"One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am-a reluctant enthusiast... a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators.
I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards."
At 16, with the support of his family, Everett Ruess left his home in Los Angeles, California to explore the wilderness and to find the answers to questions that dwell in the minds of all boys as they drift into the world of adults. In doing so, he lived his dreams; a quest many fail to embark upon as age and convenience conspire to erase such ambitions from the heart. Yet remnants of the dream always remain, which is why Everett's story strikes deep and holds the attention of anyone with the courage to listen.
People react to Everett in various ways, as they do to Marshal South and Chris McCandless, but polar extremes seem to be common. The reactions tell a lot about how one has come to grips with the complexities of living in a world that values conformity over individuality.
Although Everett's last explorations of the southwestern deserts are the most celebrated because he was last seen there, it was in the mountains of California where, like John Muir, he became enraptured with wilderness and the answers he found there.
From Everett's Journal
"As to when I shall revisit civilization, it will not be soon, I think," Everett wrote in his last letter to his brother Waldo in November 1934. "I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the street car, and the star-sprinkled sky to the roof, the obscure and difficult trail leading into the unknown to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities. Do you blame me then for staying here where I feel that I belong and am one with the world about me?"
"I have been thinking more and more that I shall always be a lone wanderer of the wilderness. God, how the trail lures me. You cannot comprehend its resistless fascination for me.
After all the lone trail is the best... I'll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I'll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is."
"The beauty of this country is becoming part of me. I feel more detached from life and somehow gentler...I have some good friends here, but no one who really understands why I am here or what I do. I don't know of anyone, though, who would have more than a partial understanding; I have gone too far alone."
"I have always been unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I want to live more intensely and richly."
"Even after years of intimate contact and search this quality of strangeness in the desert remains undiminished. Transparent and intangible as sunlight, yet always and everywhere present, it lures a man on and on, from the red-walled canyons to the smoke- blue ranges beyond, in a futile but fascinating quest for the great, unimaginable treasure which the desert seems to promise. Once caught by this golden lure you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted. One begins to understand why Everett Reuss kept going deeper and deeper into the canyon country, until one day he lost the thread of the labyrinth; why the old time prospectors, when they did find the common sort of gold, gambled, drank and whored it away as quickly as possible and returned to the burnt hills and the search. The search for what? They could not have said; neither can I; and would have muttered something about silver, gold, copper -anything as a pretext. And how could they hope to find this treasure which has no name and has never been seen? Hard to say -and yet, when they found it, they could not fail to recognize it. Ask Everett Reuss."
- Ed Abbey
On January 22, 2005, fifty-seven years after his death, Marshal South finally received a marker on his grave in the Julian Pioneer Cemetery. But his ghost still roams the slopes of Ghost Mountain in the Anza-Borrego desert. I know. I saw him.
But beware. If you stray too close, the story of South’s dreams and the sudden destruction of all he held dear will challenge you to evaluate your own life and perceptions in uncomfortable ways. The man certainly got me thinking.
With his wife Tanya, Marshal South left civilization in 1930 to build a simple home away from it all atop a waterless mountain in the Anza-Borrego desert. Over the next 17 years, the Souths wrote poetry and philosophy, had three children and lived in a wilderness Eden of their own making.
Marshal and Rider making pottery. Photo from "Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles" from Sunbelt Publications, 2005.
Marshal earned a meager, but sufficient income to buy needed supplies in nearby Julian by writing a monthly column in Desert Magazine about his family’s adventures, living free from society’s conventions and harried routines. They ground wheat to make bread, collected cactus fruit with yucca leaves and wore clothing only when visitors arrived. Using hand-made adobe bricks, the Souths constructed a home anyone who longs to escape the madness of civilization would love to own.
Unfortunately, their experiment in primitive living was not to last forever. Sometime in October, 1946, Tanya no longer wished to live Marshal’s dream. She abruptly left the mountain, taking their three children to San Diego while her husband was in Julian painting a frieze in the town’s library (its still there, but the building is now a real estate office). The kids received their first haircuts, were enrolled in school, and tried to adjust to a world they had never known. The oldest boy, Rider, was just becoming a teenager. Marshal died two years later, his world shattered and his family’s home in the wilderness abandoned, left to crumble under the desert sun.
There are photographs of the South’s children, sitting naked on granite boulders outside their home or making pottery under a shaded patio. It’s easy to imagine them laughing as they hopped from boulder to boulder or all snuggled up under blankets listening to their father’s stories by fire glow. Whenever I look at the photos, something touches the deepest part of my soul, an atavistic, inner gallery where dreams wander, calling like sirens from a long ago, forgotten time.
