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 productions since that evening at Agua Caliente Hot Springs 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 mountain saddle cradling the ruins of an adobe home built by Marshal South to shelter his wife, Tanya, and eventually their three children. The family persevered in the notorious bone-chilling wind that comes from the northwest and the searing heat of summer of the far west Sonoran Desert, where temperatures often climb 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 began showing in regular numbers by the 1980s. Before then, the South homesite bespoke a relatively unknown story. Hikers and campers happenstance to a few signs indicating a trail up Ghost mountain attracted oinly a few over the course of a day or even week. Visitors are now plentiful daily and chances are fair on days of good weather with gentle breeze that visitors will be around all day.
The trail from the parking area at the foot of Ghost Mountain is 2/3rd 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) on the partially eroded trail and, in a few places, scrambling among small boulders. Hiking boots are recommended, sneakers are not, so are poles if you have them. 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 placed by South himself are uncommon but nice when encountered, with most found closer to the top. There are also multiple routes to be seen in some places—you wouldn’t be the first to lose one trail and oick up another—just be vigilant and generally keep your eye out for the road better traveled.
Some of the original homesite constructions remain intact, such as the useful sundial and the cistern. 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 as to a sundial, it can be quite an educational device. Marshal South would have enjoyed teaching anyone the rudiments of his sundial, and to that point McDonald’s documentary explores the educational opportunities made for the South children with critical interviews of local Julian residents who knew the family. My own conversation with one of those interviewed found the subject of education the most sensitive element of the “experiment” to anyone considering South’s 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 down on the family by Marshal South’s persistence to complete his experiment in the face of growing environmenal hardship and withering romantic appeal. The film is particularly furthered by the incisive interviews of 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 had survived into 2012. They seem to erode to about half their previous extent every twenty years or so. The rock rain basins, the cistern and the sundial still persist and should for many years to come—like the many great boulders around the site. They number in the hundreds, if not thousands, nearly unchanged in their dominion of the mountain for the thousands of years native peoples have left their presence in the area.
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 can order the feature-length director’s cut, the trailer of which may be seen on YouTube below. And…if you happen to remember the memorable Huell Howser “California Gold” documentary series (KCET), then you might be charmed to know there is an unseen Huell Howser episode on the subject of Marshal South that can be ordered through the above page.