Over the Mountains

Mark Twain

Virginia City Territorial Enterprise/September 17, 1863

EDITORS ENTERPRISE: The trip from Virginia to Carson by Messrs. Carpenter & Hoog’s stage is a pleasant one, and from thence over the mountains by the Pioneer would be another, if there were less of it. But you naturally want an outside seat in the day time, and you feel a good deal like riding inside when the cold night winds begin to blow; yet if you commence your journey on the outside, you will find that you will be allowed to enjoy the desire I speak of unmolested from twilight to sunrise. An outside seat is preferable, though, day or night.

All you want to do is to prepare for it thoroughly. You should sleep forty-eight hours in succession before starting so that you may not have to do anything of that kind on the box. You should also take a heavy overcoat with you. I did neither. I left Carson feeling very miserable for want of sleep, and the voyage from there to Sacramento did not refresh me perceptibly. I took no overcoat and I almost shivered the shirt off myself during that long night ride from Strawberry Valley to Folsom.

Our driver was a very companionable man, though, and this was a happy circumstance for me, because, being drowsy and worn out, I would have gone to sleep and fallen overboard if he had not enlivened the dreary hours with his conversation. Whenever I stopped coughing, and went to nodding, he always watched me out of the corner of his eye until I got to pitching in his direction, and then he would stir me up and inquire if I were asleep. If I said “No” (and I was apt to do that), he always said “it was a bully good thing for me that I warn’t, you know,” and then went on to relate cheerful anecdotes of people who had got to nodding by his side when he wasn’t noticing, and had fallen off and broken their necks. He said he could see those fellows before him now, all jammed and bloody and quivering in death’s agony—”G’lang! d—n that horse, he knows there’s a parson and an old maid in side, and that’s what makes him cut up so; I’ve saw him act jes’ so more’n a thousand times!”

The driver always lent an additional charm to his conversation by mixing his horrors and his general information together in this way. “Now,” said he, after urging his team at a furious speed down the grade for a while, plunging into deep bends in the road brimming with a thick darkness almost palpable to the touch, and darting out again and again on the verge of what instinct told me was a precipice, “Now, I seen a poor cuss—but you’re asleep again, you know, and you’ve rammed your head agin’ my side-pocket and busted a bottle of nasty rotten medicine that I’m taking to the folks at the Thirty-five Mile House; do you notice that flavor? ain’t it a ghastly old stench? The man that takes it down there don’t live on anything else, it’s vittles and drink to him; anybody that ain’t used to him can’t go a-near him; he’d stun ’em—he’d suffocate ’em; his breath smells like a grave yard after an earthquake—you Bob! I allow to skelp that ornery horse, yet, if he keeps on this way; you see he’s been on the over land till about two weeks ago, and every stump he sees he cal’lates it’s an Injun.”

I was awake by this time, holding on with both hands and bouncing up and down just as I do when I ride a horse back. The driver took up the thread of his discourse and proceeded to soothe me again: “As I was a saying, I see a poor cuss tumble off along here one night—he was monstrous drowsy, and went to sleep when I’d took my eye off of him for a moment—and he fetched up agin a boulder, and in a second there wasn’t anything left of him but a promiscus pile of hash! It was moonlight, and when I got down and looked at him he was quivering like jelly, and sorter moaning to himself, like, and the bones of his legs was sticking out through his pantaloons every which way, like that.” (Here the driver mixed his fingers up after the manner of a stack of muskets, and illuminated them with the ghostly light of his cigar.) “He warn’t in misery long though. In a minute and a half he was deader’n a smelt—Bob! I say I’ll cut that horse’s throat if he stays on this route another week.”

In this way the genial driver caused the long hours to pass sleeplessly away, and if he drew upon his imagination for his fearful histories, I shall be the last to blame him for it, because if they had taken a milder form I might have yielded to the dullness that oppressed me, and got my own bones smashed out of my hide in such a way as to render me useless forever after— unless, perhaps, some one chose to turn me to account as an uncommon sort of hat-rack.


Not a face in either stage was washed from the time we left Carson until we arrived in Sacramento; this will give you an idea of how deep the dust lay on those faces when we entered the latter town at eight o’clock on Monday morning. Mr. Billet, of Virginia, came in our coach, and brought his family with him—Mr. R. W. Billet of the great Washoe Stock and Exchange Board of Highwaymen—and instead of turning his complexion to a dirty cream color, as it generally serves white folks, the dust changed it to the meanest possible shade of black: however, Billet isn’t particularly white, anyhow, even under the most favorable circumstances.

