How Mark Twain Missed It


October 19, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

VIRGINIA CITY,NEVADA — MARK TWAIN used to work here. The Territorial Enterprise, where he was city editor and resident prevaricator, was in the lower floor of a building where they now sell silly T-shirts and Marilyn Monroe posters. There are two Mark Twain museums on the main drag, one where he sat when the other was burned out. It has the very typewriter he wrote with, or a reasonable facsimile.

Twain, you may recall, was a humorist before he was a novelist. One of his humorous works included his account of how he got from Missouri to Nevada. The humor began with the title, ''Roughing It.'' When he thought it up almost 120 years ago, he didn't know it would be funnier now than it was then.

He left St. Joseph, Missouri, not for Virginia City but Carson City, just down the winding mountain road: the capital of Nevada, where his brother had been appointed territorial secretary. He made the stagecoach trip from the Middle West in 20 days, but it seemed deluxe class compared to today's jet trip, which according to the airline schedule it takes only three hours.

L Twain's main advantage was that he didn't go through Dallas.

He took the less than direct route, through Cottonwood, Fort Kearney, Omaha, Julesburg, Scottsbluff, Fort Laramie and Horseshoe Station, which was just 676 miles out of St. Joe. He slept on board; just before one dawn he was turned out into a chill drizzle when the coach's thoroughbrace broke. He was introduced to the coyote, the jackrabbit, the antelope, condemned army bacon and that gustatorial catchall called slumgullion.

After Horseshoe, he was in hostile Indian country. He listened in the night to the apparent murder of his off-duty driver. He crossed the Rockies and the desert, and along the way counted the skeletons of dead horses and pioneer wagons. He passed through Devil's Gap, Soda Lake, Fort Bridger, Echo Canyon, Salt Lake City and Ragtown. That's the short version of his trip to Nevada.

In 1990, modern conveniences make the trip briefer but more humiliating. The traveler arrives in Dallas at gate 7, and his connecting flight to Reno is at gate 32. An airline employee says it's not far -- you can walk it, bag and all. Only softies take the shuttle bus.

A half-mile later, the panting passenger starts looking for the shuttle bus. There are no signs. A citizen offering Lyndon LaRouche propaganda says you go down that way. Down that way, a baggage handler says it's back up that way. Outside, a throng of groaning passengers waits below a shuttle sign.

After 15 minutes, three blue buses appear at once. On the first one, the driver is playing Merle Haggard so loud nobody can hear what he is saying. What he is saying is where passengers get off for which gates. Travelers thrust their bags skillfully at the back of the knees of standees, causing them to tumble into people's laps as the bus starts.

At the gate, the traveler boards before his row is called so there will be room left overhead for his single bag. But too soon is too late; a couple across the aisle, faking invalidism, has boarded sooner and taken up all rack space on both sides for two rows each way. The plane sits baking, with no air conditioning, before becoming No. 17 in the takeoff queue.

Eventually the traveler is airborne. He has a grand tour of the desert West, over Amarillo, Four Corners, Monument Valley, Lake Powell, past Mono Lake with the California mountains to the West. Dropping down into Reno, he sees Lake Tahoe peeping across the Carson Range. And then slot machines.

In Reno, they are there at the first step out of the tunnel. Nevada doesn't wait till you get to the casino, the hotel, or even the airport lobby. There at the gate, the slots await. Portly ladies with change makers are there to facilitate. And a stunning percentage of debarking passengers stops, lights up and starts dropping quarters.

Whether they ever move beyond the airport gate or ever intend to, I cannot say. In smoke-fogged casinos downtown people sit at the same slots, dropping coins and pulling the handle, for days on end. Why bother to go downtown if you can contribute without wasting the cab fare that might produce the big payoff?

The big payoff in Twain's time was the Comstock lode, the silver strike that brought him and thousands of others to fabled Virginia City. The way he described it will humor us for centuries to come. But think what he could do to and for America today, here and in Reno and Dallas and points beyond. Especially Washington.

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