A Dream, A Mountain & A Desert Prophet – The Story of Marshall South
“we were out of step….temperamental misfits and innate barbarians…not equal to the job of coping with modern high-power civilization.” Marshall South, circa 1939
Marshall South was a poet, an artist, a dreamer, a visionary, and a writer…and most likely completely nuts. But he did something unique which made its mark in history, takes us on a beautiful hike through the desert, and gives us a story to tell …and you know me, I love these kind of stories! The year was 1929 and the Depression had affected everyone. At the time Marshall South (a fictitious name…he was born Roy Bennett Richards) was a writer living in Oceanside, CA with his wife Tanya. Exactly what happened next is a bit of a mystery.
In 1930 the couple packed everything they owned into a Model T and moved into the desert. It was the beginning of an “experiment in primitive living” in a remote and completely isolated spot in the mountains at Blair Valley. According to Marshall he wanted peace and solitude, and the ability to experience mental and physical freedom.
However it’s likely the Depression played a factor and he saw the opportunity to make an alternative income riding the coat-tails of popular “return to nature” movements of the time. Either way, a 17-year experiment had started. The South’s named their chosen spot Ghost Mountain and started construction of their adobe house, Yaquitepec….and popped out 3 children no less.
The living arrangements were totally out there. They chose a spot with no water, far from civilization in a crazy, brutal desert environment. Being out in the boonies they became nudists too (who wouldn’t?). The entire thing was like something out of a fictional novel and Marshall finally capitalized on the story in 1939 with a contract with Desert Magazine to publish a one-year series entitled “Desert Year” that would feature life at Yaquitepec, month by month. It was a huge success, so much so that it continued through 1946 (you can read them in this book). But here is where the story goes a little crazy, and become a little mysterious too.
Marshall heavily romanticized his experiences on the mountain. Through his writings he portrayed a utopic life in harmony with nature and completely embodied this image, becoming “the desert prophet”. Personally I think he was swept away and trapped by his own written creation, living a life quite different from his mind’s eye. In a surprise (to just about everyone) Tanya filed for divorce in 1947, took the kids and refused (ever again) to speak about her time on the mountain. Marshall died a year later (sickness? malnutrition? heart-break? who knows…)
Both the mystery and the story live on. Today you can still see the old ruins of Yaquitepec in Anza Borrego State Park. A fine drive to Blair Valley (mile 22.9 on S2) and a few miles on a dirt road takes you to the base of Ghost Mountain. Then another mile of steep uphill hiking takes you to the old homestead.
Paul and I took the trip on an week-day morning bursting with winter sunshine. We were the only folks on the mountain and spent a good hour at the top, peeking around the old ruins and trying to imagine what a hard and crazy life it must have been. In many ways I can understand what they were doing here -> the need to find a link with nature, to experience peace, to depart from the norm, and in other ways I can’t understand it at all. But I do love the story…