saw a short film called Ghost Mountain at the visitor center in
Borrego Springs, California. It's about a guy who lived on a desert
for 17 years, in an adobe structure up a mile-long trail. Benjamin
Richards, more often known by his pen name Marshal South, lived
mostly on what he found or grew, though he drove into town for
supplies every couple of weeks.
I walked up
there and saw the
cisterns for collecting water, as well as
the terraces for gardening. It's at almost 3,000 feet, but tucked
against the Laguna Mountains in real rain shadow. The landscape is
certainly ghostly, with the earth's granite bones sticking out amid
yucca and cholla cactus.
But it's the
story itself that gives
the place its ghostly feel. Richards didn't live alone out there
those 17 years, but with his wife Tanya, raised a family of three
kids. The film makes it all look rather idyllic. With water for
washing at a premium, they decided to go without clothes most of the
time. But nakedness aside, the film provides a family version of the
story. When I walked up the trail, I got a hint of a hidden story
when a fellow hiker told me about an ice cream cone.
wasn't a mere flower child, but was already in his 40s when he did
his best to renounce the world in 1930. He met his wife in a
beach-side community north of San Diego. He was born in Australia as
Roy Bennett Richards before changing his name. She was from New York
and already herself in her 30s.
As Marshal South, he wrote Zane Grey type novels, and
also published articles about living in the desert. She had attended
Columbia University. They home schooled their kids, who easily out
performed normally schooled children when they finally settled back
into modern life. They did so after the wife walked out with the kids
when she'd had enough.
That was a
tough life walking supplies
up that rocky trail. I can't believe those cisterns got them all the
way through the year. Certainly when they built the place, they had
to carry water and cement up that trail. Richards was well into his
50s towards the end of their stay.
About that ice
he took the family into town on one occasion. When the kids clamored
ice cream on a hot day in Julian, he told them they couldn't afford
it. So while he ran some other errands, the wife took them to the
library as a distraction. Then he showed up with an ice cream cone –
for the librarian.
library was important for
literary people leading otherwise socially isolated lives.
Unfortunately, he'd been carrying on with the librarian for much of
those 17 years. I'm not sure that the wife got a confession on that
first occasion, but I'm sure it started some discussion. Still,
Richards could probably have kept his family had he been willing to
leave his mountaintop. As it was, once the discussion had reached an
impasse, she walked down the mountain, and sent a letter requesting
help with a passing motorist. She secured a separation, and in a few
months, a divorce.
Just about a
year later, he died of a
heart attack at age 59. She lived to be almost 100.
Diana Lindsay's Marshal South and
The Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An
Experiment in Primitive Living (Adventures in the Natural and