Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XXXI

Over the Hills and Far Away

When Madame Caprell prophesied that Orion Clemens would hold office under government, she must have seen with true clairvoyant vision. The inauguration of Abraham Lincoln brought Edward Bates into his Cabinet, and Bates was Orion’s friend. Orion applied for something, and got it. James W. Nye had been appointed Territorial governor of Nevada, and Orion was made Territorial secretary. You could strain a point and refer to the office as “secretary of state,” which was an imposing title. Furthermore, the secretary would be acting governor in the governor’s absence, and there would be various subsidiary honors. When Lieutenant Clemens arrived in Keokuk, Orion was in the first flush of his triumph and needed only money to carry him to the scene of new endeavor. The late lieutenant C. S. A. had accumulated money out of his pilot salary, and there was no comfortable place just then in the active Middle West for an officer of either army who had voluntarily retired from the service. He agreed that if Orion would overlook his recent brief defection from the Union and appoint him now as his (Orion’s) secretary, he would supply the funds for both overland passages, and they would start with no unnecessary delay for a country so new that all human beings, regardless of previous affiliations and convictions, were flung into the common fusing-pot and recast in the general mold of pioneer.

The offer was a boon to Orion. He was always eager to forgive, and the money was vitally necessary. In the briefest possible time he had packed his belongings, which included a large unabridged dictionary, and the brothers were on their way to St. Louis for final leave-taking before setting out for the great mysterious land of promise — the Pacific West. From St. Louis they took the boat for St. Jo, whence the Overland stage started, and for six days “plodded” up the shallow, muddy, snaggy Missouri, a new experience for the pilot of the Father of Waters.

In fact, the boat might almost as well have gone to St. Jo by land, for she was walking most of the time, anyhow — climbing over reefs and clambering over snags patiently and laboriously all day long. The captain said she was a “bully” boat, and all she wanted was some “shear” and a bigger wheel. I thought she wanted a pair of stilts, but I had the deep sagacity not to say so.’22

22 [‘Roughing It’.]

At St. Jo they paid one hundred and fifty dollars apiece for their stage fare (with something extra for the dictionary), and on the twenty-sixth of July, 1861, set out on that long, delightful trip behind sixteen galloping horses — or mules — never stopping except for meals or to change teams, heading steadily into the sunset, following it from horizon to horizon over the billowy plains, across the snow-clad Rockies, covering the seventeen hundred miles between St. Jo and Carson City (including a two-day halt in Salt Lake City) in nineteen glorious days. What an inspiration in such a trip! In ‘Roughing It’ he tells it all, and says: “Even at this day it thrills me through and through to think of the life, the gladness, and the wild sense of freedom that used to make the blood dance in my face on those fine Overland mornings.”

The nights, with the uneven mail-bags for a bed and the bounding dictionary for company, were less exhilarating; but then youth does not mind.

All things being now ready, stowed the uneasy dictionary where it would lie as quiet as possible, and placed the water-canteen and pistols where we could find them in the dark. Then we smoked a final pipe and swapped a final yarn; after which we put the pipes, tobacco, and bag of coin in snug holes and caves among the mail-bags, and made the place as dark as the inside of a cow, as the conductor phrased it in his picturesque way. It was certainly as dark as any place could be — nothing was even dimly visible in it. And finally we rolled ourselves up like silkworms, each person in his own blanket, and sank peacefully to sleep.

Youth loves that sort of thing, despite its inconvenience. And sometimes the clatter of the pony-rider swept by in the night, carrying letters at five dollars apiece and making the Overland trip in eight days; just a quick beat of hoofs in the distance, a dash, and a hail from the darkness, the beat of hoofs again, then only the rumble of the stage and the even, swinging gallop of the mules. Sometimes they got a glimpse of the ponyrider by day — a flash, as it were, as he sped by. And every morning brought new scenery, new phases of frontier life, including, at last, what was to them the strangest phase of all, Mormonism.

They spent two wonderful days at Salt Lake City, that mysterious and remote capital of the great American monarchy, who still flaunts her lawless, orthodox creed the religion of David and Solomon — and thrives. An obliging official made it his business to show them the city and the life there, the result of which would be those amusing chapters in ‘Roughing It’ by and by. The Overland travelers set out refreshed from Salt Lake City, and with a new supply of delicacies — ham, eggs, and tobacco — things that make such a trip worth while. The author of ‘Roughing It’ assures us of this:

Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs. Ham and eggs, and after these a pipe — an old, rank, delicious pipe — ham and eggs and scenery, a “down-grade,” a flying coach, a fragrant pipe, and a contented heart — these make happiness. It is what all the ages have struggled for.

But one must read all the story of that long-ago trip. It was a trip so well worth taking, so well worth recording, so well worth reading and rereading to-day. We can only read of it now. The Overland stage long ago made its last trip, and will not start any more. Even if it did, the life and conditions, the very scenery itself, would not be the same.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00