When the great American author was just starting out, he went west, and he did more than write
Roughing it with Twain
Who flies to Reno, Nev., on a spring evening, rents a car and heads into the mountains with no skis, no mountain bike and a backpack full of books? Me. Why? Because in 1861, a 25-year-old Missouri riverboat pilot named Sam Clemens boarded a stagecoach bound for the same territory.
He was going to dodge the Civil War for a few months, work for the government, do some writing, maybe dig for silver. Instead he stayed west for almost seven years, emerged as Mark Twain, gave us Huckleberry Finn and won global fame as that sardonic old man with the white hair and droopy mustache.
But what do we know about the young Clemens in Nevada and California? Not much. That’s why I had Twain’s Western memoir, Roughing It (1872), and two biographies in the backpack, and it’s why I spent four days on a 270-mile road trip and Twain pilgrimage.
A DESK IN VIRGINIA CITY
The route from Reno to
Virginia City, Nev., starts with broad, smooth Interstate 580, but before long, you’re climbing
Nevada 341, a narrow, curvy road that creeps near the summit of rocky Mount Davidson.
Virginia City (population
855), carved into the steep slopes and raked by winds, is part ghost town and part tourist concoction plopped atop a netherworld of old mining tunnels.
The silver boom and the Wild
West are the prevailing themes here, and there are no regularly scheduled Twain tours. But there is a 24-hour Mark Twain Saloon Casino, and his face and name adorn several storefronts.
By the time I arrived at the Silver Queen Hotel (built in 1876), night had fallen and the old building was creaking. Beneath my upstairs window, snowflakes fell on the empty boardwalk of C Street, the main drag.
It wasn’t this quiet when Clemens showed up in 1862. In those days, silver prospectors were arriving by the hundreds every week. The town, he wrote in Roughing It, was a jumble of “fire companies, brass bands, banks, hotels, theatres, ‘hurdy-gurdy’ houses, wide-open gambling palaces … a dozen breweries and half a dozen jails … and some talk of building a church.”
When silver mining didn’t work out, Clemens took to reporting for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. By early 1863 he had come up with the pen name Mark Twain.
Crime, culture, mining, politics — he covered them all
According to hotel records, Mark Twain stayed in a room at Murphys Historic Hotel in the tiny gold country town of Murphys. Twain was only in town for 88 days but was inspired to write a story about the famous jumping frog.
Using Mark Twain’s memoir, Roughing It, and other biographies, a road trip following the young author’s journeys through Nevada and California can be a rewarding experience. A couple paddle past Kings Beach in North Lake Tahoe, Calif. In the early 1860s, Mark Twain hiked to this area with a friend and tried (and failed) to start a timber claim. He wrote about paddling on the lake, the lake’s beauty and about accidentally starting a fire.