Lake resident tracking the Tahoe trail of Mark Twain
October 1, 2004
Driving his car around Lake Tahoe, David Antonucci paused from pointing out landmarks of historical significance to answer his cell phone.
“I’m stuck in traffic in Incline Village,” he said into the phone. “I’m trying to find Mark Twain.”
His search for Mark Twain, the famed 19th century American writer, started as part of a history project for a class he took at Lake Tahoe Community College. But it has turned into an all-consuming puzzle to which he now says he’s found the answer.
Antonucci is the first known historian to attempt an exact retracing of Twain’s often-quoted first visit to Lake Tahoe. Other historians claim that finding his precise route would be near impossible.
McAvoy Layne, an Incline Village-based Twain scholar, said that because Twain’s history is often foggy and satirical, finding concrete facts from his writing can be difficult.
“Twain doesn’t get that specific as to where he was, so it would be hard to tell logically,” Layne said. “Sometimes he’s very accurate, but other times he’s not.”
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Twain came to Tahoe for the first time in August 1861, but his travels didn’t appear in his writing until his trip was featured in two chapters of his book “Roughing It,” which was published 30 years later.
Twain came to Carson City in early 1861 to work for his brother, Orion Clemens, the secretary of the governor of the Nevada Territory. Twain and a friend decided to make the 11-mile trek on foot to Lake Tahoe to explore the land and stake a timber claim.
In “Roughing It,” Twain writes: “We had heard a world of talk about the marvelous beauty of Lake Tahoe, and finally curiosity drove us thither to see it.”
Twain writes explicitly that he arrived on the North Shore. And although several other historians have speculated on more vague locations of Twain’s arrival, Antonucci dismisses these claims.
“I’m 90 percent certain,” he said. “Because Twain’s description was so generalized, I’ll never be able to say with 100 percent certainty exactly how he came and where he was.”
Using maps to match the topography and the distance recorded in Twain’s two chapters, Antonucci pinpointed a crossing point from Carson City to Lake Tahoe by way of a logging road in Ash Canyon.
He claims that Twain climbed two peaks and came down to the lake through Tunnel Creek Canyon, which comes out near the present-day Sand Harbor.
Antonucci has lived in the Tahoe area for 30 years, and he says he can’t think of any other physical features on the lake that fit Twain’s descriptions so well.
Twain writes: “At last the lake burst upon us – a noble sheet of blue water lifted 6,300 feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft a full 3,000 feet higher still.”
For Antonucci, who retraced the steps that Twain would have taken, said the puzzle is solved by the scenery.
“I hiked over the ridge along Tunnel Creek, and suddenly you come out of the forest, and there is the lake – exactly as he wrote it,” Antonucci said. “When that happened, I knew I was right.”
After reaching the lake, Twain reports they found a small rowboat and set out across what he calls a deep bend in the lake, which Antonucci claims is Crystal Bay.
They travel by boat an estimated three miles to a campsite that Antonucci says must be Stateline Point, due to Twain’s description of the sandy beach and large boulders.
From their campsite, Twain’s party sets out three miles to search for an ideal timbering location. Although he doesn’t specify the direction he travels, Antonucci estimates that he traveled west to the current location of Tahoe Vista.
“Here, I had to think like a logger. If I were looking for a spot that is easy to get logs out of, I would go west where it’s level terrain and dense forests,” he said.
After staking the claim, Twain writes that their campfire raged out of control, burning the timber claim and surrounding forest.
A final piece of evidence, the last piece of the puzzle, would make his estimates conclusive, Antonucci said.
“If we could do a study of the old trees still standing in the Tahoe Vista area that have fire scars from around 1861, then that would prove it without a doubt,” he said.