The sign at the trailhead read “1.0 mile” but it seemed much further as I followed the rocky, switchback trail winding its way upward through barrel cactus, huge boulders, and wildflowers. The midday sun burned my skin and sweat trickled down my back, but I was oblivious. I was driven forward by myth and mysticism, by my own curiosity. I was hiking to Marshal South’s house near the top of Ghost Mountain in Anza Borrego Desert State Park.
Very little is left of the adobe dwelling Marshal and his wife Tanya built, but the romance and mystery of their free-spirited life on the remote desert mountaintop remains. Their existence on Ghost Mountain, beginning in the early 1930’s, started as an experiment in primitive living, which Marshal South detailed in articles for Desert Magazine. Their original house was just 8 x 7 feet, which expanded as their family grew to include three children, two burros and a couple of goats. Marshal and his sons wore loin cloths and killed rabbits with bows and arrows. Tanya wrote poetry and together they made pottery, wove Yucca leaves into sandals, and let the land sustain them.
I was drawn to Ghost Mountain because of the stories I had heard and because I felt a kinship to Marshal and Tanya in some odd way. I, too, am a writer, an artist, a dreamer who feels overwhelmed by a selfish society. Part of me wanted to return to nature and experience that same sense of autonomy I believe the South’s found at Yaquitepec, the name they gave their humble abode.
At the end of the trail atop Ghost Mountain, I took a few swigs from my water bottled and studied the steep path I had just hiked. This was the same trail Marshal and Tanya climbed everyday to reach their home. Prior to getting their burros, they carried all of their supplies by hand, including cement to build their home, wood, water, and food, up this same trail. Sweaty and tired, I really wasn’t feeling the harmony I thought I would. I had become close to nature alright. I was covered in a thin layer of desert sand, felt a blister forming on my right little toe, and had a chunk of cactus stuck in my boot. I began to wonder if maybe Marshal was crazy with no logical reason for his exit from civilization and then I saw what he must have seen.
My breath caught as the beauty of Blair Valley stretched out before me. I wondered if Marshal was able to capture its essence in his paintings or if he was able to adequately express in his writings the emotion of seeing it for the first time. I sat motionless staring out over the valley and began to feel the harmony and freedom that I had come to find. Marshal South wasn’t crazy. He was blessed.