Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TRAVEL -

with more verve than scru­ples, in­vent­ing hoaxes and wag­ing feuds.

In Mark Twain: A Life, bi­og­ra­pher Ron Pow­ers put it this way: “Rather than fo­cus on facts that any fool could ob­serve and re­port, Sam re­ported facts that would have oc­curred in a bet­ter and more in­ter­est­ing world.”

Th­ese are words to re­mem­ber as you en­ter the dim, dusty Mark Twain Mu­seum at the Ter­ri­to­rial En­ter­prise (ad­mis­sion $5), down­stairs from Sandie’s Gen­eral Store on C Street. The re-cre­ated news­pa­per of­fice is fur­nished with old posters, taxi­dermy, an an­tique print­ing press and type cases, a por­trait of the au­thor, an aged wooden toi­let that says “Mark Twain sat here” and, in prime lo­ca­tion, a weath­ered desk.

Of course, you have to ask whether the desk was used by the au­thor.

Sandie Buie, who man­ages the pri­vately owned Twain mu­seum, tells vis­i­tors that the desk was dis­played at the 1939 Golden Gate In­ter­na­tional Ex­po­si­tion in San Fran­cisco, and that its own­ers have a let­ter from the expo com­mit­tee au­then­ti­cat­ing it as be­ing used by Twain.

But Buie likes to tread lightly when it comes to his­tor­i­cal claims. The Ter­ri­to­rial En­ter­prise changed of­fices twice. In 1875 a fire burned down most of the city. And Twain was never a par­tic­u­larly re­li­able nar­ra­tor.

“Peo­ple will come in for tours, and they’ll be­lieve every word in Rough­ing It,” Buie said. Even bet­ter, Buie said, she has had vis­i­tors who claim to be descen­dants of the au­thor. Vis­i­tors named Twain.

I was still pic­tur­ing those Twain vis­i­tors as guide Greg Grant, who spe­cial­izes in min­ing tours and mock gun­fights, led me to the Cor­ner Bar at Piper’s Opera House (built in 1878) on B Street and or­dered a shot.

It wasn’t hard to pic­ture young Sam Cle­mens do­ing the same thing at this same ad­dress.


The next day I moved on to the wet­ter side of the Vir­ginia moun­tain range and pulled on my hik­ing boots.

Af­ter a drive of less than 50 miles from Vir­ginia City on Ne­vada 341, 431 (aka the Mount Rose High­way) and 28, I reached the Tun­nel Creek Cafe in In­cline Vil­lage, Nev., and shook hands with David An­tonucci, a re­tired civil and en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer. Then we started climb­ing up the Flume Trail, one of the most pop­u­lar hik­ing and moun­tain bik­ing paths in the re­gion.

Within min­utes, we were sur­rounded by pines, a vast indigo lake sprawl­ing be­low us. When Twain and a buddy ar­rived here in 1861 (be­fore his time in Vir­ginia City), it was known as Lake Bigler. Now we call it Tahoe.

An­tonucci knows the ter­ri­tory par­tic­u­larly well. I ar­ranged to join him be­cause he has writ­ten Fairest Pic­ture — Mark Twain at Lake Tahoe, a book that seeks to pin­point the au­thor’s ad­ven­tures at the lake. About 1.3 miles up the Flume Trail from the Tun­nel Creek Cafe, An­tonucci has con­cluded, Twain caught his first sight of the lake.

Here’s how Twain de­scribed the scene in Rough­ing It:

“As it lay there with the shad­ows of the moun­tains bril­liantly pho­tographed upon its still sur­face, I thought it must surely be the fairest pic­ture the whole earth af­fords.”

If you hike the Flume Trail on your own, don’t worry: There’s an in­ter­pre­tive panel mark­ing the spot.

Twain stayed for a few weeks. We in­vested most of a day, be­gin­ning with a quick drive down Cal­i­for­nia 28 and Har­bor Av­enue to Speed­boat Beach, a half-hid­den but pop­u­lar spot a few hun­dred yards west of the Cal­i­for­nia-Ne­vada state line where boul­ders are sprin­kled along the shore.

One boul­der has a flat top at the right height to serve as a card ta­ble — just as Twain de­scribed in Rough­ing It. An­tonucci be­lieves it’s a per­fect match.

I should point out that there are sim­i­lar rocks nearby on that 20-yard-wide stretch of beach, so we’ll never be cer­tain. But even if no his­tory hap­pened there, it’s a great spot. Next time I’ll bring a deck of cards.

And we scanned the woods by Sandy Beach a few miles west along North Lake Boule­vard (aka Cal­i­for­nia 28), where An­tonucci be­lieves Twain and a friend tried to stake a tim­ber claim and failed spec­tac­u­larly.

