Twain’s Chains

Today’s slide show: Images from Donner Pass. Today’s audio: The Lewis clan faces multiple challenges crossing the Donner Pass.

My brother, the Secretary, took along about four pounds of U.S. statutes and six pounds of Unabridged Dictionary; for we did not know—poor innocents—that such things could be bought in San Francisco on one day and received in Carson City the next.—Mark Twain, Roughing It

The original plan was to drive from San Francisco to Carson City in the few hours it is meant to now take and spend the afternoon wandering around the general area where Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain. Clemens was 25 years old in the summer of 1861 when he first went west with his older brother Orion. He’d fought briefly and badly for the Confederate army and was saved, in a way, by his older brother, who had campaigned for Abraham Lincoln and been rewarded with a job as secretary of the Nevada Territory. When the Clemenses boarded the stagecoach in St. Joe, Mo., for Carson City, Nev., they were each permitted 25 pounds of baggage. Both were forced to abandon possessions, but the Unabridged Dictionary somehow made the cut. Or so Twain claimed, 10 years later, in Roughing It. As a writer, Twain was lucky in many ways, and one of them was that he died before the birth of the fact-checker. He ingeniously set up the Unabridged as an unpleasant traveling companion on a hellish journey, just as he ingeniously played up his encounters with gunslingers, desperadoes, Indians, deserts, wild beasts, and bad weather. Writing for an audience already a little vague about the Wild West—between his going and writing about it the stagecoach had been replaced by the railroad—Twain clearly sensed that a gap had opened up between what was believable and what was true, and he made the most of it.

Anyway, in the past 142 years, the theoretical amount of time required to travel on land from San Francisco to Carson City has shrunk from a full day to less than four hours. Yesterday morning, in a drizzling rain, we left our house in Berkeley, Calif., traveling in two cars. Alongside me, in our own humble Toyota Highlander, sat Tabitha and our two daughters, 3-year-old Tallulah and 1-year-old Dixie. Alone in the snug station wagon loaned to us by Volvo sat our nanny, Amy. The Volvo carried the luggage and came second, and hence was dubbed “the Mule.” Two hours later, Horse and Mule reached the base of the Sierras and angled up uneasily toward Donner Pass. The drizzling rain of the morning had become a sheet of water falling from the dark midday sky, the temperature was falling fast, and the girls were both howling. Beside the highway, out of the mist, appeared an alarming sign: “Chain Control Ahead.”

The first rule of the U.S. highways is that if you only see a sign once, it doesn’t count. Obeying the rule, we went on a bit, unconcerned. The Mule handled the rainstorm well enough, but the risks were clearly rising. We feared that if Amy crashed the Mule, we might be billed by Volvo; but if I crashed her, Volvo had only itself to blame for loaning me the car. We stopped for gas and swapped places. When he saw that I was responsible for the Mule, the man inside the gas station took me aside and warned me that ahead lay waiting for me state police, handing out big fines and maybe even jail terms to people without tire chains. He said that while the Horse, with its four-wheel drive, would certainly be allowed through Donner Pass, the Mule most certainly would not. For a mere $41, he sold me a shiny black box in which, he said, were these things they called snow chains. In New Orleans, where I grew up, a forecast for an inch of snow, which occurred maybe once every 10 years, caused the public to beat a panicky retreat indoors. I had left New Orleans, but New Orleans had not left me. I stared at the black box uneasily. I lifted it up and looked at it upside down. I opened it and fingered the instructions. I closed it and shook it a bit.

“You don’t have to put them on yourself,” said the man, finally. “Up ahead there’s a chain service.”

“Where exactly?” The extent of my mechanical expertise usually consists of finding the person who has it.

“Right on the highway,” he said. “There’ll be a bunch of guys dressed in yellow. For 10 bucks, they put the chains on for you.”

We drove on for another 20 minutes. Sure enough, the rain turned to snow, the snow thickened, along with the alarming electronic signs arguing for the need for snow chains. Yet there was no sign of men in yellow to put the snow chains on. The third time the Mule went into a skid, I pulled over.

“What are you doing?” shouted Tabitha, now behind the wheel of the Horse.

“Putting on the chains.”

“Do you know how?”

“I’ll figure it out.”

“Why don’t you ask those people over there?” Dimly, I could make out the tail lights of another car, stopped, entombed in falling snow.

Reading instructions in the snow

But I dawdled. From inside the black snow chain box I flourished the thin sheet of instructions. Three simple steps. Any idiot could follow three simple steps! As I plunged out into the blizzard and groped for Step 1, the other car drove away. Tabitha doubled over with glee and reached, apparently, for her camera. She knew the question was not whether but how I would meet my humiliation.

That became clearer half an hour later when, snow chains donned, we reached the chain control check point, and the man with the clipboard standing in a foot of new snow looked down and said, “First time all year I seen a guy with one chain.”

