June 29, 2007
The re-post of #5 in the new series of Sparkletack posts on SFist.com, San Francisco’s collaborative urban blogging project.
The wildfire raging up near Lake Tahoe reminded us of our dear old cousin Mark. Mark Twain, that is, and what we remembered was his own brush with accidental arson up Tahoe way.
It’s a little-known fact, if “fact” be something that can safely ascribed to Twain’s baroquely embellished reminiscences of his years out West, that he was solely responsible for a horrendous forest fire on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
It was 1861, and the young not-yet-famous author was taking a break from the imaginary job of assisting his brother, the Secretary to the Governor of the Nevada Territory. There wasn’t much government to speak of in Nevada, nor any real work at all — but he’d heard tales of a gorgeous mountain lake paradise to the north, so one day he and a friend set out to find the spot. All was idyllic for the first two weeks of camping, but then… maybe we should let him tell the story in his own words — Mark Twain in an excerpt from Roughing It:
“By and by our provisions began to run short, and we went back to the old camp and laid in a new supply. We were gone all day, and reached home again about night-fall, pretty tired and hungry. While Johnny was carrying the main bulk of the provisions up to our “house” for future use, I took the loaf of bread, some slices of bacon, and the coffee-pot, ashore, set them down by a tree, lit a fire, and went back to the boat to get the frying-pan. While I was at this, I heard a shout from Johnny, and looking up I saw that my fire was galloping all over the premises! Johnny was on the other side of it. He had to run through the flames to get to the lake shore, and then we stood helpless and watched the devastation.
“The ground was deeply carpeted with dry pine-needles, and the fire touched them off as if they were gunpowder. It was wonderful to see with what fierce speed the tall sheet of flame traveled! My coffee-pot was gone, and everything with it. In a minute and a half the fire seized upon a dense growth of dry manzanita chapparal six or eight feet high, and then the roaring and popping and crackling was something terrific. We were driven to the boat by the intense heat, and there we remained, spell-bound.
“Within half an hour all before us was a tossing, blinding tempest of flame! It went surging up adjacent ridgesâ€”surmounted them and disappeared in the canons beyondâ€”burst into view upon higher and farther ridges, presentlyâ€”shed a grander illumination abroad, and dove againâ€”flamed out again, directly, higher and still higher up the mountain-side- -threw out skirmishing parties of fire here and there, and sent them trailing their crimson spirals away among remote ramparts and ribs and gorges, till as far as the eye could reach the lofty mountain-fronts were webbed as it were with a tangled network of red lava streams. Away across the water the crags and domes were lit with a ruddy glare, and the firmament above was a reflected hell!
“Every feature of the spectacle was repeated in the glowing mirror of the lake! Both pictures were sublime, both were beautiful; but that in the lake had a bewildering richness about it that enchanted the eye and held it with the stronger fascination.
“We sat absorbed and motionless through four long hours. We never thought of supper, and never felt fatigue. But at eleven o’clock the conflagration had traveled beyond our range of vision, and then darkness stole down upon the landscape again.
“Hunger asserted itself now, but there was nothing to eat. The provisions were all cooked, no doubt, but we did not go to see. We were homeless wanderers again, without any property. Our fence was gone, our house burned down; no insurance. Our pine forest was well scorched, the dead trees all burned up, and our broad acres of manzanita swept away. Our blankets were on our usual sand-bed, however, and so we lay down and went to sleep. The next morning we started back to the old camp, but while out a long way from shore, so great a storm came up that we dared not try to land. So I baled out the seas we shipped, and Johnny pulled heavily through the billows till we had reached a point three or four miles beyond the camp. The storm was increasing, and it became evident that it was better to take the hazard of beaching the boat than go down in a hundred fathoms of water; so we ran in, with tall white-caps following, and I sat down in the stern-sheets and pointed her head-on to the shore. The instant the bow struck, a wave came over the stern that washed crew and cargo ashore, and saved a deal of trouble. We shivered in the lee of a boulder all the rest of the day, and froze all the night through. In the morning the tempest had gone down, and we paddled down to the camp without any unnecessary delay. We were so starved that we ate up the rest of the Brigade’s provisions, and then set out to Carson to tell them about it and ask their forgiveness. It was accorded, upon payment of damages.
“We made many trips to the lake after that, and had many a hair-breadth escape and blood-curdling adventure which will never be recorded in any history.”