Roughing It

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Roughing It

Book excerpt

By: Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens)

Date: 1872

Source: Twain, Mark. Roughing It. Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1872.

About the Author: "By the mark, twain," was the call of the river boatmen on the Mississippi during the nineteenth century, as they warned their pilots that the boat hull was close to the river bed. Samuel Langhorne Clemens took the name Mark Twain as the name by which he would be known as a writer, in part as a homage to his own love of boats and the great river, and as a symbol of his unique talent as a storyteller. Born in Missouri in 1835, Twain accompanied his brother Orion Clemens as his unofficial personal secretary when Orion won the position of Secretary of the Nevada Territory in 1861. At the time of Twain's travels with his brother, Nevada was gripped by silver mining fever, and the arduous overland journey to the West by the Clemens brothers is chronicled in Roughing It, which Twain wrote in 1872. Twain's prose style, a distillation of gentle ironies, observational humor, slapstick, satire and irreverence, is quintessentially American. The boundary between fact and a great story was sometimes only winked at by Twain, who loved the telling of a good tale irrespective of its truth or fiction—Roughing It may be characterized as a work that is essentially a true story. Later, Twain penned and published the works which generated him significant international acclaim beginning in the late 1870s, including the classics Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and Innocents Abroad, as well as a number of short stories. He died in Connecticut in 1910.


The inscription to Roughing It commences with the words, "To Calvin H. Higbie, Of California, an Honest Man, a Genial Comrade, and a Steadfast Friend. This Book is inscribed by the author, In Memory of the Curious Time When we Two were Millionaires for Ten Days." The irony and the wordsmithing of the introduction are common threads found in the work as a whole.

America in 1861 was a vastly different place than the United States of today. The War between the States had been recently declared, and the ability of the Union to survive intact was uncertain. The West, meaning anywhere on the continent west of the Mississippi River, remained to a large degree unsettled, and everyday life was a significant struggle for most inhabitants there. The land stretching from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean was subject to little real political structure or immediate control. These American territories had been gradually opened to white settlement in the face of increasing tensions with the native tribes, who were commonly displaced in the face of pioneer advances. The transcontinental railway and its power to truly make accessible the West remained a few years away, and travel to the western reaches of the country and the Pacific was still an uncomfortable and risk-filled adventure.



CHAPTER XVIII At eight in the morning we reached the remnant and ruin of what had been the important military station of "Camp Floyd," some forty-five or fifty miles from Salt Lake City. At four p.m. we had doubled our distance and were ninety or a hundred miles from Salt Lake. And now we entered upon one of that species of deserts whose concentrated hideousness shames the diffused and diluted horrors of Sahara—an "alkali" desert. For sixty-eight miles there was but one break in it. I do not remember that this was really a break; indeed it seems to me that it was nothing but a watering depot in the midst of the stretch of sixty-eight miles. If my memory serves me, there was no well or spring at this place, but the water was hauled there by mule and ox teams from the further side of the desert. There was a stage station there. It was forty-five miles from the beginning of the desert, and twenty-three from the end of it.

We plowed and dragged and groped along, the whole live-long night, and at the end of this uncomfortable twelve hours we finished the forty-five-mile part of the desert and got to the stage station where the imported water was. The sun was just rising. It was easy enough to cross a desert in the night while we were asleep; and it was pleasant to reflect, in the morning, that we in actual person had encountered an absolute desert and could always speak knowingly of deserts in presence of the ignorant thenceforward. And it was pleasant also to reflect that this was not an obscure, back country desert, but a very celebrated one, the metropolis itself, as you may say. All this was very well and very comfortable and satisfactory—but now we were to cross a desert in daylight. This was fine—novel—romantic—dramatically adventurous—this, indeed, was worth living for, worth traveling for! We would write home all about it.

This enthusiasm, this stern thirst for adventure, wilted under the sultry August sun and did not last above one hour. One poor little hour—and then we were ashamed that we had "gushed" so. The poetry was all in the anticipation—there is none in the reality. Imagine a vast, waveless ocean stricken dead and turned to ashes; imagine this solemn waste tufted with ashdusted sage-bushes; imagine the lifeless silence and solitude that belong to such a place; imagine a coach, creeping like a bug through the midst of this shoreless level, and sending up tumbled volumes of dust as if it were a bug that went by steam; imagine this aching monotony of toiling and plowing kept up hour after hour, and the shore still as far away as ever, apparently; imagine team, driver, coach and passengers so deeply coated with ashes that they are all one colorless color; imagine ash-drifts roosting above moustaches and eyebrows like snow accumulations on boughs and bushes. This is the reality of it.

