One of the more interesting artifacts of California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is Yaquitepec on Ghost Mountain. According to publications, "the ruins of the South Home, where a family of nudists and writers lived in the 1930s, can be seen from the top of this short, steep trail that begins in Blair Valley, 2.7 miles from Highway S-2."
The "South Home," actually an adobe cabin, was built by Marshal and Tanya South when they began homesteading in 1932, before the area was within the state park boundaries. From this "savage wilderness of rock," as Marshall called the summit of Ghost Mountain in eastern San Diego County, the Souths began an original experiment in desert self-sufficiency.
They had no electricity, no artificial sources of light and only the sparest desert landscape as a source of fuel for heating and cooking. They had no neighbors within walking distance, no mail came to the door and few visitors ever made their way up the rugged and circuitous trail to their home.
During their 14 year residence at what they called Yaquitepec, 3 children were born -- Rider, Rudyard and Victoria -- who were educated in the ways of the desert by their father, and the ways of the world by their mother. Both parents were well educated themselves and in spite of their primitive isolation, the South home contained many books, a typewriter, a camera and even a printing press.
Marshal was a writer and artist who had published western novels, until the Great Depression had eliminated his source of income. He came to Ghost Mountain, he later wrote, "to break the mold," and allow his children the opportunity to grow up in an environment in which they would not be afraid to think for themselves.
For more than 8 years, Marshal and Tanya were regular contributors to the estimable Desert Magazine. In a monthly column called "Desert Refuge," Marshal chronicled the family's experiment in primitive living, explaining how he, Tanya and their 3 children attempted to harmonize their lives as closely as possible with "Nature's universal code." Each column ended with Tanya's poetry and was illustrated with sketches or photos by Marshal.
During their long sojourn on the mountain, Marshal discussed, through these monthly dispatches, the raising and education of their children, the search for water, fuel and food; the discovery of archeological sites, artifacts and petroglyphs; primitive basket making, adobe construction techniques and desert landscaping to name a few. Descriptions of desert plants and wildlife constituted a large part of these monthly columns, most famously the Desert Packrats and Desert Tortoises the children kept as pets.
The Souths refused to denude their mountain of the few live shrubs and juniper, and so made long walks in search of the dry stalks of dead mescal to use as firewood. "Fuel gathering always adds to our desert knowledge, " Marshal wrote, "besides contributing to our well being, through healthy physical exercise.
They also came to appreciate the varieties of uses this plant provided both Native Americans and themselves. Marshal maintained that there was no single growth on Ghost Mountain upon which his family was more dependent than the "savage, dagger-pointed Mescal and the "toothsome, pumpkin yam sweetness of the roasted mescal hearts."
In addition to providing fuel, Mescal furnished footwear, cordage, clothing, food, drink, sugar, alcohol, vinegar, paper and soap. They also used it as brooms, paintbrushes, curtain rods, table legs and even napkin rings. They celebrated their good fortune that "here on Ghost Mountain, it is with malicious satisfaction that we hug to our bosoms the knowledge that the greedy hand of Commercialism is not likely to reach to these regions."
By the mid-1940s, thanks to their monthly appearances in Desert Magazine, the South Family was becoming an early, desert version of the Truman Show. Many readers wrote to both the Souths and to Desert Magazine expressing their admiration, outrage, encouragement, curiosity and sometimes concern for the South children being raised in a home that had turned its back on modern civilization.
"Most letters are from kindred souls," Marshal wrote in 1944, "who also feel the restless urge towards freedom and simplicity of living which is today tugging at the hearts of so many of the human race."
"If it be our personal conviction that what 'Civilization' needs is not more softness and ease but more simplicity and nearness to the earth and fundamental things, then we are not alone."
In September 1945, the U.S. Navy began using the Earthquake Valley area as a gunnery range, forcing the South family to leave their mountain homestead and seek refuge elsewhere. When they were allowed to return and resume residence in July 1946, few realized that the Ghost Mountain Experiment was already over. Before the end of the year, Marshal and Tanya South had separated. Marshal moved to nearby Agua Caliente, contributing occasional articles to Desert Magazine until, at the age of 62, a heart condition caused his death in October 1948
In the Winter of 1947, Tanya found herself and the children in post-World-War II San Diego, where they rejoined civilization. In the spring of 1949, she reported through Desert Magazine that the children had become well-adjusted to their new circumstances and that all were doing extremely well in public school. Poet and artist Rider, then 15, was a freshman in high school and had just outgrown the Boy Scouts; 11-year-old Rudyard, the budding engineer, was captain of the baseball team and a nurse monitor; 8-year-old Victoria, then a third grader, was a chess player, rope jumper and had just learned to ride a bicycle. They were all voracious readers.
According to Deborah Sperberg, volunteer naturalist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park who gives a 25-minute talk on the South family, Tanya insisted on remaining private after leaving Ghost Mountain and shunned all interviews. The two younger children are said to have renounced their former life and eventually changed their names to avoid public scrutiny.
New information on Marshal South
New DVD on Marshal South - Ghost Mountain looks at the life of Marshal South who chose to live with his wife, Tanya, and their three children in an adobe house on the remote peak of Ghost Mountain, in California’s Anza Borrego Desert. To preview the DVD in flash Click Here.
More on Hiking Ghost Mountain
-- Bob Katz