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The Ghost Mountain Experiment

We see an old man slowly making his way up the steep, rocky trail that leads to the site. He slowly circles the skeletal remains of the house—a rusted bed frame, the base of a adobe stove, a crumbling arched doorway, and the cement cisterns that once caught precious rainwater. The man’s voice begins: “My name is Rider South, and this was my home for the first 13 years of my life. We called our home Yaquitepec.”We fade in on old black-and-white photos of a man and woman––Rider South’s parents. “It was built by my father—poet, author, and artist Marshal South—who came to Ghost Mountain with my mother Tanya in 1930 after the start of the Great Depression.” More photos show Marshal and Tanya building their home, carrying every nail, piece of lumber, roofing, and most importantly, water, to the top of the mountain. “For the next 17 years they pursued a simple and natural lifestyle, and raised three children.” The old photos (more than 200 in number), as well as two recently discovered amateur movies, show the family pursuing their primitive lifestyle––long-haired, often without clothes, living their version of a native existence. In these images we see not only the daily routines of survival but also the parents’ efforts to nurture and educate their children.

The Ghost Mountain Experiment is a feature-length documentary that explores why a family would choose to turn its back on civilization and what the costs can be. The Souths were a late blossom in the settling of the American West, a pioneer family in search of their American Dream. They yearned for the freedom to worship what Marshal called the Great Spirit and to live in concert with their own deeply held beliefs. They embraced the desert experience and discovered its true character beneath a stark veneer.

The South family lived in isolation, outside society’s confines. They succeeded in surviving the rigors of primitive living, but, interestingly, surviving also meant dealing with the outside world. They were well known far beyond Ghost Mountain. Through a 1939 article in the Saturday Evening Post and nine years of monthly installments in Desert Magazine, thousands of readers got a glimpse into their unusual lives. Those articles generated numerous curious guests along with those who decried their chosen lifestyle. Their sun-baked home became an everyman’s castle on the printed page as they shared their adventure, their dream, their philosophy. It can be said this family was the forerunner of today’s reality entertainment, a sort of early version of Survivor with thousands awaiting the next installment in Desert Magazine. The vicarious thrill they provided brought not only celebrity and praise to the Souths but also deep criticism.

What is the attraction of primitive living that beckon people even to this day? On camera Rider speaks the words echoed in so much of his father’s writing: “My parents wanted to protect us from society rather than to raise us to fit into society’s mold.” The Souths, although admired by many, certainly did not fit into the society of their day. And one wonders if such a way of living would be plausible today, given the social, economic and political conditions in contemporary times.

The Ghost Mountain Experiment raises questions about extremism in the pursuit of a dream. How does dream become nightmare? When is living on the fringe dangerous for a family’s well being — socially, emotionally, and even physically? Do parents have the right to completely control the education of their children? Can anyone really escape from society as a family and still raise children who are emotionally and socially healthy?

Early in the film, we hear the words of Marshal South through an actor’s voice: “The Desert! Either you will love it or you will hate it. If you hate it you will fly from it and never wish to see its face again. If you love it, it will hold you and draw you as will no other place on earth.” As the years unfolded, Marshal’s love and affinity for the desert and his respect for the indigenous people who first made the desert their home continued to grow and mold his thoughts while his wife Tanya’s desire for spiritual peace and silence were defeated by the hardships of survival and concern for the practical care of her children, resulting in her eventual flight from the very place that once served as her haven.

In retrospect, the unique course that the South family followed was indeed pioneering. Marshal and Tanya South, both educated and creative individuals, were early exponents of environmentalism, home schooling, exercise and healthy whole grain foods, along with a return to nature and spiritual values. They answered a call that began with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Hermann Hesse; one that is increasingly relevant. There is concern among many today about the direction of society, especially our embrace of a cynical materialism which has sadly replaced our lost spiritual values. Peter Whybrow states in his book American Mania: When More is Not Enough?: “Despite an astonishing appetite for life, more and more Americans are feeling overworked and dissatisfied. In the world’s most affluent nation, epidemic rates of stress, anxiety, depression, obesity and time urgency are now grudgingly accepted as part of everyday existence — they signal the American Dream gone awry.” In its own way, the South family was confronting these same issues over half a century ago.