As Twain de­scribed this episode in Rough­ing It, he got dis­tracted while cook­ing and tend­ing camp, and ac­ci­den­tally au­thored a for­est fire.

“Within half an hour all be­fore us was a toss­ing, blind­ing tem­pest of flame!” Twain wrote. More­over, “every fea­ture of the spec­ta­cle was re­peated in the glow­ing mir­ror of the lake!”

We’ll never know how big that fire re­ally was. Within 30 years of Twain’s visit, that patch of old-growth for­est was logged to pro­vide lum­ber for still-boom­ing Vir­ginia City. Now a mostly new for­est stands in its place.

But “a few of th­ese trees saw that fire,” An­tonucci said, point­ing out one of the gnarled sur­vivors. “How do we ask them?”


By early the next af­ter­noon, I’d steered my way far­ther west on In­ter­state 80, then veered south on Cal­i­for­nia 49 through the oak-shaded hills of Gold Coun­try. The mead­ows were green, the rivers swollen. All seemed right with the world.

But things were grim when Twain ar­rived in Calav­eras and Tuolumne coun­ties in late 1864. He had been forced to leave San Fran­cisco af­ter post­ing a bond he couldn’t af­ford for a friend who had nearly killed a man in a fight.

So Twain re­paired with an­other friend, Jim Gil­lis, to a small, rus­tic cabin on Tuolumne County’s Jack­ass Hill, where peo­ple used to park their pack an­i­mals. It was a cold, wet win­ter.

And then the au­thor’s luck changed. That’s the fo­cus of Mark’s Twain’s 88 Days in the Mother Lode, a book writ­ten by An­gels Camp res­i­dent Jim Fletcher.

Fletcher now gives oc­ca­sional Twain talks at Camps restau­rant in An­gels Camp. I met him there, and he told me the story of how Twain had wan­dered into the An­gels Ho­tel and caught the bar­tender telling an out­landish story about a frog-jump­ing con­test. Twain heard some­thing in it.

By the end of 1865, af­ter many rewrites, Twain’s ver­sion of the Calav­eras County frog tale had ap­peared in the New York Satur­day Press, been widely reprinted and won na­tional at­ten­tion. Like a frog in flight, Twain was launched.

Af­ter our lunch, I took a spin around the min­ing equip­ment and stage­coaches at the three-acre An­gels Camp Mu­seum, walked the sleepy main drag and paused at Main Street and Bird Way, where the up­dated An­gels Ho­tel build­ing now houses of­fices, apart­ments and a Twain mu­ral. (If it were late May, I would have at­tended the Calav­eras County Fair, where the frog jumps con­tinue.)

In the nearby ham­let of Mur­phys, which has trans­formed it­self from a faded Gold Coun­try town into a lively wine coun­try get­away, I spent a night in the Twain Room of Mur­phys His­toric Ho­tel, pon­der­ing his­tory, myth and mar­ket­ing.

Man­age­ment claims that Twain once slept in that room, and a pho­to­copied reg­is­ter page seems to show him as a guest in 1877. But most Twain schol­ars say he was long gone from Cal­i­for­nia by then, hav­ing sailed from San Fran­cisco in 1868.

My orig­i­nal plan was to fin­ish this trip in San Fran­cisco. Af­ter all, that’s where the au­thor con­tin­ued his climb to fame. (His pa­pers are now housed at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley.)

But most of Twain’s Bay Area ad­ven­tures hap­pened along a stretch of Mont­gomery Street that was buried un­der the Transamer­ica Pyra­mid and the sur­round­ing fi­nan­cial district.

So for clo­sure, I give you Jack­ass Hill. It’s still on the map, about eight miles south of An­gels Camp.

I drove out there on Cal­i­for­nia 49 one af­ter­noon, missed the hair-rais­ing left turn onto un­paved Jack­ass Hill Road, then dou­bled back. I drove up the hill, pass­ing rus­tic yards and lean­ing trees, to a his­toric plaque tes­ti­fy­ing to Twain’s pres­ence here long ago.

I’d read that the old Gil­lis cabin, which ra­di­ates im­pov­er­ished charm in his­toric pho­tos, was long ago re­placed by a replica. Sure enough, to para­phrase Twain, the copy re­sem­bled the orig­i­nal as a light­ning bug re­sem­bles light­ning.

But if you ar­rive on the right af­ter­noon, sun shin­ing and birds sing­ing, it’s a thrill to imag­ine the rainy Jan­uary 1865 ver­sion of the same scene. A young au­thor shiv­ers and sips, his note­book full, his for­tunes about to change for­ever.

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