We were looking to take in the hot springs at Agua Caliente one balmy fall evening, when we saw a fellow setting up a projector in a little sand alcove between some of the great boulders that flank the county park. John MacDonald’s 2007 documentary of the South Family’s life on Ghost Mountain is the next best thing to a time machine, taking us back to the Anza-Borrego Desert of the 1930s and 40s. 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 that has since made rounds at film festivals and public television.
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 house his wife, Tanya, and eventually their three children, can be found. The Souths persevered in the notorious bone-chilling wind from the northwest, and survived the searing heat of summers where temperatures often climbed over 110 degrees for days at a time. Blair Valley is arguably also the coldest place in San Diego county, where temperatures regularly fall below 20 degrees in the winter and have reached zero.
The story of the Souths is compelling because it can strike a personal chord with anyone who has ever dreamed of unshackling all that is modern. McDonald’s documentary details the hardships that were brought upon the family by Marshal South’s persistence to complete his experiment. The film includes incisive interviews with persons who knew South well and from whom his motives are screened.
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 rock rain basins, the cistern and the sundial could persist for many years to come, like the great boulders have done for thousands of years.
Before McDonald’s documentary, there was Diana Lindsay’s very informative and colorful book, “Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles” (the link of which 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).
Read more… (future)