Who flies to Reno 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 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 the next four days on a 270-mile road trip and Twain pilgrimage.
I wanted to see some of what he saw in those early travels — a dusty Nevada silver-mining town, the shores of Lake Tahoe, the hills of California Gold Country. And I wondered: After so much history, myth and marketing, how much Twain remains?
A desk in Virginia City
“…The 'city' of Virginia roosted royally midway up the steep side of Mount Davidson… and in the clear Nevada atmosphere was visible from a distance of fifty miles! It claimed a population of fifteen thousand to eighteen thousand, and all day long half of this little army swarmed the streets like bees and the other half swarmed among the drifts and tunnels of the 'Comstock,' hundreds of feet down in the earth directly under those same streets. Often we felt our chairs jar, and heard the faint boom of a blast down in the bowels of the earth under the office.”
—“Roughing It” by Mark Twain
The route from Reno to Virginia City, Nev., starts with broad, smooth Interstate 580, but before long, you’re climbing Nevada Highway 341, a narrow, curvy road that creeps near the summit of rocky Mt. 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 so quiet when Clemens showed up in 1861. 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 old newspaper office is furnished with old posters, taxidermy, a vintage 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 old 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 himself 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’s 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 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.
In fact, as historian and former Virginia City resident Carolyn Grattan Eichin and others have pointed out, there was an Old Corner bar on this spot in the early 1860s.
By custom some drinkers’ tabs were tallied with chalk on a wall, and “twain” was a common way of saying two. By at least two accounts in 19th century Nevada newspapers, Clemens got his nickname by hollering “Mark Twain!” to bartenders.
Twain denied this and insisted that his pen name came from Mississippi river boat slang. But I know which explanation I enjoy more.
A trail above Tahoe
“… As the darkness closed down and the stars came out and spangled the great mirror with jewels, we smoked meditatively in the solemn hush and forgot our troubles and our pains. In due time we spread our blankets in the warm sand between two large boulders and soon fell asleep careless of the procession of ants that passed in through rents in our clothing and explored our persons.”
—“Roughing It” by Mark Twain
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 highways 341, 431 (the Mount Rose Highway) and 28, I reached the Tunnel Creek Cafe in Incline Village, Nev., shook hands with David Antonucci, a retired civil and environmental engineer, and started climbing with him 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 know it as Tahoe.
Antonucci knows the territory particularly well. I arranged to join him because he’s 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 trail from where the Tunnel Creek Cafe stands, 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 Highway 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 of the boulders 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 wet along North Lake Boulevard (California 28), where Antonucci believes Twain and a friend tried to stake a timber claim and failed spectacularly.
(As with the other lakeside sites he has researched, Antonucci compared geographical details in Train’s writing, including letters home, and images of the lake in those years, with contemporary accounts and local descriptions.)
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?”
A hill in Gold Country
“We rumbled over the plains and valleys, climbed the Sierras to the clouds, and looked down upon summer-clad California. And I will remark here, in passing, that all scenery in California requires distance to give it its highest charm.”
—“Roughing It” by Mark Twain
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, Steve Gillis, who had nearly killed a man in a barroom 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 little 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 finish this trip in San Francisco. After all, that’s where the author continued his climb to fame. (His papers are now housed at UC Berkeley, across the bay.)
But most of Twain’s Bay Area adventures happened along a short stretch of Montgomery Street that was long ago 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 8 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 version of the same scene in 1865. A young author shivers and sips, his notebook full, his fortunes about to change forever.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO RENO
FROM LAX, American, Southwest and United offer nonstop service to Reno, and United, Southwest, Delta and Alaska offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $141, including taxes and fees.
It’s 472 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
WHERE TO STAY
Silver Queen Hotel, 28 N. C St., Virginia City, Nev.; (775) 847-0440. This rustic 1876 building, billed as a “ghost hunter’s delight,” has 28 rooms, all with private baths. Rooms for two $50-$125. Saloon downstairs.
Franciscan Lakeside Lodge, 6944 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe Vista, Calif; (800) 564-6754. 64 rooms, suites and cottages; pool; pier and beach on the lake’s north shore. Rooms for two $109-$239; rates vary with seasons.
Victoria Inn, 402 Main St., Murphys, Calif; (209) 728-8933. Quiet, well-appointed hotel with guest rooms above V Restaurant. Rooms and suites for two $137-$321.
Murphys Historic Hotel, 457 Main St., Murphys; (800) 532-7684. Oldest portion of the 29-room hotel dates to 1856; the nine historic rooms are above saloon, share bathrooms and have no phones or TVs. Rooms for two $95-$265, depending on day and season.
WHERE TO EAT
Canvas Café, 110 N. C St., Virginia City, Nev.; (775) 453-5167. Good breakfast. Opens at 6 a.m.
Gar Woods Grill & Pier, 500 N. Lake Blvd., Carnelian Bay, Calif.; (530) 546-3366. Lively, upscale bar and restaurant on the water. Dinner main dishes about $32-$45.
Tunnel Creek Café, 1115 Tunnel Creek Road, Incline Village, Nev.; (775) 298-2502. Sandwiches and wraps, mostly $7.95-$10.95. Good for breakfast or lunch.
V Restaurant, 402 Main St., Murphys, Calif.; (209) 728-0107. Stylish restaurant and bistro. Dinner main dishes $25-$40.
CAMPS Restaurant, Greenhorn Creek Resort, 711 McCauley Ranch Road., Angels Camp, Calif.; (209) 736-8181. American contemporary cuisine. Lunch and dinner, Wednesdays-Sundays. Dinner main dishes $14-$32.
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MORE ROAD TRIPS
1:14 p.m. This article was updated with additional details on the best route to travel to Reno from LAX.