We're all dreamers. From Walter Elias Disney to Walter P. Anonymous, each of us has a vision of grandeur floating about between his or her ears. Dreams give us hope. Dreams give us vision and direction. For some, dreams do nothing but clash with reality.
It was after a bit of daydreaming and a lot of reading that our '03 4Runner UNlimited was packed full of tools, munchies, and camping gear. We needed a close-to-home escape.
We had about 36 hours available, so what could potentially have been several days' worth of exploration had to be crammed into a day and a half. Our journey touched both the Space Age and the Stone Age against the backdrop of San Diego's backcountry.
We found the Space Age atop Mt. Palomar at the end of twisty East Grade Road. Here, the Palomar Observatory's white dome gleams in the sun by day and retracts to expose the powerful Hale telescope by night. The Hale telescope is no longer the world's largest telescope, yet it continues to be an important research tool for the scientific community. Visitors don't get to look through the Hale telescope, but there are several photos on display of images captured using the sophisticated optics of its 200-inch-diameter reflecting mirror. Gaze at the photos long enough, and it's easy to feel closer to the cosmos than to Earth. George Ellery Hale was the dreamer behind the Palomar Observatory. Hale didn't build the telescope or the dome, but it was his vision and scientific prowess that were responsible for the observatory's creation.
While the Palomar Observatory is both spectacular and significant, we were after more than just scientific supremacy and twisty paved roads. The Palomar Observatory provided a touch point to compare our next destination to. We were about to pay a visit, and homage of sorts, to another dreamer: Marshal South.
Marshal South was originally from Australia, where his father was a well-to-do sheep rancher. South's given name was Roy Richards, but he changed it to distance himself from his father after emigrating to the United States with his mother and brother in 1907. Although he'd grown up with wealth, Marshal South did not value it. Instead of material wealth, Marshal's ideal world contained an array of artistic media through which he could express his creativity. Marshal could work with words, wood, pottery, and paint to perfection.
Marshal South was one for whom dreams clashed sharply with reality. Marshal was neither a hermit nor a monk. He was a family man responsible for the well-being of a wife and three children. For 17 years, the South family lived on a rocky knoll atop Ghost Mountain. Called "The Great Experiment," the South family's existence was a tough one. Ghost Mountain had no water; every drop had to be collected in cisterns after falling from the sky or hauled up in containers. Civilization's closest outpost was, and still is, the hamlet of Julian. Ghost Mountain lies within the borders of present-day Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Although the journey to Ghost Mountain begins by turning off of San Diego County Highway S-2 onto a dirt road, the final stretch of a visit to Ghost Mountain can only be completed with hiking boots. The sometimes-steep hike to the South family's home site does not follow the same trail used by Marshal and his family, but it does give one an appreciation for what a tough existence living on Ghost Mountain must have been.
Although it wasn't a true-to-life Stone Age existence, parts of life on Ghost Mountain were very primitive. Wheat was ground by hand and baked in an adobe oven. Native plants were used for everything from food to clothing to household tools.
Marshal made his living selling freelance articles to Desert magazine. His short stories chronicled the daily lives of Marshal and Tanya South and their three children, Rider, Rudyard, and Victoria. Tanya's poetry was also bought and published by Desert Magazine. Their self-built cabin was furnished with furniture and decorated with crafts made by Marshal and his gifted hands. Tanya encouraged Marshal to produce his craft work to sell as an additional source of income, but he refused. Once again, Marshal did not value material wealth.
The final curtain fell on The Great Experiment in 1946. Tanya had long been concerned that Rider, Rudyard, and Victoria needed a chance to integrate with society. Marshal ignored her pleas. On an October day while Marshal was away in Julian, Tanya and the children hiked out to highway S-2 and flagged down a passing car. Tanya gave the driver a note asking for help from the Red Cross. Soon after, the Red Cross came out to Ghost Mountain and took Tanya and the children to Oceanside where they began new lives. Tanya filed for divorce.
Life changed for Tanya and the children. They moved to Carlsbad, where Tanya found work cleaning movie theaters. Eventually, she found better pay working in an office. Rider, Rudyard, and Victoria entered school and did in fact become successfully integrated with the rest of the "normal kids." For Marshal, on the other hand, life ended. Marshal's heart was not strong, and the loss of his family broke him physically and emotionally. Marshal died of heart disease in Julian on October 22, 1948. Tanya lived another 50 years, passing away in 1997 just shy of her 100th birthday. Rider, Rudyard, and Victoria are still alive today leading low-profile, private lives.
Inspiration for our trip came largely from author Diana Lindsay's book Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An Experiment in Primitive Living. The definitive 321-page volume contains interviews, history, photos, and the writings of both Marshal and Tanya South. Rider South, the eldest of the three children, contributed to Lindsay's book, providing vital information and insight into life on Ghost Mountain. Although his mother Tanya remained bitter about Marshal and The Great Experiment to the very end of her life, Rider's recollections and sentiments carry an entirely different tone. Rider's accounts of Ghost Mountain are devoid of anger or bitterness toward either of his parents.
Our dusty drive and steep hike to the South family home site left us amazed, even though it wasn't our first time there. How could anyone last even a week in such a place? Ghost Mountain is a prime example of stark desert beauty, but it is not hospitable at all. The South's former home lies in ruins, gradually melting back into the desert floor from which it was built.
After leaving the South family home site, we looked for a trail worthy of the 4Runner. Our summertime visit meant that precious few people were out and about on the trails. Desert heat meant that we couldn't risk a breakdown and the resulting hike out for help. We needed a trail that offered scenery, challenge, and easy access to paved, well-traveled roads. These criteria meant that classic Anza-Borrego trails such as Diablo Dropoff would be reserved for another day. Instead, we pointed our grille at Grapevine Canyon Road and the Jasper Trail.
Grapevine Canyon road leaves the pavement just across highway S-3 from the Tamarisk Grove campground. Grapevine Canyon starts with a sandy wash and narrows into a rocky shelf road. Jasper Trail leaves Grapevine Canyon and brings adventurers on a winding, sometimes-steep route that ends at highway S-22. This route proved to be scenic, but disappointingly easy. A previous trip revealed, especially on the Jasper Trail, a route that was riddled with ruts and small-scale surface mayhem. This time, much of the Jasper Trail had been graded. Give it a winter and a few desert-style downpours, and the Jasper Trail should be back to its old, properly-challenging self.
Our 36 hours drew to a close, and it was time to point the 4Runner back toward I-15 and home. We'd visited the Space Age and the Stone Age, and had gotten our tires dirty. It was a great, pint-sized escape. Here's to the dreamers.