Remains of home offer peek at life of hideaway

2:00 a.m. March 26, 2009


Ghost Mountain

Trail head: Off S-2, six miles southeast of state Road 78 at Scissors Crossing. Drive about three miles on the dirt road to trail head.

Length: two miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Standing atop Ghost Mountain, with a panoramic view of the Anza-Borrego Desert, it's easy to understand why Marshal and Tanya South chose the spot in their effort to escape from civilization.

Even now, 63 years after the Souths and their three children abandoned their hilltop hideaway, there are few signs of modern life. Little Blair Valley, a lake bed that's now a green meadow following the winter rains, lies to the north. Steep reddish mountains rise out of the desert floor to the south.

A mile-long hike up Ghost Mountain leads to the ruins where the South family lived for about 15 years in an effort to return to nature and live like the Indians. Catching your breath while avoiding the agave and barrel cactus by the trail, think of Marshal South lugging containers of water for his family as he trudged up the mountain.

The remains of the house that the Souths built with rocks and concrete still stand on the site. Rusted bedsprings, a primitive sun dial and the cistern the family used to collect rainwater give hints about their life.

Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State University and a Borrego Springs resident, recently led a group of his students on a hike up Ghost Mountain. Carrying the book “Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles,” he told the fascinating story of the Souths.

South, who wrote pulp Western novels, and Tanya, a poet, headed to the desert in 1930 and got a 160-acre homestead at Ghost Mountain. Their three children were born in Oceanside but were raised at their desert home.

A 1939 Saturday Evening Post article by South about his family's primitive life led to monthly articles in Desert Life magazine. South's articles from 1940 to 1946, accompanied with photos, were the most popular feature in the magazine.

South presented a romantic vision of the family's life at Yaquitepec, as he named the site. In the Saturday Evening Post article, he described how he and his wife “longed for peace and the whisper of the clean wind across unspoiled wilderness.” He wrote about living off the land, wearing little more than a loin cloth, and his efforts to escape the corrupting influence of civilization.

The Souths twice had to leave Ghost Mountain. They first moved because of a chronic shortage of water, but after a year of traveling in their Ford Model A, returned in November 1943. Then in October 1945, the U.S. Navy told the family to leave because they were in the path of a gunnery range. They stayed with neighbors until they could return in August 1946.

A few months later, Marshal and Tanya separated and later divorced, creating a scandal. Some said the stress of the desert lifestyle caused the bitter rift.

After the separation, Marshal South moved to Julian, where he died Oct. 22, 1948, at the age of 62. Tanya South sold the property to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park for $950 in 1958. She died in 1997 at the age of 99. She never talked publicly about her life on the mountain.

One son, Rudyard, changed his name and refused all interview requests. The two other children, Rider and Victoria, didn't talk about their childhood for decades, but later said they had positive memories of the experience.

Visitors to Ghost Mountain today can decide whether Marshal South was an idealistic dreamer or a little crazy – or perhaps a bit of both.

Anne Krueger: (619) 542-4575; anne.krueger@uniontrib.com 
Anne Krueger: (619) 542-4575; (Contact)