Marshal South died soon after their acrimonious divorce made headlines. Tanya lived to be almost 100 years old, never letting go of her bitterness toward Marshal, maintaining strict silence about their time in the desert for the next 50 years of her life. This secrecy led to years of speculation about what had really occurred during the family’s stay on Ghost Mountain and added to a negative image about Marshal that grew over time. One has to dig deeper to understand the real man and what he hoped to accomplish. For decades, Tanya’s anger only deepened as she perceived that she had been blamed for ending what Desert Magazine’s editor called the “glorious experiment.” She never had second thoughts about her decision to leave: it was for the sake of her children. She felt any benefits of solitary living had been outweighed by the lack of community and by the limited individual opportunities on Ghost Mountain. In her view, the family unit proved too small to provide the needed social support offered by the larger human tribe.

The story is told in first-person narration, through the voices of Rider and Victoria South, the writings of their mother and father, and the letters printed in Desert Magazine by their many supporters and naysayers. Over thirty hours of vivid photography was shot in HD and Super16, revealing the beauty and stark nature of the Souths’ desert home throughout the seasons. Additional footage shows remnants left behind by the desert’s indigenous Kumeyaay, and then by early California emigrants and intrepid pioneer settlers. On-camera interviews with two of the children and author Diana Lindsay (Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles, 2005) have been captured and tell the story that, until now, has been hidden beneath the ruins of the family’s cryptic history. Historians, sociologists and environmentalists comment on how the story fits into the larger context of its day as well as today.

The enigma that is Marshal South—community activist and hermit, hopeless romantic and abusive adulterer, environmentalist and military hawk, worldly poet and mountain man—is illuminated as we confront the truth behind the legend. Marshal’s stubborn determination to create a utopian existence at Yaquitepec might have been in conflict with the reality of his situation, but he never wavered in his beliefs. And he lived his beliefs––creating his own image on his own terms, close to nature, and loving every minute of it. Individualism, living according to one’s ideals, and forming an intimate relationship with the natural landscape are basic American values. They are celebrated in American heroes from Daniel Boone to Teddy Roosevelt. It was self-reliance and the ability to read the rhythms of the wilderness that allowed America’s early explorers and pioneers to succeed. “It is to these freedom-loving souls who will not march docilely in the ordered ranks to the piping of those who would sway them, that all freedom owes its life,” Marshal South wrote. “They are the bearers of the sacred fire.”

The Souths’ back-to-nature story makes an impact because it reminds us of our heritage and the ideals we celebrate but sometimes forget between the demands of making a living and the technology that was promised to set us free. It also reminds us of the importance of nature as a fundamental American value that is not properly recognized. Wildness has defined our character as a people. We have a challenge to preserve enough wild so children 100 years from now will have the space they need to imagine their own Marshal South dream.

In the early days of the Great Depression, as seen through archival footage, the Souths had made the decision to leave all behind in their pursuit of a dream while struggling to become self-reliant in the desert. They took an even greater gamble that they could raise their children apart from people but focused on humanity. Coursing through all this was their unusual courage and commitment to make a difference. At this they succeeded, but at great cost. For them, the real failure of the “glorious experiment” was their own marriage. After all they’d been through, was it worth losing this? We offer no simple answer. But this can be seen as a cautionary tale that asks if it’s possible to get lost when one goes too far down the road less traveled. The story of Marshal South and his family raises the age old question of seeking balance in the strength of the thread versus the integrity of the fabric in the human pursuit of freedom and happiness.

The sun has set, and the old walls atop Ghost Mountain are silhouetted against the purple sky of dusk. Rider South takes one final look at the ruins of his boyhood home and then leaves the mountain for the last time.

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