Nevada has a way of getting in a person’s head.
For more than a century, many have wandered her expanses, many just passing through on the way to someplace else, and found something special in the sagebrush, mountains and open skies.
Among those who have settled in for a spell have been some of America’s most famous writers including Mark Twain, John McPhee and Mario Puzo. Not surprisingly, these folks with a way with words found a number of ways to describe their Nevada experiences.
The following half-dozen quotes that offer a sense of Nevada. While there are other, perhaps more memorable quotes about the state — and some are certainly more flattering — these are a few of my favorites:
In 1861, Samuel Clemens arrived in Nevada. Taking a job at Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, Clemens began writing under the pen name, Mark Twain.
Although he spent only two years in the state, he later recalled Nevada in his 1871 book “Roughing It.” In its pages, with tongue-in-cheek, Twain wrote: “People accustomed to the monster mile-wide Mississippi grow accustomed to associated the term ‘river’ with a high degree of watery grandeur. Consequently, such people feel rather disappointed when they stand on the shores of the Humboldt or the Carson and find that a ‘river’ in Nevada is a sickly rivulet ... One of the pleasantest and most invigorating exercises one can contrive is to run and jump across the Humboldt River till he is overheated, and then drink it dry.”
A contemporary of Twain’s at the Territorial Enterprise was William Wright, who wrote under the pseudonym, Dan De Quille. De Quille crafted many humorous yarns for the paper including the following offbeat explanation of the creation of Nevada: “The Almighty, at the time he was creatin’ and fashionin’ of this here yearth, got along to this section late on Saturday evening. He had finished all of the Great Lakes, like Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and them — had made the Ohio, Missouri, And Mississippi rivers, and, as sort of a wind up, was about to make a river that would be far ahead of anything he had yet done in that line. So he started in and traced out Humboldt River, and Truckee River, and Walker River, and Reese River, and all the other rivers, and he was leadin’ of them along, calkerlatin’ to bring ‘em all together into one big boss river and then lead that off and let it empty into the Gulf of Mexico or the Gulf of California, as that might be most convenient; but as he was bringin’ down and leadin’ along the several branches — the Truckee, Humboldt, Carson, Walker and them — it became dark and instead of trying to carry out the original plan, he jist tucked the lower ends of the several streams into the ground, whar they have remained from that day to this.”
About a century after Twain and De Quille departed Virginia City, San Francisco writer Warren Hinkle retraced their steps in a book entitled, “The Richest Place on Earth.” In addition to relating stories about Virginia City’s history, he wrote: “Virginia City was once the richest place on earth. It has been as productive as a sucked egg since its silver mines petered out in the 1880s, but so fabulous were the fortunes produced and the manner of their spending and the squandering so superlative that it burns through the fog of historical memory as a Cinderella City, a real-life, uniquely American Camelot devoted to the questionable art of conspicuous consumption.”
Of course, Virginia City is not the state’s only example of the boom-and-bust nature of the mining business. In “Nevada: A History,” Nevada author Robert Laxalt wrote: “Off the beaten track, at the end of those unmarked dirt roads that are forever branching off from the main highways, a hundred ghost towns dot the Nevada landscape. A collapsing hulk of a stone building, a scattering of brown-board shacks defeated by time and abandonment, the barely discernible remnant of a wide main street, a nearby hillside riddled with the black apertures of mine tunnels and littered with mounds of discarded rock, and the moaning of the desert wind in the encompassing silence are all that remain of the boom-and-bust towns that flourished and died in the wreckage of broken dreams.”
Other writers have driven, or hiked, across Nevada’s broad expanses and found a number of ways to describe what they saw. In “Basin and Range,” author John McPhee noted: “The Nevada terrain is not corrugated, like the folded Appalachians, like a tubal air mattress, like a rippled potato chip. This is not — in that compressive manner — a ridge and valley situation. Each range here is like a warship standing on its own, and the Great Basin is an ocean of loose sediment with these mountain ranges standing in it as if they were members of a fleet without precedent, assembled at Guam to assault Japan.”
Over the years, Las Vegas has also been the called many things, some not particularly flattering. A spirited defense of the city was once written by Mario Puzo, author of “The Godfather.” In his book, “Inside Las Vegas,” Puzo wrote: “There may be some who feel that Vegas is an abomination and should be destroyed. They would then have to argue, with me at least, that the oil companies are straight, the stock market is not a flimflam, and that our South American foreign policy is not insane. They would even have to argue that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are more honest than the Mafia.”
Hard to argue with that.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada unique.