Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 17–20 | Summary



Chapter 17

The travelers leave Salt Lake City without satisfactorily understanding the Mormons, for they've heard conflicting stories from the different factions around town. Twain gives the example of the "Mountain Meadows Massacre," for which the Gentiles, Indians, and Mormons are all blamed. (As it turns out, Twain writes, it was the Mormons.) Twain is satisfied, though, that now "we were at last in a pioneer land, in absolute and tangible reality." His proof of this is the outrageous prices charged for nearly everything, which must be shipped in from somewhere else. While pennies are used in the East, the smallest coin in Salt Lake City is the quarter—and everything costs at least that much. Twain tells of his own first gaffe with money in town. Ignorant of local ways, he tries to pay an Indian shoeshine boy five cents, not knowing the shoeshine is a twenty-five cent job. The boy hands the pathetic coin back with an insult. Twain claims that he scalped the boy then and there for the insult, amidst the "roar of vulgar laughter" at his expense. The travelers have also figured out that the locals look down on "emigrants," who know nothing of mining and can't even swear properly.

Chapter 18

The coach travels through an alkali desert that stretches nearly 70 miles with only one watering stop along the way. At first the travelers are excited about the prospect. Twain writes that "this was fine—novel—romantic—dramatically adventurous—this, indeed, was worth living for, worth traveling for!" Their enthusiasm quickly fades thanks to the scorching August sun and thick dust everywhere. The mules struggle getting through the deep dust, traveling only 2.5 miles per hour, an agonizingly slow pace. The travelers run out of water, and the alkali dust cracks their lips and makes their noses bleed. They are so thankful to arrive at the station on the other side of the desert that Twain can hardly describe their happiness in words.

Chapter 19

Next the travelers arrive at Rocky Canyon, where they encounter "the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen," says Twain. The Goshute Indians are, by his account, "inferior to all races of savages on our continent" and beyond. He characterizes them as dirty, sneaky beggars who eat scraps that hogs wouldn't touch and make no contributions to society. Twain tells of their attacks on coaches and stations, and though he is "an Indian worshiper," he finds them disgusting in the extreme. He pities the "poor creatures" and advises readers to have compassion for them, or at the very least, not to throw mud at them.

Chapter 20

The travelers cross the Great American Desert, where the sand is so deep they have to get out and walk so that the mules can pull the coach. The desert is littered with wrecked wagons, wagon wheels, and the bones of dead horses and oxen. They come to Carson Lake, called a "sink" because water flows into it by river but none flows out—the water "sinks mysteriously into the earth." Twain then diverges in his writing to tell a popular anecdote about Horace Greeley, a famous journalist. (So popular is this story that Twain has heard it is in the Talmud and was used in the inquisition in Rome.) Greeley has such a bumpy ride across the desert that his coat buttons pop off and his head busts through the ceiling of the coach. At first, Twain finds the story funny, but soon he realizes that everyone knows and tells this same story during travels in the West. The travelers hear the story again and again and get quite fed up with it. The final straw comes when they pick up a stranded, nearly dead man in the desert. After they revive him with a bit of brandy, the wanderer begins to tell the same tired Greeley story. Twain cuts him off midsentence and asks him not to tell the story, so the stranger refrains. The strain of keeping the anecdote in, though, is too much for the man, and he dies.


The land of the Mormons, as unusual as Twain found it, turns out to be the last "civilized" stop on their voyage West. Now, Twain and his companions are in a truly wild and lawless land where even nature contains unprecedented dangers. They are not sure who to believe when it comes to local lore, for everyone has a different version of the same story. Money is also shockingly different, with both coins denominations and prices being far higher than in the East.

Unfortunately, Twain's callous attitude toward those different from himself, first seen with the Mormons, continues in this section, and indeed throughout the remainder of the memoir. He claims to scalp an Indian boy for mocking him over his five-cent piece. He decries the Goshute Indians as savages who have no place on the land or in society. And he embeds a sardonic tall tale in the narrative of a man who died from refraining to tell a story. If this is humorous, it is very dark humor indeed. More likely, these are the bitter reflections of a frustrated reporter making very little money on a far tougher assignment than he imagined. Sadly, they may also reflect the attitude of the time toward Indian life in general as worthless and rather a nuisance toward those white men trying to get ahead in America.

Twain continues his travelogue of exotic places and amusing events in Chapter 20. He tells of the strange "sink" lakes, like Carson Lake, that exist in the West. In such lakes, incoming water evaporates or is absorbed into the ground rather than flowing out from a different outlet. Then Twain relates a popular anecdote about Horace Greeley. Greeley gained fame beginning in the 1830s as a successful journalist who founded the New York Tribune. Twain pulls the reader's leg with the story of Greeley's coach ride, since the stories are anachronistic—historically impossible because occurring in different centuries. These are mentioned purely for comic effect, to give an exaggerated idea of the popularity of the anecdote about Greeley.

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