Strange Geographies: the House on Ghost Mountain

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Deep in California's Anza-Borrego desert wilderness -- an hour from the nearest town, miles from the nearest paved road, atop the rocky crags of a mountain stippled with razor cactus -- is a house. Or the remains of one, at least, built and occupied for sixteen years by a noted writer and his family, who wanted to live off the land like Native Americans. Some people think Marshal South was crazy, others consider him an inspiration; one thing everyone can agree on is that he was interesting.

People wonder why South would build a house so far from civilization, and in such an unforgiving place -- that is, until they hike the steep, mile-long trail to his old home site, and discover the views he enjoyed; the thin white roads and spectral light that spills across the Blair Valley is what earned Ghost Mountain its name.

Marshal South was the pen-name of an Australian ex-pat who came to America just after the turn of the last century, and who made a career for himself writing novels about the Wild West. Finally, after writing about it for so long, South decided to live it -- conducting an "experiment in primitive living" -- and in 1930, he and his wife Tanya moved to the waterless ridge in the desert that became known as Ghost Mountain. Over the next 16 years they raised a family there, and became known to readers across the country through a series of articles Marshal wrote about their lives in the Saturday Evening Post and Desert Magazine.

South family summer 1946

They lived as close to the land as they could, building their home from adobe they made themselves, and fashioning an ingenious system of cisterns to catch and store rainwater. Here's what's left of the cisterns today:

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The house as it was. You can see the cistern pictured above on the left side of the frame.
85-Rid & Rud in front of house

Not much remains of the house today -- over the years, the adobe structure has literally melted into the desert. The door frame and an iron bed are two of the homestead's most obvious remnants.
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In the years before the cisterns were built, the only way the Souths got water was by driving it from a faraway town in their Model A Ford, then carrying it one mile up the mountain, by hand, twelve gallons at a time. Here are the Souths bringing some corrugated roofing up the side of the mountain:

74--M & T w corrugated roofing 6-15-31

They were forced to move for a short period of time during World War II, when the Army informed the Souths that their mountain was in the path of a gunnery range. Finally, in 1946, the Souths separated and divorced -- though they never talked about it publicly, friends speculated that Tanya saw no future for their children in the desolate wilderness where they lived; Marshal, who was raised in the Australian outback, saw no problem with it. The house was sealed and left to the elements, and 64 years later, little more than traces remain.

Another basin for catching water:
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As with any abandoned site or ghost town, there is some trash. However, because the Souths lived off the land as much as they could -- hunting rabbit, eating cactus, raising bees for honey, and grinding what grain they bought by hand -- there isn't much. I found evidence, though, that the Souths enjoyed the odd canned delicacy:

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It's a beautiful spot, but not a place that made me want to plant my flag and never leave. It's amazing that any modern people could live so primitively -- and, for a time, even thrive here.

Check out all the Strange Geographies columns here.

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March 15, 2010 - 9:24am
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