The Mark Twain Trail

How Writers Face Their Mortality
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
April 28 2003 5:51 PM

The Mark Twain Trail

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Today's slide show: Images from Mono Lake. Today's audio: Where Sam Clemens became Mark Twain, and Dixie took her first steps. Today's video: Mark Twain was one of the first writers to describe Mono Lake.

Mono Lake in the eastern Sierras
Mono Lake in the eastern Sierra

A former den of iniquity—there was a brothel over the bar until the owners learned they weren't in Nevada but California—the Virginia Creek Settlement has been transformed into an oxymoron: an ideal place to land with two small children. The current owners, Jimmy and Brinn Little, rent three cabins beside a children's book creek and loan their own children out to their guests as distractions. While Tallulah learns how to hurl snowballs and Dixie giggles, I take off for a walk along the creek. Or try to. Before I go, I ask Jimmy where the trail leads, but he's only owned the place four weeks, and he doesn't know. What he does know is that at some point the path crosses onto his new neighbor's property, and his new neighbor isn't keen on trespassers. "You can get onto his property easily enough," says Jimmy, "but if he sees you, he might shoot you." He's completely serious.

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There's something about the high desert—big skies, bubbling streams, false menace, sagebrush to step over rather than trees to walk around—that invites you to walk it. Wife and I cut a deal: I'll make sure the children survive while she takes pictures if she'll keep them alive while I walk down to Mono Lake. Mono Lake is just down the road from the Virginia Creek Settlement. Twain was searching for gold, not silver, when he first stumbled upon the place, and it made an impression on him:

It is one of the strangest freaks of Nature to be found in any land, but it is hardly ever mentioned in print and very seldom visited, because it lies away off the usual routes of travel and besides is so difficult to get at that only men content to endure the roughest life will consent to take upon themselves the discomforts of such a trip. On the morning of our second day we traveled around to a remote and particularly wild spot on the borders of the lake, where a stream of fresh, ice cold water entered it from the mountain side, and then we went regularly into camp.

Of course, he then proceeded to have his usual life-threatening adventure. Twain had the luckiest combination of lust for adventure and physical cowardice or, to put it more kindly, a keen sense of self-preservation. He was always nearly getting himself killed, and yet he seems never to have suffered a scratch. He was forever walking up to the brink of some precipice in the pitch black and being rescued by some instinct that pulled him back before he took the last fateful step. On this occasion, he and his friend rent a boat, row it out to an island in the middle of the lake, fail to secure it, and so find themselves marooned. They have neither food nor water—Mono Lake is saltier than any ocean—and believe that to swim in Mono Lake's alkaline means certain death. Twain gets two full chapters of Roughing It out of this episode—until his boat drifts back to their shore.

The next morning's first stop, en famille, is the Mono Lake cemetery to see if we can find any of Twain's old traveling companions. The simple act of entering and exiting the car is vastly complicated by the deadly combination of new snow and small children. Each child needs to be hermetically sealed before she is allowed by her mother to roam free in the snow. And in the several minutes it takes to cram Dixie into her Abominable Snowman outfit, Tallulah wanders off. By the time I look up she is halfway across the graveyard with a giant bouquet of flowers in her little hand, bending over a grave to collect what appeared to be a pink carnation.

"You need to put those back!"

"Why?"

"It's not helpful to take flowers off people's graves."

"Why is it not helpful?"

"It's not respectful."

"What's respectful?"

I walk over to her. It's time to explain death to her for the fiftieth time—how different it is, how seriously some people take it, etc.—but before I can do this, she's spotted, beside a plaster Jesus wearing an actual wooden crown of thorns, a particularly fetching plastic long-stemmed rose. As she reaches to grab it, I notice the tombstone above it:

He Walked

Among

Granite Spires

And Heard

Celestial

Music

"Is that a dead person?" she asks, pointing to the now barren ground.

"Yes."

"What's his name?"

I look down the tombstone to the place where the name and dates should be carved. All it says is:

MARV

"Marv," I say.

"Who's Marv?"

"I don't know but it's not respectful to take his flowers."

"Why?" She's still clutching her bouquet.

"Marv's ghost might get angry at you."

That gets her going. She rapidly reverses field, drops a plastic long-stem rose onto Marv's remains, then tries to remember which plastic flower went with which grave. I follow her across the graveyard trying to unwind the desecration, until at length we arrive at the nethermost tombstone. It reads:

Michael Lewis

I take that as my cue and announce that I'm now taking my walk. You can't rent a boat at Mono Lake just now—it's not allowed until the end of April—but you can walk anywhere you'd like. At any rate, there's no one to stop you. Even on a sunny early April day the place is deserted. I found the stream of fresh ice-cold water on the mountain side of the lake closest to Carson City and followed it down through the sagebrush. Sagebrush is the kudzu of the West; once it moves in, the neighborhood is ruined. Crossing maybe two miles of it, I come to the place where the fresh water stream meets the salt water lake, and I notice two things: One, beside the stream, is a sign that reads, "Private Property: City of Los Angeles." The other, beside the lake, is an ancient camp site with half-buried metal objects. I dig out an old abandoned lock and an unidentifiable object, stuff them into my coat, and leave.

Check out our earlier trips to Kashmir, Zambia, the Outlaw Trail, the Blues Highway, the Galápagos Islands, Costa Rica, Scandinavia, and Montreal.

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