Among the Ghosts of Twain’s Past

Today’s slide show: Images from Bodie. Today’s audio: Tabitha Soren wonders how people choose the place they call home. Today’s video: Sam Clemens tries mining and earns the right to give advice.

More pale-face recycling

On the highway to the gold mines at Bodie, Calif., we pull over so that Tabitha can take a picture of an abandoned trailer home. As she steps onto the property beside the metal carcass to get a closer look, a pickup truck roars madly down the hillside. In it are two swarthy men with long jet black hair. They screech to a halt beside her and introduce themselves as a pair of Indians. My wife has wandered onto the Washoe Reservation without a reservation.

For every adventure had by Mark Twain in the Wild West, there is a contemporary parody readily at hand, up to and including Encounters With Hostile Injuns. But these Indians are not hostile; they are not even irritable. They are delighted to find my wife poking around the old dead trailer home. The local non-native Americans have taken to dumping their trash on the Washoe Reservation, and the trailer home is their doing. The Indians are hoping that maybe Tabitha’s come to cart it away, and they want to encourage her to do so. When they learn she has no interest beyond the photographic, they zoom off as quickly as they arrived, to catch a plane to Oakland. One of them has a son in graduate school at Berkeley.

After they are gone Tabitha climbs back into the car and says, “Those men were real Indians.”

“Native Americans,” I say, just to get on her nerves.

“They called themselves Indians.”

From the back seat Tallulah asks, “Did they wear skunk skins?”

Tabitha’s been reading to Tallulah from Little House On The Prairie.

“No, they didn’t wear skunk skins,” says Tabitha.

“Not even on their penises?”

“That’s in Little House on the Prairie?” I ask.

“They wear loincloths,” says Tabitha.

“Do Indians wear skunk skins to hide their penises?” asks Tallulah.

“I don’t think so,” says Tabitha.

“Indians wore skunk skins so people didn’t think they had penises,” says Tallulah, knowingly.

It turns out to be a surprisingly long haul from Carson City to Bodie—two hours on paved roads and another mortifying 20 minutes on a dirt one. The road runs alongside a trout stream—just knowing the fish are in it makes you feel better about it—and for 80 miles nobody bothers to brag about how beautiful it is or sell you on their scenery. The landscape is unself-consciously spectacular, and it’s easy to see why Twain used it as a counterpoint to his scramble for loot. Anyone who has read and forgotten Roughing It is left with the vague impression that Samuel Clemens spent most of his four years in the West embroiled in one long uproarious anecdote. But when you read the book again, you can see he spent most of his time walking across the high desert in silence, thinking up ways to describe nature without losing his audience. Bodie’s just across the hill from the Aurora mines and 20 miles nearer Carson City than Mono Lake, and Twain traveled routinely from Carson City to both of these places on foot.

After 10 miles on a skinny paved road and a few more on a treacherous dirt one, we come up over a hill and see, on a further hill, a village as complicated and involved as a decent-sized Italian hill town. Imagine Assisi or Orvieto completely abandoned, the homes left empty for strangers who happen upon it to walk through, and you have an idea of Bodie. The hillsides are pocked with old mine shafts, some more than a thousand feet deep. The piles of dirt heaped beside them look as fresh as if they’d been dug up yesterday. Here, incredibly, was once one of those fabulous American arenas of ambition, a 19th-century preamble to Hollywood or Wall Street or Silicon Valley. When the western slope of the Sierras felt poor, the miners crossed over to the eastern slope and found the soil, in places, even richer. This was one of those places. Gold had been discovered in Bodie in 1859, and by 1881 a local minister described the town as “a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion,” which sounds great, until you see what they did with their garbage. Just piled it right up behind their outhouses and left it to rot.

And there it remains today—heaps of rusted tin cans, mostly—for anyone who wants to cart away a 19th-century gold-mining relic, though it is of course against the law to do so. Posted on the notice board outside Bodie is the lovely term of art that California State Parks uses to describe its stated goal in the ghost town: “Arrested decay.” That’s not a bad description, I think, of my own condition. But though we must age and break down, we retain some trace of who we once were, and I find it difficult not to walk right up into the mines and kick the dirt around, hopeful as a child. But in the end it was Tallulah who found a fresh hole and announced there was gold inside.

Still, we have learned something from Twain—though it is unclear if Twain ever learned it himself: The gold isn’t the thing. The thing is the search for the gold. The search leads to adventure, and adventure leads to anecdotes, and anecdotes lead to stories. The pursuit of fortune is, like the pursuit of Twain, just an excuse to get around. And that excuse leads us smack into an impossibly lucky find a mile down the highway from the Bodie turnoff, called the Virginia Creek Settlement.

Things to know before you go on the Mark Twain Trail.

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