I am camped in the broad expanse of Blair Valley in southern California. The closest town, Julian, lies almost 20 miles northwest and up several thousand feet from this high desert valley.
A sandy two-track leads deep into the heart of the valley. If you drive almost three miles to the end of the two-track, you will dead-end at Ghost Mountain. Then you can hike a vertical mile, almost straight up, to reach the top.
There you will find a rocky, spiny, cactus moonscape, a terrific view on both sides of the mountain, and almost no protection from wind, rain, or sun. You will also find the poignant remnants of an adobe home— water cisterns made of jerry-rigged oil drums, a stone-rimmed cement disk that used to be the “pool,” a few tumble-down walls, a wood doorframe, and a metal bedframe.
You have stumbled upon the Marshal South house. It is so remote, so affecting in its desolation, so small and frail in this expanse of rugged land, that you want to know what misguided passion and enormous force of will created the place.
This desire, however, cracks a Pandora’s box of broken dreams.
Marshal South was a gifted, passionate, eccentric dreamer. Born in Australia in 1889, he came to the U.S. when he was 15 with his mother and brother. He wrote poetry, often of a patriotic, militaristic bent, novels that were often swashbuckling Westerns, and many essays about family life on Ghost Mountain.
He wasn’t a particularly young man when he met Tanya. His marriage to her in 1924 predated a not-quite-final divorce from his first wife, Margaret Scheichler. They soon began to dream of a spiritual retreat to a more primitive, natural way of life. He described themselves as “out of step…temperamental misfits and innate barbarians…not equal to the job of coping with modern high-power civilization.”
They moved to Ghost Mountain in 1930 and named their homestead “Yaquitepec.” (“Yaqui”–a local indigenous tribe; “tepec”–hilltop)
It seems like an exercise in self-flagellation. Self-sufficiency was impossible; even the most basic necessities were gut-wrenchingly hard to acquire. There was no water, except what the cisterns held, which was often not enough; the mountaintop was littered with boulders; every errant gust of wind and ray of sun fell squarely upon them.
Yet, the Souths create a modest but surprisingly comfortable home, hauling water (12 gallons per trip with a two-person pallet) and cement up the mountain to construct the 15 by 40-foot, two-room home. They hunted-and-gathered mesquite and agave, rabbits and whatnot. They made pots and furniture, and what minimal clothes they wore (Marshal believed nudity was the most natural state), and bought what they couldn’t make or forage in Julian, the nearest town. The income from Marshal’s very popular monthly column for “Desert Magazine,” which described their lives on the mountain, was the main income.
Three children—Rider, Rudyard, and Victoria—were born during the Yaquitepec years, and that’s where the trouble started. As the story goes, Tanya became increasingly unsettled about the effect of their lifestyle on the children.
The experiment finally fell apart in 1947 when Tanya, having walked to the road with the children, hitchhiked into town, and filed for divorce. Overcome by the failure of his dreams and his marriage, Marshal died the following year and was buried in an unmarked grave in El Cajon. Tanya, however, lived to almost 100 and died in 1997. She never got over the Yaquitepec years and never spoke publicly about them.
She broke the silence only once when she was 85: “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.”
Ghost Mountain still receives frequent visitors despite the difficult climb. There isn’t much to see, but a sense of pathos haunts the ruins. Rightly so.