Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Nonconformist Marshall South And The Stubborn Fishhook Cactus

©Bert Gildart: In February of 1940, nonconformist Marshall South wrote from his tiny isolated home that the fishhook cacti were putting out their flowers. “The fishhooks are temperamental,” wrote Marshall for Desert Magazine in one of his monthly contributions. “If they feel like it, they will flower, in defiance of seasons or regulations.”


Fishhook Cactus, taken with two strobes and the camera set to manual with settings of f22 and 250th of a second.

As Janie and I and our two companions, Don and Nancy, gazed over the South’s abode, abandoned over 50 years ago and now being reclaimed by this desert characterized by agave; by the sharp-pointed thorns of ocotillo, cholla and prickly pear, we continued to express awe that the family had survived so far from civilization. Today, there’s not a great deal left to offer clues, but there’s enough, and with it and the articles left behind by Marshall, there’s adequate fodder to stir the imagination and probably even arrive at some conclusions. Perhaps when he wrote about the temperamental nature of the fishhook cactus, he was also expressing aspects of his own inner nature.


Camped as we are now in California’s Anza Borrego Janie and I have once again found that of all the things in this marvelous park, what captures our imagination more than the park’s other charms are the lives of Marshall and Tanya South and their three children. Last year we had made the one-mile climb up the steep flanks of Ghost Mountain to Yaquitepec, the name the South’s provided their home, and learned enough to know that we would have to return.


"Yaquitepec," as they called their old homestead.

Yesterday, we returned and again found ourselves tallying the remains; shifting the artifacts of time for clues. Casting around we saw that the framed door archway stood and that the rusty bed now lays prostrate on the ground, and without legs for support. The cisterns still seemed fairly much intact, though they’ve developed some serious cracks. Cisterns enabled the South’s to collect water and enabled them to perpetuate their lifestyle on Ghost Mountain, for rainwater — and what they hauled from streams below — was their only source. Still, they persisted.

“Think you could have survived 17 years?” I asked Nancy rhetorically.

“Wonder what the children did?” said Nancy in response.

“Why did they insist that they run around naked?” asked Janie.


Of course, the question underlying all other questions is: why did this talented literary man and his wife seek out such an isolated life style?

For a real answer, you must delve deep into all the history that has been recorded about the couple. Superficially, their response was that they had no desire to return to the world where humans fight each other for food, shelter, power and gold.


Ocotillo, just one of their thorny dilemnas.

But did their experiment really work? For awhile it might have, for they kept their three children busy with nightly readings from some of the classic books of our times. As well, the children learned to produced much of what their tiny homestead required, such as pottery. And so the Souths melded with their environment, wearing no cloths as there was scant water for washing them; producing many of their own crops, writing stories and over a half dozen well-received novels for their faithful audience.

But in the end, the experiment failed and possibly because they had different expectations. From research, I learned that Marshall was never interested in money, having grown up with wealth. Tanya on the other hand was more practical, wanting security for the future. As well, there came a time when Marshall began making sustained trips into the library in Julian, leaving Tanya to fend for herself for days and even weeks at a time.


Old homestead clinging stubborning after 50 long years

Some believe he had grown much too fond of the local librarian, and eventually Tanya filed for divorce. The marriage ended in 1947 with Tanya taking the children and moving to the coast, where she successfully raised her children and lived just short of her 100th birthday.


Marshall on the other hand, died in October of 1948 in Julian, California, aged 59, and at the time Randall Henderson wrote that Marshall was a dreamer.

“… Marshal’s tragedy was that he tried too hard to fill his dream. He would not compromise. And that is fatal in a civilization where life is a never-ending compromise between the things we would like to do and the obligations imposed by the social and economic organization of which we are a part…”

At the time of Marshal’s burial, no marker was provided and it remained for his son, Rider South, to provide his father a marker, which he did in January of 2005. On the marker Rider had inscribed:

Father, Poet, Author, Artist.

Because of our interest in this man, later this week, Janie and I may make the relatively short trip to Julian. Perhaps there we may discover more about Marshall and why, when the curator at the Julian Pioneer Museum asked the board if there was a file on Marshal South, she was told there wasn’t — and that “No, there never will be!”

In conclusion, I’d like to note that many fishhook cactus are now in bloom, despite the lack of rain and the rather high temperatures.


Stubborn fishhook cactus, now blooming in Anza Borrego. Two SB-800 Nikon strobes, f22, 250th second, manual setting.

Apparently, they refused to compromise, and I’m delighted the flowers are now blooming — with much brilliance — defying the season, and yes, even the regulations. Wouldn’t it be great if this nonconforming man could see them now, in all their glory.



OTHER NEWS: An interesting post on my blog concerning the murder of Virgil Ware, which I witnessed. Though I’ve received many personal emails about the post, this is the first comment to that posting.


*Quick Trip to Photograph Dolphins


4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

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Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

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Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

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3 Responses to “Nonconformist Marshall South And The Stubborn Fishhook Cactus”

  1. Tim Van Buren Says:

    Nice post, Bert.

  2. History Safari Express » Blog Archive » Chinese New Year in the desert Says:

    [...] to Yaquitepec and wrote why he is still fascinated with the Marshal South story in his post, “Nonconformist Marshall South and the Stubborn Fishhook Cactus“.  A few days later I joined him on a trip up Banner Grade to Julian where I showed him the [...]

  3. History Safari Express » Blog Archive » Desert trails and mysteries, 3 Says:

    [...] a full afternoon of following the trails and mysteries of the Marshal South story, Bert Gildart and I returned from Julian, the final resting spot and “last known address” of Marshal [...]