In Travel

When the great Amer­i­can au­thor was just start­ing out, he went west, and he did more than write

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - CHRISTO­PHER REYNOLDS

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.


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

Los An­ge­les Times/TNS/ MARK BOSTER Los An­ge­les Times/TNS/MARK BOSTER Los An­ge­les Times/TNS/MARK BOSTER

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.

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