Friday, January 04, 2008


The name Marshal South didn't mean anything to us until we stopped into the Anza Borrego visitor center a few days ago. We were inquiring about hiking in the area & the park ranger suggested Ghost Mountain. Well, anything with the words mountain & ghost in the same sentence is going to perk anybody's imagination so we bookmarked that one to do.
Thursday we did that hike & it turned out to be one of the best days on our trip so far.

Here is a short background on Marshal South, his wife Tanya, & their 3 children.

In February 1932, while the country felt the grip of The Depression, Marshal and Tanya South came to this mountain to build their home and live off the land. They raised their children here, wrote magazine articles, grew vegetables, gathered native plants, and after 16 years decided to call it quits.
Yaquitepec, or Ghost Mountain, still carries the reminders of South's homesteading adventure. The steep, mile long walk to the homesite will give you a breathtaking view of the land the South family called home. Look for signs of the ingenious water system with its cisterns and troughs. The adobe structure is quickly becoming a victim of the elements.
Living off the land proved difficult. Supplies had to be brought by Model T from Julian and carried up on foot. Tanya South tired of her eccentric mate's life-style and the family split up, leaving Yaquitepec to the sun and the wind.
The stories of the South family fade with time in the pages of old copies of Desert Magazine but the melting adobe and the garden terraces will remain atop Ghost Mountain for years to come.
For seventeen years (1930 to 1947), poet, artist, and author Marshal South and his family lived on the remote, waterless mountaintop in California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and is referred to as "Ghost Mountain". For nine of those years, Marshal South chronicled his family's controversial primitive lifestyle through popular monthly articles written for "Desert Magazine". The articles reflected his passion for the desert while praising its early inhabitants and their lifestyle. An acrimonious divorce ended the "experiment in primitive living" and with Marshal's death in 1948, fifty years of silence and speculation followed. Family secrecy, altered names and dates, lost and burned records and letters, left Marshal's grand experiment in obscurity, hidden from even his surviving family members.
More on Marshal South
The drive from Borrego Springs to Ghost Mountain is a twisting, winding, roller coaster, & scenic ride through the mountains to a place called Blair Valley. The old Butterfield Stagecoach used this route back in the 1800's. A turn off the highway west of the little town of Shelter Valley headed us out onto the desert floor & around a large dry lake bed. The road is bumpy with hard & loose packed sand, but is ok. Spotted here & there were a few RV's snuggled up against high rocky ridges. Ghost Mountain doesn't really have a peak on it & we were at the trail head before we realized it. There is a cairn there with a brief description about the South family & their time on the mountain.
Right from the start it's obvious that this is going to be a totally uphill 700 foot climb on a narrow & rocky pathway that is a 2 mile round trip. Good hiking footwear is a must. One of the first things I noticed was the many & multi-colored rocks along the way. Vegetation also increased as we climbed higher. Algava, yucca, cholla, ocotilla, hedgehog & barrel cactus are but just a few of the plants that dotting the landscape. Because of the steep incline, the path had many switchbacks zig zagging back & forth. Wasn't long & we were huffing & puffing a bit. Sleeves got rolled up. The view back down & out across the Blair Valley was beautiful & we could see the sandy roads snaking across the desert floor. Can't imagine how Marshal South made the trip in his old model T to the town of Julian & back for supplies 14 miles away across this valley & along hazardous gravely mountain roads. About 20 minutes into the hike we reached a plateau with a panoramic view & we could see for miles & miles., the path disappeared amongst a mass of boulders leading even higher to another ridge line. We picked our way along the narrow path up & over the fairly easy rocky terrain. Only a bit of rock scrambling here & there. In some places I'm sure large rocks had been moved to form steps. And all along the way are the beautiful desert plants. It was Mother Nature's desert landscaping at it's very best. Just about when you think your legs are not going to go any farther, your there. It was about a hundred yards over that ridge, nestled in the rocks that I first caught site of the homestead ruins. A couple sections of adobe wall, an old iron bed, weatherworn window & door frames, a water gathering cistern system, a smaller