting curls of rebar stick out at ugly angles. The 2x4 framing still stands here and there, but the corrugated tin roof and all the windowpanes have disappeared without a trace. Ironically, some of Yaquitepec’s more “civilized” features have been the most lasting: the bedsprings remain, as do many of the discarded tin cans, all rusted now to a rich chocolate brown.
More than ever before, the place seems haunted. And words of Marshal’s, written just a few months before his death, resound. Marshal had gone to visit the crumbled homesite of an old French emigrant named Paul Sentenac, who had lived not far from Ghost Mountain in the 1880s. In his column, Marshal mused about the difficulty of judging a man “about whom the vague threads of gossip and misunderstanding have been woven for many years since his death." Some people had told Marshal that Sentenac was a hard man, while others reported a wealth of likable qualities. “But what matter?” Marshal asked.
Human life is a fleeting thing. And after all it is not the physical that counts; nor the success or failure of earthly affairs. The thing which is enduring is something which cannot be seen, touched or measured by material standards. It is the spirit of a man. His ideas — the inner light or urge by which he moves.
Marshal declared that Sentenac, in the ruins of his desert castle, had left his monument and his epitaph: “He was one who dreamed dreams.” In that same article, Marshal also remarked, with an insider’s knowledge, “The desert has a way of sapping dreams.’’