Tracking Mark Twain through the West

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

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.

WHERE TO STAY: Silver Queen Hotel, 28 N. C St., Virginia City, Nev.; (775) 847-0440, silverqueenhotel.net.

Franciscan Lakeside Lodge, 6944 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe Vista, Calif.; (800) 564-6754, franciscanlodge.com.

Victoria Inn, 402 Main St., Murphys, Calif.; (209) 728-8933, victoriainn-murphys.com.

Murphys Historic Hotel, 457 Main St., Murphys; (800) 532-7684, murphyshotel.com.

WHERE TO EAT: Canvas Cafe, 110 N. C St., Virginia City, Nev.; (775) 453-5167, facebook.com/canvascafenv.

Tunnel Creek Cafe, 1115 Tunnel Creek Road, Incline Village, Nev.; (775) 298-2502, tunnelcreekcafe.com.

V Restaurant, 402 Main St., Murphys, Calif.; (209) 728-0107, vrestaurantandbar-murphys.com.

Camps Restaurant, Greenhorn Creek Resort, 711 McCauley Ranch Road, Angels Camp, Calif.; (209) 736-8181, greenhorncreek.com.

TO LEARN MORE: Virginia City Tourism Commission: visitvirginiacitynv.com

Visit California: lat.ms/goldrushadventures

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 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.

Travel on 07/09/2017

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