A Day in the Desert: Encounter on Ghost Mountain
By Vicki Hill
Most of you are familiar with Desert Magazine, published since 1937.
One of their most famous writers was Marshall South. Over the years, he wrote 102 articles and poems for the magazine. His articles, essays and poems were published in many other magazines across the nation.
He wrote with passion about the desert. He felt that one needed to surround oneself with silence, peace, harmony and nature, and he valued freedom and creativity.
He was an artist, as well as writer. He and his wife, Tanya did not want to be slaves to making money. One of his interests was in native people, natural foods, and archaeology. Being a non-conformist, he and his wife decided to build a house in the desert and experiment with living naturally.
They built an adobe house on top of Ghost Mountain, which is now part of Anza Borrego State Park. At the time it was managed by the BLM.
They raised a family there from 1930-1947. Their three children were born in Oceanside. Tanya spent her last month of pregnancy there, but then they went to live on top of the mountain with sweeping views of Blair Valley on one side and the Vallecito wash on the other. They lived simply, became nudists, ate natural foods, and he wrote articles from there.
The trail to their home is one mile up a steep slope. Everything had to be carried, including water when there wasn’t enough rain.
The home is only a ruin now, but it is one I have been determined to see for over 30 years.
Not too long ago, I flew over it in a small plane and had a good idea of what to look for.
In the 1980’s the Backroads Explorers had a Rendezvous in Anza Borrego. One of the field trips was to Ghost Mountain. However, I was very ill that weekend and only managed to ride out and wait in the truck while the group went on the hike.
So, recently I went out to the Aqua Caliente Hot Springs on a Sunday. It was hot, the pools were crowded and the campground was packed with people. I made a quick decision to turn around and go back and finally do the hike up the Mountain.
I was excited, driving through Blair Valley and couldn’t wait to get to the trailhead.
Arriving at the parking area I was crushed. Eight or nine vehicles were already there and 20 or more people were preparing to hit the trail.
I decided to take my time getting ready while the trip leader was talking to the group and follow them up after a few minutes.
Several of them were walking very slowly, so it took quite awhile to get everyone assembled on top.
Since I wasn’t with the group, and I didn’t want to intrude, I started to walk away from the ruin and wait to photograph it later. But the leader yelled at me and said she wanted to show us some photographs. I realized she thought I was with her group. As I walked up to her, the name stitched on the back of her hat said “Diana.” I realized that thiswas Diana Lindsey, who has written, along with her husband, several books and guides about Anza Borrego and the history of the people. I have treasured her books and knowledge of the people who have settled the area.
I was thrilled when she took out a big stack of photos of the area and the South family when they were living there. So, I listened, took photos and asked questions like everyone else in her group.
At one point I was sitting next to a woman who pointed at the ruins and said “yes, the bedroom was over there....and we slept outside when it was hot”.
I was stunned. Another woman said, “mom, where was the cooking done?”
I realized I was sitting next to Marshall’s daughter, Victoria! Diana called her Vicki, and asked her more questions.....then turned to Ryder and asked him a question. Both of the kids were there!
Ryder will be 80 next year and Vicki is 73. They had hiked up with their grown daughters, husbands and kids. We spent over an hour with them pointing out where things had been. The cistern their dad built was as big “as a Volkswagen” and could hold a lot of rainwater. They had planted a Yucca....the only one up there and it is alive and huge. There was a small shed built between 2 boulders where Marshall did his writing, and he built a kiln for the pottery they made.
Everything had to be carried up the steep trail so non essentials were left behind. Their only income was from the occasional articles he wrote, so they lived very poorly.
Once they brought 2 goats up to provide milk, but one of them butted Ryder in the head and cut his forehead open, so they gave that goat away. They experimented with a mule, but it’s feed had to be hauled up and it was expensive, so they gave it up too.
The site they chose to build on had been an Indian camp, so we saw morteros and slicks scattered around the area. There are several varieties of cactus and Agaves, but no trees, so firewood was scarce. They ate a lot of fruit and bread. It would have been impossible to keep meat fresh. I wondered if they made jerky?
It was quite tiring for Ryder and Victoria to climb up the mountain that day. They hadn’t been back in several years, and someone said it would probably be their last visit.
The group took many photos as well as asking questions. Diana shared information that she had gathered interviewing the “kids.”
Victoria and her husband started down the hill first. I came along not too long afterwards, before the crowd.
As they paused to let me pass by, I stopped and thanked them for such a wonderful day and explained why it was so special to me for them to be there that day.
She told me with a smile, that it was a million- in- one chance. I felt like I had just won the lottery.
She and her family are such nice people. That evening they were going to give a lecture to the Anza Borrego Foundation, who sponsored the event. I admired their fortitude.
Ryder said he didn’t remember the trail being so steep.
As I neared the bottom, two women were panting up the trail. One of them looked up at me and said, “are you Vicki?” I said “yes, but not the one you want” and turned to point to Victoria. (Now I feel old-er) But that didn’t stop me from having a most exciting. wonderful, special experience in one of my favorite places on earth, the Anza Borrego Desert.
There is a lot of information on the internet about the South Family. A book called Marshall South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles published in 2005, has the foreword written by Diana Lindsey.
If you are lucky enough to own a few old issues of Desert magazine, you can probably find an article written by Marshall and get an idea of what a remarkable man he was.