He stepped into an office near the railroad depot, to write a note, and while he was at it, several lank, gawky, indolent immigrants, fresh from the plains, gathered around him. Missourians—Pikes—I can tell my brethren as far as I can see them. They seemed to admire Billet very much, and the faster he wrote the higher their admiration rose in their faces, until it finally boiled over in words, and one of my countrymen ejaculated in his neighbor’s ear,—”Dang it, but he writes mighty well for a nigger!”


When I arrived in San Francisco, I found there was no one in town—at least there was no body in town but “the Menken”—or rather, that no one was being talked about except that manly young female. I went to see her play “Mazeppa,” of course. They said she was dressed from head to foot in flesh-colored “tights,” but I had no opera-glass, and I couldn’t see it, to use the language of the inelegant rabble. She appeared to me to have but one garment on—a thin tight white linen one, of unimportant dimensions; I forget the name of the article, but it is indispensable to infants of tender age—I suppose any young mother can tell you what it is, if you have the moral courage to ask the question.

With the exception of this superfluous rag, the Menken dresses like the Greek Slave; but some of her postures are not so modest as the suggestive attitude of the latter. She is a finely formed woman down to her knees; if she could be herself that far, and Mrs. H. A. Perry the rest of the way, she would pass for an unexceptionable Venus. Here every tongue sings the praises of her matchless grace, her supple gestures, her charming attitudes. Well, possibly, these tongues are right. In the first act, she rushes on the stage, and goes cavorting around after “Olinska”; she bends herself back like a bow; she pitches headforemost at the atmosphere like a battering ram; she works her arms, and her legs, and her whole body like a dancing-jack: her every movement is as quick as thought; in a word, without any apparent reason for it, she carries on like a lunatic from the beginning of the act to the end of it. At other times she “whallops” herself down on the stage, and rolls over as does the sportive pack-mule after his burden is removed. If this be grace then the Menken is eminently graceful.

After a while they proceed to strip her, and the high chief Pole calls for the “fiery untamed steed”; a subordinate Pole brings in the fierce brute, stirring him up occasionally to make him run away, and then hanging to him like death to keep him from doing it; the monster looks round pensively upon the brilliant audience in the theatre, and seems very willing to stand still—but a lot of those Poles grab him and hold on to him, so as to be prepared for him in case he changes his mind. They are posted as to his fiery untamed nature, you know, and they give him no chance to get loose and eat up the orchestra.

They strap Mazeppa on his back, fore and aft, and face upper most, and the horse goes cantering up-stairs over the painted mountains, through tinted clouds of theatrical mist, in a brisk exciting way, with the wretched victim he bears unconsciously digging her heels into his hams, in the agony of her sufferings, to make him go faster. Then a tempest of applause bursts forth, and the curtain falls. The fierce old circus horse carries his prisoner around through the back part of the theatre, behind the scenery, and although assailed at every step by the savage wolves of the desert, he makes his way at last to his dear old home in Tartary down by the foot lights, and beholds once more, O, gods! the familiar faces of the fiddlers in the orchestra. The noble old steed is happy, then, but poor Mazeppa is insensible—”ginned out” by his trip, as it were.

Before the act closes, however, he is restored to consciousness and his doting old father, the king of Tartary; and the next day, without taking time to dress—without even borrowing a shirt, or stealing a fresh horse—he starts off on the fiery untamed, at the head of the Tartar nation, to exterminate the Poles, and carry off his own sweet Olinska from the Polish court. He succeeds, and the curtain falls upon a bloody combat, in which the Tartars are victorious.

“Mazeppa” proved a great card for Maguire here; he put it on the boards in first-class style, and crowded houses went crazy over it every night it was played. But Virginians will soon have an opportunity of seeing it themselves, as “the Menken” will go direct from our town there without stopping on the way.

The “French Spy” was played last night and the night before, and as this spy is a frisky Frenchman, and as dumb as an oyster, Miss Menken’s extravagant gesticulations do not seem so overdone in it as they do in “Mazeppa.” She don’t talk well, and as she goes on her shape and her acting, the character of a fidgety “dummy” is peculiarly suited to her line of business. She plays the Spy, without words, with more feeling than she does Mazeppa with them.

I am tired writing, now, so you will get no news in this letter. I have got a note-book full of interesting hieroglyphics, but I am afraid that by the time I am ready to write them out, I shall have forgotten what they mean. The lady who asked me to furnish her with the Lick House fashions, shall have them shortly—or if I ever get time, I will dish up those displayed at the great Pioneer ball, at Union Hall, last Wednesday night.