The Wildness Within
So Get Out There...
-Ed Abbey Possibly circa 1976, in a speech given in Colorado.
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
"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.
"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."
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.
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.
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. For more insights into Marshal South and two other iconoclastic thinkers who lived in the wilderness of the eastern Peninsular Range of San Diego County, please see our paper: Halsey, R.W. 2023. Iconoclastic thinkers in the mountains: How divergent spirits help us connect and preserve wildness in the eastern Peninsular Range of Southern California. In, M.A. Lang and V.E. Cournoyer, Eds., Volcan Mountain Symposium. Importance and Conservation Status of the Eastern Peninsular Ranges. Proceedings. Julian, CA. April 14-15.
-Jon Krakauer writing about Chris in his excellent book, "Into the Wild."
Ma Boheme (My Bohemian Life)
My only pair of trousers had a big whole in them.Tom Thumb in a daze, I sowed rhymesAs 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 dropsOf dew on my brow, like vigorous wine;
Where rhyming in the midst of fantastic shadows,Like lyres I plucked the elasticsOf my wounded shoes, one foot near my heart!
Translation by Wallace Fowlie (1966)