The remains of the South home. The 2x4 framing still stands here and there, but the corrugated tin roof and all the windowpanes have disappeared.
  • The remains of the South home. The 2x4 framing still stands here and there, but the corrugated tin roof and all the windowpanes have disappeared.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs
  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

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.

Marshal South. His regular readers came to feel he was an old friend.

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.

Look north to Blair Valley. Tanya described the isolation of Ghost Mountain (11 miles away from the nearest neighbors).

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.

Ranch Romances by Marshal South. In the late 1920s, both Souths apparently were trying to support themselves by writing.

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.

A photo of South taken years before Ghost Mountain reveals a thin, sensitive-looking man who could have been an early British film star.

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.

Ruins of South home. The couple dragged rocks together to erect a low wall,

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.”

South at Vallecitos Stage Station, 1947. The desert patriarch’s philosophy was an antiwar, pro-ecological brew seasoned with its own oddball flavors.

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.

Cistern at South home. "The meager cisterns... proved inadequate for a family of five with two goats and two burros.”

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, penniless, suddenly stripped of his regular income, he settled into the Julian Library, sleeping on a little cot and using the attached bathroom.

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.”

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Get $5 off any Reader event

Sign up for our email list to get your promo code