We were looking to take in the hot springs at Agua Caliente one balmy fall evening, when we saw a fellow named John McDonald setting up a projector in a little sand alcove between some of the great boulders that flank the county park. Sitting on scattered picnic tables and scavenged lawn chairs, the few of us who gathered were treated to the 76-minute producer’s cut of the movie Ghost Mountain Experiment which has since made rounds at film festivals and public television.
John MacDonald’s 2007 documentary of the South Family’s life on Ghost Mountain is the next best thing to a time machine, taking one back to the Anza-Borrego Desert of the 1930s and 40s. I have followed some of his work since seeing the South documentary and have been consistently enriched by the cultural energy of his work. You can see for yourself at mcdonaldproductions.com.
A few miles up the County Road S2, otherwise known as the Great Overland Stage Route of 1849, and above the floor of Blair Valley, is a little mesa top where the ruins of an adobe home, built by Marshal South to shelter his wife, Tanya, and eventually their three children, can be found. The family persevered in the notorious bone-chilling wind from the northwest and survived the searing heat of summers, where temperatures often climbed over 110 degrees. Blair Valley is arguably the coldest place in San Diego county, where temperatures regularly fall below 20 degrees in the winter and have reached zero.
Visitors to the abandoned site started increasing in the 1980s, when it had been previously uncommon to see any visitors over the course of a day or even week. Today, visitors are plentiful daily and chances are fair on days of good weather that visitors will be around all day. The trail from the parking area at the foot of Ghost Mountain is about 2/3rds of a mile long with an elevation gain of some 440 feet. Overall, it is a moderate hike, but be prepared for roly-polies (not the bug types, but small, rounded rocks and pebbles) with some scrambling in places where the original trail was not stair-stepped. Hiking boots and poles are recommended, sneakers are not. There is cholla along the way; bring along some means to pull out the spines ( a small pair of pliers works best) should you encounter any on your person. Stair-steps built from the natural rock are uncommon, but some are available closer to the top. There are also multiple routes in some places—you wouldn’t be the first to lose the trail—just be vigilant and generally try the road more traveled.
Some of the original constructions remain intact, such as the useful sundial. A sundial can tell us many things: the time of noon, the time of day, an interval of time, the approximate date, and in this case even something about Marshal South. All things considered about a sundial, it can be quite an educational device. Young persons growing up today are benefitted by understanding the sundial, but to the point, McDonald’s documentary explores the educational opportunities for the South children with interviews by local Julian residents who knew the family. My own conversation with one of those interviewed in the film found this subject to be of critical value to anyone appreciating the value of educational methods.
The story of the South family is compelling because it can strike a personal chord with anyone who has ever dreamed of unshackling all that is modern. But McDonald’s documentary details the hardships that were brought upon the family by Marshal South’s persistence to complete his experiment. The film is furthered by the incisive interviews with those who considered his personal motives. Of course, everything is subject to retrospect.
The film does equally well in setting the flavor of a timeless landscape that can be experienced even today. The adobe house was well-intact in the early 1980s when I first visited it, its iron bed still inside the structure and roof still keeping out some of the rain. The Souths seemed scarcely gone, even though they had left all of it behind in the late 1940s. Some of the adobe walls have survived into 2012. The seem to erode to about half their previous extent every thirty years or so. The rock rain basins, the cistern and the sundial could persist for many years to come, like the great boulders around the site, numbering in the many hundreds, have done for thousands of years.
Before McDonald’s documentary, there was Diana Lindsay’s captivating and highly recommended book, “Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles”. (Clicking either the typed link or the cover image will take you to the book’s page at Amazon.com where some of its contents, including photos of the South family at Yaquitepec, can be seen).
Ghost Mountain Experiment link will take you to its home page where you may order the feature-length director’s cut, the trailer of which may be seen on You Tube below. And…if you remember the memorable Huell Howser (KCET’s “California Gold” documentary series), then you might be charmed to know that there is an unseen Huell Howser episode on the subject of Marshal South that may be ordered through the above page.