See the Western places that made the celebrated American author famous
written by Peter Fish
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The West through the eyes—and words—of a legend
He’s ours too. Thanks to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) is forever linked to the Mississippi River. But the American West made him a writer. He came out here in 1861, age 26, taking the Oregon and California Trails across Wyoming, over the Rockies, through the Nevada desert to the Comstock Lode mining town of Virginia City, Nevada. Threatened with arrest for dueling, he fled to San Francisco, and eventually sailed to the Hawaiian Islands. (Twain recounted these travels in Roughing It—still one of the most entertaining books ever written about the West.)
This month, University of California Press is publishing, for the first time, Autobiography of Mark Twain. It’s not your usual polite autobiography. In fact, it’s so candid and opinionated that Twain decided it shouldn’t be published until 100 years after his death. Few self-portraits are as vivid, intimate, or surprising.
One of the best things about reading Twain is that he makes you want to sample his adventures yourself. Luckily, that’s easy to do—all you have to do is follow in the tracks of his books. Here, Sunset presents our Top 10 places to experience Mark Twain’s West.
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South Pass, Wyoming
Where Western immigrants crossed the Continental Divide:
"And now, at last, we were fairly in the renowned SOUTH PASS.... We were in such an airy elevation above the creeping populations of the earth, that now and then when the obstructing crags stood out of the way it seemed that we could look around and abroad and contemplate the whole great globe, with its dissolving views of mountains, seas and continents stretching away through the mystery of the summer haze."
"Next day we strolled about everywhere through the broad, straight, level streets, and enjoyed the pleasant strangeness of a city of fifteen thousand inhabitants with no loafers perceptible in it; and no visible drunkards or noisy people... and a grand general air of neatness, repair, thrift and comfort, around and about and over the whole."
"...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! ... 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." —from Roughing It
"The lake is two hundred feet deep, and its sluggish waters are so strong with alkali that if you only dip the most hopelessly soiled garment into them once or twice, and wring it out, it will be found as clean as if it had been through the ablest of washerwomen's hands." —from Roughing It
"The 'city' of Virginia roosted royally midway up the steep side of Mount Davidson, seven thousand two hundred feet above the level of the sea, 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."
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Photo via San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau
Twain lives it up by the Golden Gate:
"After the sage-brush and alkali deserts of Washoe, San Francisco was Paradise to me. I lived at the best hotel, exhibited my clothes in the most conspicuous places, infested the opera, and learned to seem enraptured with music which oftener afflicted my ignorant ear than enchanted it, if I had had the vulgar honesty to confess it. However, I suppose I was not greatly worse than the most of my countrymen in that. I had longed to be a butterfly, and I was one at last." —from Roughing It
"By and by, after a rugged climb, we halted on the summit of a hill which commanded a far-reaching view. The moon rose and flooded mountain and valley and ocean with a mellow radiance, and out of the shadows of the foliage the distant lights of Honolulu glinted like an encampment of fireflies. The air was heavy with the fragrance of flowers."
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Photo via Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau
Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii
Where an explorer met his end:
"Shortly we came in sight of that spot whose history is so familiar to every school-boy in the wide world—Kealakekua Bay—the place where Captain Cook, the great circumnavigator, was killed by the natives, nearly a hundred years ago. The setting sun was flaming upon it, a Summer shower was falling, and it was spanned by two magnificent rainbows."
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Photo via Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau
Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii
Volcanic smoke and crimson rain:
"At night the red glare was visible a hundred miles at sea; and at a distance of forty miles fine print could be read at midnight.... countless columns of smoke rose up and blended together in a tumbled canopy that hid the heavens and glowed with a ruddy flush reflected from the fires below; here and there jets of lava sprung hundreds of feet into the air and burst into rocket-sprays that returned to earth in a crimson rain…."