Monday, January 01, 2007

The Ruin on Ghost Mountain

“There’s a mountain not far from here where, many years ago, a man lived with his wife and children. He was a writer of some kind.”

My interest was piqued. This sounded a little familiar. I had heard a story something like this not too long before. “Do you know his name?” I asked.

“Hmmm, no. I could look it up.”

“Would you recognize it if you heard it?”


“Was it Marshal South?”

“That sounds familiar.” Marge opened a tour book, ruffled through a few pages, and said, “Yes. Marshal South.”

It was early in 2000. I was visiting the Anza-Borrego Desert wilderness in California, not far from the Mexican border. Father Richard and Marge had told me of the wonders of this particular desolate area, and then had invited me to join them for a couple of days there in their motor home. On our first morning, we were talking over the breakfast table after the dishes had been cleared, planning our escapades for the day. I asked if we could make the Marshal South home our first stop. As it was only a few miles away, they agreed.

Locking and leaving the motor home, we piled into the four-wheel drive Suzuki and found state road S-2. Six miles south of where it leaves Scissors Crossing at Little Pass, we turned onto a dirt road. Putting the Suzuki into four-wheel drive mode, we surged onward over corrugated roadway until we came, about two miles farther, to a dead end. A trail one mile long began there, leading to the top of Ghost Mountain and the site of the ruined abode built by author Marshal South and his wife Tanya.

Marshal South, described in our various tour guides as “interesting”, “audacious”, and “eccentric”, loved life in the desert, and most of his writings—magazine articles, poetry, and novels—are set in the stark southwest. His novels were published in England 1935-1944, during the years he was living on Ghost Mountain. They bore the intriguing titles of Child of Fire, Flame of Terrible Valley, Gunsight, Juanita of the Border Country, The Curse of the Sightless Fish, Gold of the Gods, Robbery Range, and Tiburon: The Isle of the Shark.

After years of effort, a friend of mine and I were able to locate all of South’s eight novels, which are extremely scarce. They are compact, action-packed, smoking stories of the American southwest or northern Mexico. One is set in Papua New Guinea. The connoisseur has to live on adrenaline to read them. One, Flame of Terrible Valley, compresses its entire 256 pages into about twelve hours of hair-raising action. Whew!

The Souths settled on the top of Ghost Mountain in February 1932. With his income markedly reduced in the early years of the Depression, Marshal and his wife Tanya decided to live off the land much like the early Indians. The setting and their way of life would provide unequaled inspiration for his writing. They lived there for sixteen years and raised three children, who were born during their sojourn on the mountaintop.

With their own hands, they built an adobe home, which they called Yaquitepec (YAH-kee-teh-PECK) a word in an Indian dialect which means “Ghost Mountain”). Yaquitepec had an ingenious system for collecting rain water in the arid desert region. The Souths grew much of their own food. A monthly trip to Julian, a beautiful village about twenty miles away and dating from the gold mining days, enabled them to procure the few necessities they couldn’t provide for themselves. Everything they bought had to be carried up the trail to the top of Ghost Mountain.

Debarking from the Averys’ Suzuki, Father Richard and I began to follow the same trail. Although the trail is only a mile long, I found it a bit of a challenge. It has several switchbacks as it rises steeply, quickly. The last two hundred yards cause the hiker to breathe very deeply indeed, with several areas where the trail consists of stones laid like stairs, and just as steep. As I wheezed over these chunks of flecked granite, I wondered if they had been placed by Marshal South. I found out later they hadn’t been.

The hike is well worth the effort, though the site was abandoned a little more than half a century ago. The hill is studded with boulders, and features stands of ocotillo and barrel cactus, clumps of agave and yucca, and scattered but plentiful creosote bushes. After stepping along for about half an hour, Father Richard and I came upon the ruins of the Souths’ home. It is rapidly eroding into the desert, but much still remains. The adobe walls were about two to three feet high, and the primary frames of the building stood at odd angles, dark and fiercely weathered. The bolts that held them together were rusted the color of very strong tea. A bed frame the same color, with a few springs, was situated inside the main room. Several cisterns were open to the sky to collect the rainwater. All were dry. A few feet away was a small pool I could imagine being used for bathing. The cisterns and pool were lined with a smooth layer of concrete about two inches thick, moderately cracked but still showing signs of the care with which it had been installed.

Fifty years can take a lot away from an abandoned home, even on the top of an isolated mountain. The view, however, both to east and west, was of rare beauty and far distance.

After the second World War, the Depression was over and life was better. Or perhaps it just got too hard for Tanya after living on a mountaintop for sixteen years, by that time raising three children. In 1946, she took the children and left Yaquitepec and her husband. Marshal abandoned the home to the elements and went to stay with friends in Julian. No more novels came after those years. He died two years later and is buried in the old Julian cemetery. His grave was unmarked until January 2005.

Toward the end of this month, with a group of eight or so friends, I plan to return to Ghost Mountain on the way to a two-day camping trip to the mud caves in the bleak Anza-Borrego Desert. I’ll write on this blog about the mud caves in a few days.

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