Quick thoughts on Mark Twain's Travelogues

My favorite Twain quote...

I've been inspired to jot this down because I've been reading Mark Twain's travelogues, which are truly a revelation to me. Yes, Twain is Twain, but having never read anything beyond Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn before, I really didn't have any idea of what an incredible writer he really was. He was thoughtful, observant, witty and had what are amazingly prescient observations that still ring true 150 years after he first put them down on paper. If you haven't read The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, and A Tramp Abroad, you really need to take the time and do so as they are some of the best books I've ever read. (I especially recommend the audio books as read by Grover Gardner linked above - he's an incredible narrator who brings Twain to life.) Twain is revered for good reason, I just hadn't truly understood why until I read these books. As an example of what I'm on about, here's an excerpt you probably will never see in a list of famous Twain quotes, but should be, as it's truly hysterical: 

While I am speaking of animals, I will mention that I have a horse now by the name of “Jericho.” He is a mare. I have seen remarkable horses before, but none so remarkable as this. I wanted a horse that could shy, and this one fills the bill. I had an idea that shying indicated spirit. If I was correct, I have got the most spirited horse on earth. He shies at every thing he comes across, with the utmost impartiality. He appears to have a mortal dread of telegraph poles, especially; and it is fortunate that these are on both sides of the road, because as it is now, I never fall off twice in succession on the same side. If I fell on the same side always, it would get to be monotonous after a while. This creature has scared at every thing he has seen to-day, except a haystack. He walked up to that with an intrepidity and a recklessness that were astonishing. And it would fill any one with admiration to see how he preserves his self-possession in the presence of a barley sack. This dare-devil bravery will be the death of this horse some day.

He is not particularly fast, but I think he will get me through the Holy Land. He has only one fault. His tail has been chopped off or else he has sat down on it too hard, some time or other, and he has to fight the flies with his heels. This is all very well, but when he tries to kick a fly off the top of his head with his hind foot, it is too much variety. He is going to get himself into trouble that way some day. He reaches around and bites my legs too. I do not care particularly about that, only I do not like to see a horse too sociable.

-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

That sort of acerbic humor is dotted throughout his books, though not excessively as bits like this are surrounded by long passages of flowing elucidation or scrutiny.

One of my favorite parts of Roughing It is Twain's observations of California's wilderness: 

A Californian forest is best [seen] at a little distance, for there is a sad poverty of variety in species, the trees being chiefly of one monotonous family—redwood, pine, spruce, fir—and so, at a near view there is a wearisome sameness of attitude in their rigid arms…. [Californians would] stand astonished, and filled with worshipping admiration, in the the presence of the lavish richness, the brilliant green, the infinite freshness, the spend-thrift variety of form and species and foliage that make an Eastern landscape a vision of Paradise itself. The idea of a man falling into raptures over grave and sombre California, when that man has seen New England’s meadow-expanses and her maples, oaks and cathedral-windowed elms decked in summer attire, or the opaline splendors of autumn descending upon her forests, comes very near being funny—would be, in fact, but that it is so pathetic. No land with an unvarying climate can be very beautiful.

-Mark Twain, Roughing It

As someone who grew up in New England, I've always been less than impressed by California's forests - saving of course for the truly awe-inspiring giant redwoods and sequioas - this rings incredibly true to me. I've never really been explain my opinion to the nature worshipers here on the West Coast who constantly rave about the wilderness here. I just can't relate. In my teen years and through college, I lived in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, right next to the Appalachian Trail. I don't have fond memories of northeastern winters, to put it mildly, but summer hiking in the mountains (as relatively tiny as they are) was something I remember with fondness. Trekking up the numerous, well-marked trails, leaping among the giant granite boulders, playing in crisp streams, discovering secret ponds and immersed in emerald green foliage everywhere with not a rattlesnake or venomous spider to be found beats out anything California has to offer, hands down. 

(Side note: I had an absolutely batshit crazy Track coach who had the cross-country team jog up Mt. Washington one August before the school year started as part of our training. Getting to the top of the 6,000 foot peak and scrambling over the last bit trail, muddied and soaked from the clouds surrounding the summit, surprising the flock of tourists who had driven up the Auto Road to the visitor center is an amusing memory I'll never forget).

Anyways, I've been in California for 25 years and I've always been vaguely disappointed every time I go for a hike. I find it comforting that Twain thought the same thing a century ago, when California was even more pristine. All that said, 23 years of New England winters is enough for a lifetime. I'll take year-round clement weather, no matter how monotonous, over 7 months of dreary grey weather from now on, thanks.

Another amusing thing I discovered while reading Roughing It was the fact that young Samuel Clemens once went surfing in Hawaii. In the late 1800s!! For some reason, the idea of it amuses me greatly. Twain cultivated an image of the perfect Southern Gentleman later in life - despite living in Connecticut - and the fact that he went all the way to Hawaii and surfed 100 years before The Endless Summer is pretty great: 

In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself.—The board struck the shore in three quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.

-Mark Twain, Roughing It

Seriously, if you haven’t read anything else by Twain except Tom Sawyer, you need to do yourself a favor and read his non-fiction. It's all truly fantastic.