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Mark Twain’s Backcountry Adventures

Mark Twain’s visit to Lake Tahoe is a wonderful example of how the California Backcountry’s magic caught his spirit of adventure, and gave it a very special memory he will now share with us. Excerpts are from “Roughing It”. Published in 1872.

Finding Lake Tahoe


“We had heard a world of talk about the marvelous beauty of Lake Tahoe, and finally curiosity drove us thither to see it.

We strapped a couple of blankets on our shoulders and took an axe a piece and started – for we intended to take up a wood ranch or so ourselves and become wealthy. We were on foot. The reader will find it advantageous to go on horseback. We were told the distance was eleven miles. We tramped a long time on level ground, and then toiled laboriously up a mountain about a thousand miles high and looked over. No lake there. We descended the other side, crossed the valley and toiled up another mountain three or four thousand miles, apparently, and looked over again. No lake yet.


We plodded on, two or three hours longer, and at last the Lake burst upon us – a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still!

It was a vast oval, and one would have to use up eighty or a hundred good miles traveling around 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.

As the darkness closed down and the stars came out and spangled the great mirror with jewels, we forgot our troubles and pains. In due time, we spread out our blankets in the warm sand between two large boulders and soon fell asleep, careless of the procession of ants that passed through the rents in our clothing and explored our persons.

Nothing could disturb the sleep that fettered us, for it had been fairly earned, and if our consciences had any sins on them they had to adjourn for the night, any way. The wind rose just as we were losing consciousness and we were lulled to sleep by the beating of the surf upon the shore.

It is always very cold on that lakeshore in the night, but we had plenty of blankets and were warm enough. We never moved a muscle all night, but waked at early dawn in the original positions, and got up at once, thoroughly refreshed, free from soreness, and brim full of friskiness. “

Enjoying a 2-3 Week Stay


Twain’s goal at Lake Tahoe was to stake out a claim for lumber, and set about constructing a make shift hut of saplings, fencing the land, and claiming it as owners. But mostly they borrowed a boat left behind from other lumbermen, and enjoyed themselves with great relaxation.

“If there is any life that is happier than the life we led on our timber ranch for the next two or three weeks, it must be the sort of life which I have not read of in books or experienced in person. We did not see a human being but ourselves during the time, or hear nay sounds but those that were made by the wind and waves, the sighing of the pines, and now and then the far-off thunder of an avalanche. The forest about us was dense and cool, the sky above us was cloudless and brilliant with sunshine, the broad lake before us was glassy and clear, or rippled and breezy, or black and storm-tossed, according to Nature’s mood; and its circling border of mountain domes, clothed with forests, scarred with landslides, cloven by canyons and valleys, and helmeted with glittering snow, fitly framed and finished the noble picture. The view was always fascinating, bewitching, entrancing. The eye was never tired of gazing, night or day, in calm or storm; it suffered but one grief, and that was that it could not look always, but must close sometimes to sleep. We were on the north shore. There the rocks on the bottom are sometimes gray, sometimes white. This gives the marvelous transparency of the water a fuller advantage that it has elsewhere on the lake. The shore all along was indented with deep, curved bays and coves, bordered by narrow sand-beaches; and where the sand ended. The steep mountain sides rose right up aloft into space – rose up like a vast wall al little out of the perpendicular, and thickly wooded with tall pines. So singularly clear was the water, that where it was only twenty or thirty feet deep the bottom was so perfectly distinct that our boat seemed to be floating in the air! Yes, where it was even eighty feet deep. Every little pebble was distinct, every speckled trout, every hand’s-breadth of sand. Often, as we lay on our faces, a granite boulder, as large as a village church, would out of the bottom apparently, and seem climbing up rapidly to the surface, till presently it threatened to touch our faces, and we could not resist the impulse to seize an oar and avert the danger. But the boat would float on, and the boulder descend again, and then we could see that when we had been exactly above it, it must still have been twenty or thirty feet below the surface. Down through the transparency of these great depths, the water was note merely transparent, but dazzlingly, brilliantly so. All objects seen through it had a bright, strong vividness, not only of outline, but of every minute detail. So empty and airy did all spaces seem below us, and so strong was the sense of floating high aloft in mid-nothingness, that we called these boat-excursions “balloon voyages”.

The Conflagration that Ended the Sojourn


One day their campfire sets the forest on fire, consuming all of their possessions – including food.

The ground was deeply carpeted with dry pine needles, and the fire touched them off as if they were gunpowder. It was wonderful to see with what fierce speed the tall sheet of flame traveled! In a minute and a half the fire seized upon a dense growth of dry manzanita chapparal six or eight feet high, and then the roaring and popping and crackling was something terrific. We were driven to the boat by the intense heat and there remained, spell-bound.

With in half an hour all before us was a tossing, blinding tempest of flame! It went surging up adjacent ridges – surmounted them and disappeared in the canyons beyond – burst into view upon higher and farther ridges, presently – shed a grander illumination abroad, and dove again – flamed out again, directly, higher and still higher up the mountain side – threw our skirmishing parties of fire here and there, and sent them training their crimson spirals away among remote ramparts and ribs and gorges, till as far as the eye could reach the lofty mountain-fronts were webbed as it were with a tangled network of red lava streams.

Every feature of the spectacle was repeated in the glowing mirror of the lake! Both pictures were sublime, both were beautiful; but in the lake had a bewildering richness about it that enchanted the eye and held it with the strongest fascination.

We sat absorbed and motionless though four long hours. We never thought about supper, and never felt fatigue. But at eleven o’clock the conflagration had traveled beyond our range of vision, and then darkness stole down upon the landscape again.

We were homeless wanders again, with out any property. Our fence was gone, our house burned down; no insurance. Our pine forest was well scorched, the dead trees all burned up, and our broad acres of manzanita swept away.

We made many trips to the lake after that, and had many a hair-breadth escape and blood-curdling adventure which will never be recorded in any history. “