Shadowy Monticello

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A Country without Memory

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Maryhill and Celilo
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Ghost Mountain

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2011 John Lesage


        Ghost Mountain


I 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 mountaintop 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.

Richards 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.
       
These were unusual people. 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 cream cone: he took the family into town on one occasion. When the kids clamored for 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.
   
    Visiting the 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.

For more, see Diana Lindsay's Marshal South and The Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An Experiment in Primitive Living (Adventures in the Natural and Cultural History).