In the footsteps of Mark Twain

Twain chronicled his experience in the Sierra and specifically at Mono Lake in his book Roughing It, published in 1872.
Mark Twain
Mark Twain

BENGALURU : We often find something new when we are lost. I discovered Mark Twain’s path after losing my way while travelling to Mammoth Lakes, a town in California. After a seven-hour drive from Saratoga, I realised that Highway 120 was closed and so I (along with my wife Deepali and son Vivaan) stayed at El Dorado Motel in Twain Harte (a name derived from the surnames of the two famous authors who lived in California – Mark Twain and Bret Harte). Driving the next day, we passed through a small town, Angels Camp. Stopping to fill gas, we dropped in at the visitors centre only to find a Mark Twain Museum, and that’s when I realised the significance of the county of Calaveras, the place that brought fame to Mark Twain.

In Angels Camp (population roughly 4,000), in the third week of May every year, almost 20,000 people arrive to celebrate the four-day Jumping Frog Jubilee – made famous by Mark Twain’s story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Printed in the New York Saturday Press on November 18, 1865, the story was reprinted barely a month later in The Californian, marking the beginning of Twain’s fame.

The story in short goes like this: Twain overheard a bartender at the Angels Hotel tell the tale of a jumping frog contest. According to the yarn, a hustler named Smiley claimed he trained a frog to make long leaps on command. Smiley bet a stranger that his frog could out-leap any other. The stranger took the bet, but then secretly fed Smiley’s frog a handful of buckshot. Smiley could not make his frog leave his spot, and the bet was lost!

Calaveras County has kept the spirit of Smiley and his frog Daniel Webster alive by celebrating the Jumping Frog Jubilee since 1928! To understand the significance of the place, I read Mark Twain’s 88 days in the Mother Lode by James Fletcher which captures the transition of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Twain) from an obscure regional writer to a nationally known humorist during his stay at Angels Camp. The documentary by the same name is worth watching too.

Another notable period in Twain’s life is the time he spent in Mammoth Lakes. In 1861, he headed west with his brother Orion. He spent time till 1866 in both California and Nevada, trying his hand at mining, milling and journalism. Twain chronicled his experience in the Sierra and specifically at Mono Lake in his book Roughing It, published in 1872.

When I visited Mono Lake, the place came alive for me when I read the two chapters from the book (Chapters 38 & 39) that refer to it. Aptly described as the ‘loneliest place on earth’, Mono Lake, which is sometimes called ‘the Dead Sea of California’, might well have been forgotten by the world, if not for Mark Twain’s hilarious description of it: “The lake is two hundred feet deep, and its sluggish waters are so strong with alkali, that if you 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 washerwoman’s hands”.

To get a better understanding of Mark Twain, the greatest humorist of America or as William Faulkner called him, ‘the father of American Literature’, it is worth to follow in his footsteps and transport ourselves to a place that would bring his writing to life. Now, my next stop is Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut where the author and his wife lived from 1874 to 1891 and where he wrote his most important works – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn!

(The writer’s views are his own)

(The author is a technologist based in Silicon Valley who is gently mad about books)

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