Follow in the footsteps of Mark Twain: Ah yes, that first gunfight. I remember it well

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The Independent Travel

Mark Twain (1835-1910) was the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The name comes from the call "Mark twain!" (two fathoms) used by the Mississippi riverboat men when taking soundings. Twain worked as a Mississippi riverboat pilot from 1857 to1861 and wrote about his training in Life On The Mississippi (1883). The extract below is taken from "Roughing It", published in 1872, Twain's account of his experiences in Nevada. Twain's distinguishing mark as a writer is not just his humour, but the manner in which he tells his stories. He speaks as comfortably in the colloquial voices of America as in his own laconic style.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) was the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The name comes from the call "Mark twain!" (two fathoms) used by the Mississippi riverboat men when taking soundings. Twain worked as a Mississippi riverboat pilot from 1857 to1861 and wrote about his training in Life On The Mississippi (1883). The extract below is taken from "Roughing It", published in 1872, Twain's account of his experiences in Nevada. Twain's distinguishing mark as a writer is not just his humour, but the manner in which he tells his stories. He speaks as comfortably in the colloquial voices of America as in his own laconic style.

It was the morning of the twentieth day. At noon we would reach Carson City, the capital of Nevada Territory. We were not glad, but sorry. It had been a fine pleasure trip; we had fed fat on wonders every day; we were now well accustomed to stage life, and very fond of it; so the idea of coming to a stand-still and settling down to a humdrum existence in a village was not agreeable, but on the contrary depressing.

Visibly our new home was a desert, walled in by barren, snow-clad mountains. There was not a tree in sight. There was no vegetation but the endless sage-brush and greasewood. All nature was gray with it. We were plowing through great deeps of powdery alkali dust that rose in thick clouds and floated across the plain like smoke from a burning house. Every 20 steps we passed the skeleton of some dead beast of burthen, with its dust-coated skin stretched tightly over its empty ribs. Frequently a solemn raven sat upon the skull or the hips and contemplated the passing coach with meditative serenity.

By and by Carson City was pointed out to us. It nestled in the edge of a great plain and was a sufficient number of miles away to look like an assemblage of mere white spots in the shadow of a grim range of mountains overlooking it, whose summits seemed lifted clear out of companionship and consciousness of earthly things. It was a "wooden" town; its population 2,000 souls. The main street consisted of four or five blocks of little white frame stores which were too high to sit down on, but not too high for various other purposes; in fact, hardly high enough. They were packed close together, as if room were scarce in that mighty plain.

The sidewalk was of boards that were more or less loose and inclined to rattle when walked upon. In the middle of the town was the "plaza" which is native to all towns beyond the Rocky Mountains – very useful as a place for public auctions, horse trades, and mass meetings, and likewise for teamsters to camp in. Two other sides of the plaza were faced by stores, offices and stables.

We were introduced to several citizens, at the stage office and on the way up to the governor's from the hotel – among others, to a Mr Harris, who was on horseback; he began to say something, but interrupted himself with the remark: "I'll have to get you to excuse me a minute; yonder is the witness that swore I helped to rob the California coach – a piece of impertinent intermeddling, sir, for I am not even acquainted with the man."

Then he rode over and began to rebuke the stranger with a six-shooter, and the stranger began to explain with another. When the pistols were emptied, the stranger resumed his work (mending a whiplash), and Mr Harris rode by with a polite nod, homeward bound, with a bullet through one of his lungs, and several in his hips; and from them issued little rivulets of blood that coursed down the horse's sides and made the animal look quite picturesque. I never saw Harris shoot a man after that but it recalled to mind that first day in Carson City.

The silver state

When the Civil War put an end to the Mississippi riverboat traffic, Twain moved to Nevada to work as a journalist, first in Carson City, then in Virginia City. Carson City is now a sedate state capital, but Virginia City is virtually a tourist theme towns.

Twain travelled to Carson City from Salt Lake City in Utah. He is not specific about his route, but Highway 50, known as "the Loneliest Highway in America", parallels his journey, running across Nevada at its most bleakly beautiful.

A week's car hire in Nevada with Holiday Autos (0870 400 0011, www.holidayautos.co.uk) starts from £185, for an economy two-door car. Bridge The World (0870 4447474, www.b-t-w.co.uk) is offering a return economy fare of £275 with Virgin Atlantic, which flies direct to Las Vegas, Nevada, on Thursdays and Sundays.

A Connecticut Yankee

Twain married Olivia Langdon in 1870 and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where the family remained until 1891. Between 1873 and 1889 Twain produced seven books here and his house is now a National Historic Landmark and open to the public. For more information, go to www.marktwainhouse.org

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