In the 1960s, a counter-culture sprung up that preached self-sufficiency, living off the land, doing your own thing, flaunting convention and running around as naked and natural as the land around you.
Before the counter-culture was cool, there was Marshal South.
In 1932, at the height of the depression, South decided he had had enough of civilization. He packed his wife and their few belongings into his Model-T and from San Diego began driving east, into the desert. When the South’s reached the foot of Ghost Mountain, they stopped. Ghost Mountain is in the middle of the Anza-Borrego Desert. Spanish explorers didn’t call the road from Arizona through the California desert El Camino de Diablo because it is a land of milk and honey. It is harsh, rugged and unrelenting in its hostility to a soft life.
This is where South decided to settle and raise a family. No electricity. No running water. No shelter, in the beginning. South dubbed the top of Ghost Mountain “Yacquitepec.” He built a home from mud and wood, shaped cisterns to capture rain drops, and with his wife Tanya (a Russian immigrant) created three babies on top of that mountain — Rider, Rudyard and Victoria.
The family lived on Ghost Mountain for 14 years. Marshal wrote about their adventures for Desert Magazine. In 1990, I spent a couple dozen hours in the SDSU library reading all of South’s columns and Tanya’s poems. By this time, Tanya was living in La Mesa and I was living in La Mesa. I tried to get an interview with her and she curtly dismissed my request and hung up the phone.
Who could blame her? Those of us who knew the legend of Ghost Mountain had romanticized the hell out of the “experiment.” But for Tanya and her children, it was a hard, bitter life that they did not necessarily want. Rider has rarely given interviews about his experiences in the desert with his father, and the other two children changed their names to escape their notoriety.
South, reportedly an adulterer, died in 1948 and is buried in an unmarked grave in Julian. I tried to find that grave once, but couldn’t. There is a real estate office in Julian with a mural along the top of the wall that South painted. I was introduced to Ghost Mountain in 1987 by M. Rose Anderson, a fellow journalist in San Diego. I made three solo trips to Yacquitepec over the next five years. In 1991, I wrote a poem, “At Yacquitepec.” It ignores Marshal’s ego and cruelty, of course, but romanticized versions of history have their place, too. Please read it. If you like it, feel free to show your appreciation by dropping a buck or two in the tip jar (howardowens.com).
UPDATE: In researching my links for this post, I found to a book being written about South by Garrett Soden I wrote to Soden and sent him a link to this post. He responds in part:
By the way, I had the same experience you did with Tanya; when she was
still living, I called her but she refused to talk. I have, however,
interviewed Marshal South, Jr., the son Marshal abandoned in Arizona with
his first wife, before he hooked up with Tanya. This is a little-known
aspect of South’s life, and further erodes the idea that he was any sort
of admirable character.
Soden sent along an article from the LAT called “A Feral Family Album” by Ann Japenga. It really captures the biting irony of the failed experiment, and the bitterness Tanya felt over being blamed for the break up of the family while Marshal was lionized. At the risk of ruining the article for you should you ever find a copy (it’s no longer on the LAT Web site, though I can tell you it was published Jan. 6, 2002), here’s how the story ends:
By most measures, the brood raised on Ghost Mountain is a success. They’re financially secure; they have families of their own (Rider has two grown sons from a former marriage) and the families are close. On the caring and kindness scale, too, the kids have prospered. Rider South sends birthday cards to people he’s only met once, and he thinks nothing of driving across several states to comfort a friend in trouble.
But if the kids are a testament to their raising, they are not exactly the sort of testament Marshal South wished to create. His aim was to spring his children from the snares of civilization–”the factory,” as he called it. But Rider went to work in an aircraft factory and stayed there most of his adult life. One of his proudest possessions is a plaque awarded for five years of service without ever missing a day of work.
His idea of freedom is a paid-off house and car and a government pension. Without a trace of his shrug, he says: “Life is pretty good. This is about as good as it’s going to get.”
And while Marshal South was, in essence, a tree-hugger, Rider is a Republican who supports oil drilling in the Arctic and says environmentalism just isn’t pragmatic. As for primitive living and wilderness adventure, “Rider doesn’t even like to barbecue,” says his wife.
Victoria, too, was left with few sentimental notions about the simple life. “I have no use for the desert,” she says. “None whatsoever.”
It seems too pat to say that what one generation rejects the next embraces–but there it is. Marshal and Tanya South chose the wilderness over town, clay pots over Tupperware. Rider South stores those handmade pots in his suburban garage and makes lunch on a Taco Bell Quesadilla Maker.