Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 21–25 | Summary



Chapter 21

The travelers arrive at Carson City, their final destination. They are introduced to Harris, who excuses himself mid-sentence to start a gunfight with a rival. He is promptly shot and rides home with blood leaking out of several wounds. Twain then experiences the "Washoe Zephyr," a large wind that kicks up enormous amounts of dust every day around 2 p.m. Next, he and his brother visit the governor's state palace, a one-story house. The brothers lodge with Bridget O'Flannigan, a supporter of the governor, where white cloth "walls" are used as partitions to create their "room." Their room is considered fancy because they have a rug and a washbasin, but Twain soon moves into a dormitory-style room with 14 beds. Most of the residents are supporters of the governor who hope to be appointed to political offices themselves. The governor eventually directs these men to survey the land nearby in hopes of building a railroad—a job meant mostly to keep them busy. For a week, they do this job and enjoy the novelty of it, bringing home nearly a dozen tarantulas as pets to the boarding house. When the men realize that the job is only meant to occupy their time, rather than to actually accomplish anything, they stop work. One night during a great windstorm that disturbs their sleep, one of the men knocks down a shelf, and the tarantulas get loose in the dark room. The terrified men all jump up on beds or trunks until Mrs. O'Flannigan arrives with a lantern. "I had rather go to war than live that episode over again," Twain writes. The men stay up the rest of the night for fear of going back to bed in the dark, but the tarantulas are never found.

Chapter 22

Twain has grown to like the region and decides to stay awhile longer than planned. He starts to dress like a local and begins work as his brother's private secretary, though he earns no money for this. He actually has nothing to do, so he plans a trip to Lake Tahoe with some of the men from the boarding house. After an 11-mile trek on foot, they are rewarded with a beautiful view of the lake and its surrounding mountains. They take a boat to an old campsite the boarding house men have used before and cook supper from the supplies they find there. Twain lets Johnny do most of the work, from rowing to cooking. They settle in for a chilly night of wonderful solitude, for there is almost no one else around the lake. Twain praises the "wholesome medicine" in sleeping outdoors there, and claims the climate could bring an Egyptian mummy back to life. The next morning, the men claim a piece of land and mark the area with a rough fence of cut trees. They also build a crude shelter out of saplings and brush in order to establish residency in accordance with the law.

Chapter 23

The men spend a few weeks at the lake, enjoying the solitude and beauty, sleeping on the shore, and exploring by boat. The water is brilliantly clear, and the men often drift in silence on the still waters. They fish but rarely catch anything and have lazy afternoons smoking pipes and reading novels. Campfires and euchre (a card game) fill up their evenings. Soon the men start to run out of supplies and have to go back to the old camp to fetch more. Upon returning to their claimed plot of land, Twain lights a fire for dinner and leaves it unattended momentarily. As the fire blazes out of control and begins to burn the dry pines around them, the men seek safety in the boat. They watch helplessly while the fire spreads from ridge to ridge for four hours until it disappears over a mountain and out of sight. The men now have no home, no food, and no gear—only the blankets have survived the fire. They try to row to the old campsite, but a storm blows them off course. They spend the day wet and shivering after the boat overturns on a distant shore. The next day they reach the camp, and they gobble up the rest of the food supplies. Finally, they return to Carson City, where they pay back their boarding house friends for the supplies and damages to camp.

Chapter 24

Twain is eager to buy a horse, and a stranger convinces him to buy "a Genuine Mexican Plug" that is known for bucking. The horse immediately bucks Twain off and runs away. A young Californian boy chases it down and takes it for a ride into the surrounding countryside. Meanwhile, a crowd of townspeople offer their sympathies, and Old Abe Curry points out that Twain has been taken advantage of by the horse salesman. Everyone in town knew the horse was bad from the start, it seems, except for Twain. The Californian returns with the horse, which Twain then loans to other people to ride. He is hoping that the horse will be injured or killed so he can "make the borrower pay for him," but that never happens. Twain can't sell or trade the horse, either, as no one wants it. Even worse, he has to pay for the horse's food and board at a nearby stable at a cost of $265. At last, he fobs the horse off onto an emigrant passing through town for free.

Chapter 25

Twain tells a bit of history of Carson County, which is now part of Nevada but used to be part of Utah. The people who settled there were both Mormons and "orthodox Americans" from California, and the two groups didn't get along terribly well. When silver was discovered in 1858, though, more Americans arrived and soon became the majority. A new territorial government was created, and Brigham Young was renounced as leader of the region. The first governor, Roop, was eventually replaced by Governor Nye, who was sent by President Lincoln to the new "Nevada Territory." Other government officials were sent by Washington, and the locals resented being governed by outsiders rather than people from their own territory. Worse, Congress had allotted very little money for Nevada's support, so there was no money for a state legislature building. Luckily, Old Abe Curry saves the fledgling legislature by offering a building rent-free. Even then, the state government has trouble getting the federal government to pay for legitimate expenses, including costs incurred by Twain's brother, the Secretary of the territory. The Secretary is ordered to print journals and pay for their writing, but doesn't have money to do both. He has no choice but to stop printing them—and he is then reprimanded for stopping. Moreover, the federal government makes no allowances for the much larger cost of living in Nevada. It also continues to unfairly deduct expenses from the Secretary's salary, even though he is trying to do his job honestly and economically. The one measure the Nevada legislature manages to pass is the creation of private toll roads. The locals hope to get rich from these roads, just as they had formerly hoped to get rich from the silver mines.


Twain's adventures in his new home provide ample fodder for entertaining the reader, and he doesn't spare himself in writing about his foolish, costly mistakes. Even when Twain seems on the verge of success, he somehow manages to make a mess of things. One disaster after another befalls him, from the escaped tarantulas to burning down the forest at Lake Tahoe to buying a bum horse in a bad deal. Twain's descriptions of his new lifestyle also provide insight for his readers into what life in the West is really like, from the clothes he adopts to the living arrangements at Mrs. O'Flannigan's boarding house. The land itself is part of the challenge of adapting to life in the West, with its constant winds and dust storms. Story by story, Twain chips away at the romantic vision of Western life by telling how it really is: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Chapter 22 relates the difficulties of launching a new state in the West. While law and order seem to be desired by the people of Nevada, the new government has quite a bumpy beginning. The federal government is far away in Washington, D.C., and does not truly understand how things work in Nevada. Twain's brother, the Secretary, does his best to fulfill the government directives. Unfortunately, he is stymied by Washington bureaucrats who stick to unfair rules rather than making allowances for the reality of the situation. At best, the new legislature seems fairly ineffective in its first session of governing. At worse, it seems destined for failure if circumstances don't change.

Twain's errors set side by side with those of the government show how people are the same the world over. Twain, like the federal government, enters a new territory and tries to live his life the way he always has, not appreciating the fact that life is different in Nevada. The terrain is different, the flora and fauna are different, and so are the people. Thus, different measures must be adapted for survival in this land. Twain's mistakes are comical. Those made by the government are maddening and threaten real harm to the people of Nevada and the nation if reform does not begin quickly.

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