Home at Yaquitepec about 1941. Two of Marshal South's children, Rudyard and Rider, in front of the South's Home in Anza-Borrego, California. Photo from "Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles" from Sunbelt Publications, 2005.
Yaquitepec in 2017. Most of the South's home is gone, but the shadows of their presence remain.
Some dismiss Marshal as an idealistic malcontent, a hermit who forced his family to live under unnecessarily harsh conditions. They don’t get it, at first anyway. They’ll visit the ruins of the family’s home up on Ghost Mountain and joke to each other about the place being a “real fixer-upper” and take candid photos while leaning against the old, concrete cistern. But then, as the scene gnaws its way into their psyche, a few will begin to understand. Something special happened here. South was a man who lived free in order to create his own image on his own terms, close to nature and loving every minute of it. Nothing disturbed the simplicity he created, a simplicity that brings the kind of peace missing in so many modern lives.
If one lingers at the South ruins past twilight, however, and the desert is allowed to set the mind free, an ill-defined longing will begin to grow in the heart, a feeling that just won’t go away. This is when Marshal appears as he did for me when a good friend and I spent the night on Ghost Mountain among the broken stone walls and empty door frames.
When Marshal’s ghost appeared quietly in what was once the busy family kitchen, and the laughter of children danced in the hills around us, the cause of the longing became clear. It was the broken commitment to see it through to the end and the sudden interruption of innocence; a ruptured dream that disturbs the secret hope that someone, somewhere, will always be able to escape the rat race, by choice, and forever. What was Tanya thinking when she split the scene? Why did she decide to leave so suddenly and descend back into the maws of civilization? We’ll never know because she died in 1997 without ever publicly explaining what happened. Questions forever unanswered. Only recently has Rider, now 74, begun to share reflections and memories of his family’s experience on Ghost Mountain.
It doesn’t matter how accurate the image was that Marshal South shaped for himself. He believed it and lived 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 Teddy Roosevelt to Edward Abbey. 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.”
Every time we spend a quiet weekend in the backcountry or stare into a campfire, we are reconnecting with the crucible that shaped us as a nation. Natural open space unfettered by the hum of a nearby freeway or the sight of power lines is as precious to our country as are the principles that set us free. The South’s 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 make our lives easier. This is why nature in the raw is so vital to our future. It helps us remember who we are and where we came from.
Wildness defines our character as a people. The challenge we face is to preserve enough of it so children 100 years from now will have the space they need to imagine their own Marshal South dream.
- Richard Halsey
The South's sundial.
The Yaquitepec ruins at sunset.
"Unlike Muir and Thoreau, McCandless went into the wilderness not primarily to ponder nature or the world at large but, rather, to explore the inner country of his own soul. He soon discovered, however, what Muir and Thoreau already knew: an extended stay in the wilderness inevitably directs one's attention outward as much as inward, and it is impossible to live off the land without developing both a subtle understanding of, and a strong emotional bond with, that land and all it holds."
-Jon Krakauer writing about Chris in his excellent book, "Into the Wild."
Arthur Rimbaud was born October 20, 1854, in Charleville, northern France. He started writing when we was 13. After graduating from school in 1870, he ran off to Paris to explore the world. Later, he set off on foot to Belgium. In 1871 he made contact with the French poet Paul-MarieVerlaine in Paris.
Over the next year and a half, his life was dominated by his rocky relationship with Verlain and a period in which he wrote some of his most famous poetry. By the time he was 19, he turned his back on his literary talents with the possible exception of a few Illuminations which were published in 1886 by Verlain.
In 1880 he left Europe to find his fortune in northern Africa, leaving behind a legacy that would change poetry forever. He died on November 10, 1891 at the age of 37.
Ma Boheme (My Bohemian Life)
I went off, my fists in my torn coat pockets;
My coat too was becoming ideal;
I walked under the sky, Muse! and I was your vassal;
Oh! oh! what brilliant loves I dreamed of!
My only pair of trousers had a big whole in them.
Tom Thumb in a daze, I sowed rhymes
As I went along. My inn was at the Big Dipper.
– My stars in the sky made a soft rustling sound.
And I listened to them, seated on the side of the road,
In those good September evenings when I felt drops
Of dew on my brow, like vigorous wine;
Where rhyming in the midst of fantastic shadows,
Like lyres I plucked the elastics
Of my wounded shoes, one foot near my heart!
Translation by Wallace Fowlie (1966)