I stepped out of the car. Sure enough, one chain had somehow vanished.

“But—” I began.

“Sorry guy,” he said. “It’s like having one nut. Won’t cut it up here.”

I pulled over and ran back to Tabitha’s car (the Mule had bravely taken the lead up the hill).

“Have you seen my other chain?”

“Have I seen your other chain?” She starts to giggle.

“It fell off.”

“You should have asked those people back there to help you!”

She’s now laughing rudely.

“It wasn’t that complicated,” I say. I’m beginning to feel a little miffed. A tad unappreciated. “One chain probably works just as well.”

She’s now gasping for breath.

I’m now more interested in winning the argument—was I, or was I not, qualified to chain?—than in finding the lost chain. I cast about in my mind and came up with what I took to be the clincher: “Look, I got all the way up here, and one chain’s still on.

“Think about that sentence,” she says. “Do you not see there is something wrong with it?”

It’s astonishing, as one approaches Donner Pass, how rapidly the price of snow chains rises. The heap of barely shaped metal that had cost $41 not an hour before was here $99 plus another 20 bucks for labor. So risky was this business of putting on one’s own snow chains that a line of 15 cars waited for an expert to do it for them. We pulled over at the next exit and shelled out the $280 for two sets of chains, installed. $240 for the chains and $40 for candy and hot dogs and even a gas station Barbie to bribe Tallulah to play in the snow for the three hours it took for our cars to inch up to the single, beleaguered snow-chain installer who surely assumed that April 11 was going to be his day off. Much of the time I passed pleasantly enough, chatting to the idle gas station attendant, a former unsuccessful gold miner who had made and lost many snow chain fortunes. There was one day, he fondly recalled, when he’d taken nearly 25 grand off people just like me, so they might be allowed back on the highway.

“Tell me the truth,” I said in the confiding tone we had established. “How risky is it, really, to drive with just one snow chain?”

“It can kill you.”

By the time we clanked and clunked out of the station—the Mule now sounded like the African Queen—it was 6 in the evening, and the snow was falling harder than ever. Two feet of snow had fallen, and another 2 was expected, and it was as isolating as any illness. Hundreds of cars lined the road, and yet the people in each one of them felt alone in the world. For 10 minutes of every hour, the endless line of cars making their way up and over Donner Pass shot ahead at a great clip—then stood still for the other 50 minutes. For the next three hours, we moved at the rate of 3 miles per hour. Bad as life might be in the back of a stagecoach with an Unabridged Dictionary, it is, I am certain, worse in a medium-sized SUV with children in poo diapers.

It took four and a half hours before the snow turned slushy and the chains began to clank more than they clunked. For the first part of that slow journey, my mind was distracted by something the first snow chain prospector had said to me, when I asked why he didn’t put them on right then and there. “It’s very dangerous to use chains when you don’t need them,” he’d said. Well. If it’s dangerous not to have them when you need them and also to have them when you don’t, you have to be constantly on the lookout for turning points. The whole snow chain business was beginning to feel anxiety-ridden. Unless you were some kind of expert—or unless you were one of those men in yellow suits, still nowhere to be seen—you didn’t stand a chance.

But as we chugged along, enchained, at 25 miles an hour, feeling the breeze from newly unchained cars passing us at 65, it eventually dawned on me that the night wasn’t finished with me. My mind became occupied by a single question: Is it more—or less—difficult to remove snow chains than to install them? I had tried to ask that very question of the second snow chain salesman, but he waved me aside by saying, “Just get one of the guys in the yellow suits to take it off. It’s only 10 bucks.”

“We didn’t see any of those guys on the way up,” I’d said.

“You can’t miss ‘em on the way down,” he’d promised.

But we had, somehow. Finally, the sound of the Mule’s chains clanking on the asphalt became too much to bear. I pulled over, Tabitha doubled over, and again reached for her camera—this time, thankfully, out of batteries. And after 20 minutes of lying in a mud puddle beneath The Mule, I had wrapped the chains so thoroughly around both axles that I was prepared to give us up for lost. I banged on Tabitha’s window, which lowered ominously—and emitted the most horrible poo-stench.

“He didn’t tell me how to take them off,” I said. “I think there might be some trick to it.”

She sighed. “Do you want me to call someone?”

“Do you have the number for Volvo?”

With that, I think, our nanny, Amy, had had enough. She was tired, she wanted rest. She climbed out of the passenger seat of the Horse, walked over to the Mule, bent over for all of 90 seconds, and rose up, Houdini-like, with both chains in hand. My wife just stared at me in wonder.

“I’m telling you—” I began.

“We’re not going to make it to Carson City tonight,” she said, blankly. “Everyone needs to go to bed.”

And so down the hill we rolled into Reno, where my children spent their first night over a casino. The trick to getting to Carson City from San Francisco in one day must be in when you start.

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.