The sun beats down with dead, blistering, relentless malignity; the perspiration is welling from every pore in man and beast, but scarcely a sign of it finds its way to the surface—it is absorbed before it gets there; there is not the faintest breath of air stirring; there is not a merciful shred of cloud in all the brilliant firmament; there is not a living creature visible in any direction whither one searches the blank level that stretches its monotonous miles on every hand; there is not a sound—not a sigh—not a whisper—not a buzz, or a whir of wings, or distant pipe of bird—not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless people that dead air. And so the occasional sneezing of the resting mules, and the champing of the bits, grate harshly on the grim stillness, not dissipating the spell but accenting it and making one feel more lone-some and forsaken than before.

The mules, under violent swearing, coaxing and whip-cracking, would make at stated intervals a "spurt," and drag the coach a hundred or may be two hundred yards, stirring up a billowy cloud of dust that rolled back, enveloping the vehicle to the wheel-tops or higher, and making it seem afloat in a fog. Then a rest followed, with the usual sneezing and bit-champing. Then another "spurt" of a hundred yards and another rest at the end of it. All day long we kept this up, without water for the mules and without ever changing the team. At least we kept it up ten hours, which, I take it, is a day, and a pretty honest one, in an alkali desert. It was from four in the morning till two in the afternoon. And it was so hot! and so close! and our water canteens went dry in the middle of the day and we got so thirsty! It was so stupid and tiresome and dull! and the tedious hours did lag and drag and limp along with such a cruel deliberation! It was so trying to give one's watch a good long undisturbed spell and then take it out and find that it had been fooling away the time and not trying to get ahead any! The alkali dust cut through our lips, it persecuted our eyes, it ate through the delicate membranes and made our noses bleed and kept them bleeding—and truly and seriously the romance all faded far away and disappeared, and left the desert trip nothing but a harsh reality—a thirsty, sweltering, longing, hateful reality!

Two miles and a quarter an hour for ten hours—that was what we accomplished. It was hard to bring the comprehension away down to such a snail-pace as that, when we had been used to making eight and ten miles an hour. When we reached the station on the farther verge of the desert, we were glad, for the first time, that the dictionary was along, because we never could have found language to tell how glad we were, in any sort of dictionary but an unabridged one with pictures in it. But there could not have been found in a whole library of dictionaries language sufficient to tell how tired those mules were after their twenty-three mile pull. To try to give the reader an idea of how thirsty they were, would be to "gild refined gold or paint the lily."

Somehow, now that it is there, the quotation does not seem to fit—but no matter, let it stay, anyhow. I think it is a graceful and attractive thing, and therefore have tried time and time again to work it in where it would fit, but could not succeed. These efforts have kept my mind distracted and ill at ease, and made my narrative seem broken and disjointed, in places. Under these circumstances it seems to me best to leave it in, as above, since this will afford at least a temporary respite from the wear and tear of trying to "lead up" to this really apt and beautiful quotation.


Twain's description of the travails of a Utah desert crossing by mule cart in 1861 is a compelling account of how long and difficult distances were traveled overland in the pre transcontinental rail era. The discomforts of the trek are neatly contrasted with the joy that the travelers experienced in their eventual safe arrival at the desert's edge.

The passage set out above is significant on a number of levels, both historical and current. Twain's descriptions of the Utah desert as a "vast, waveless ocean," with the alkali dust cutting his lips and persecuting his eyes, tell of an experience that would have been almost fanciful to a nineteenth-century reader, as being so far beyond the range of the then-common American extent of travel experience. Few American citizens at that time would have ventured across their own state, let alone the entire country. Twain's account is both factual and provocative.

From a historical perspective, Twain captures both the physical discomfort of the journey and the feeling of being at Nature's mercy as the trek across the desert is made. This passage stands as a stark reminder of how brute animal and human force powered transportation in the mid-nineteenth century, when a combination of geography and the elements created no alternative but to cross such a place.



The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1957.

Web sites 〈The Complete Works of Mark Twain." 〈〉 (accessed February 12, 2006).

Railton, Stephen. University of Virginia. "Mark Twain in His Times." 〈〉 (accessed February 12, 2006).