iron bedspring, a few upright wood supports & some old rusted cans laying in the sand where the kitchen once was. That's about all that is left of what once was a family of 5 living here for 17 years back in the 1930's. It is incomprehensible how & why Marshal South chose this spot. Every nail, every piece of lumber, every rain barrel, & every bit of building material had to be physically carried up from the desert floor 700 feet below, along that steep rock strewn grueling narrow path to the top. Everything!! But, standing there among the ruins I can kind of understand his reasoning, although it be a little harsh. They were totally alone on a mountaintop, far from the maddening crowds & civilizations far below & far away. In many ways I can identify with this man's feelings. It is an unending view for miles & miles in all directions from this site & I can only imagine how beautiful it must have been on those warm clear summer nights with the stars stretching from mountaintop to mountaintop. As I looked around I tried to imagine the children playing on the rocks, the family sitting down to meals, Tanya grinding seeds in a mortero we found near the house, & Marshal South working on his water system or sitting on the rocks writing his articles for, The Desert Sun. It's a quiet place now with only the wind rustling through the cactus. This is truly a special spot & one that we will always remember as we walked among the ruins, the rocks, & the abundant desert plant life. We were fortunate enough to spend a quiet half hour here before the tell tale sounds of human voices began to drift up from the pathway below. People were on the way so it was time for us to go. It's not likely we will ever pass this way again so it's always with a bit of sadness that we leave a place, & especially a place as peaceful as this. A last look back as we began our descent, & wait......was that Marshal South I saw standing tall on a rock looking over the valley, did I hear the children laughing & was that Tanya by the door watching the children play........maybe, just maybe.
We picked our way down through the boulders passing half a dozen people on their way up. I jokingly told them they only had another 8 miles to go. Kelly picked up some tall yucca stems complete with dried flowers on the end. We also picked up a few small colorful stones. Sometimes the descent down a steep grade can be more difficult than the climb up. It's easier to slip on loose gravel but we finally made it down ok & it was a great feeling to open that car door & sit down on a soft comfortable car seat.
From the Ghost Mountain trailhead we headed south a couple of miles to the site of an old Indian village site where we found many morteros in rocks where Indian women had spent countless hours grinding seed pods, beans, & lentils. The morteros are the only visible sign that there had once been people here & it's hard to comprehend how these women could grind these holes into solid rock using nothing more than another solid rock. Again, wandering amongst these huge boulders, one can only vaguely try to imagine what life must have been like a few hundred years ago in these parts.
The overcast sky was turning dark to the west so it was time for us leave Blair Valley. I turned & said good-bye to the Marshall South family, the Indian families at the mortero site & Ghost Mountain itself. Good-bye & thanks for making this a memorable day for us.
The park's signage is very poor & as we headed off across the desert floor we weren't sure which way the highway was. Sandy roads criss crossed here & there but we stayed on the one that looked most traveled & I felt we were headed in the general right direction Probably took us the best part of half an hour before we saw some vehicles moving along a road in the distance which indeed turned out to be the highway. Always a nice feeling to get un-lost:))
Because the little mountain town of Julian was only 12 miles away we decided to go there & pick up some dog food & a couple of much needed coffees. This is a quaint little village in the heart of the mountains. I think they might have got a bit of snow last week too. The scenic 28 mile trip from Julian back to Borrego Springs was uneventful as I once again got to feel like a Grand Prix driver gearing up down on the tight mountain curves & grades. Just as we reached the Borrego valley, the sun poured out of the clouds lighting the valley floor ahead & it felt like we were home...... even though we've only been here a little over 2 weeks.
This California place is truly remarkable & filled with lots of adventures & wide eyed wonderment & we've come to love it. It will be with sad hearts when we leave her in another week or so.........................:(( (A lot of pictures for the web album so they might not be uploaded yet)

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