Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 38–41 | Summary



Chapter 38

Mono Lake, surrounded by desert, is the huge crater of a dormant volcano that has filled with water. It has two barren islands in its center. The landscape is appropriately bleak, scorched, and covered with ash. Twain observes that its alkali water is great for doing laundry and washing hair, as it is "nearly pure lye" and lathers up well. Otherwise, the water is dangerously caustic and completely lifeless, with no fish or other creatures except for one species of small, white worm. Twain claims that once, after their camp dog jumped into the lake, it was in such pain that it turned somersaults backward and forward in its madness. The dog then ran off at an estimated 250 miles an hour and was never seen again. Twain jokes that the lake water is sometimes drunk by the Indians, which "is not improbable for they are among the purest liars I ever saw." (This joke, he tells the reader, is supplied at "no additional charge," though a charge may be applied if he has to explain it.) Sea gulls migrate from the Pacific coast to the islands to lay eggs. Twain finds this amusingly convenient, since there is a spring of boiling water on the largest island for cooking the eggs. The climate of Mono Lake is often winter-like due to the high altitude, and it snows every month of the year, even during hot summers.

Chapter 39

Higbie and Twain decide to take out a rented boat and explore the islands of Mono Lake, twelve miles out, with Higbie rowing. By the time they reach the big island, the sun has spoiled the water in their canteens. They scour the ash-laden island for a spring but find only jets of steam escaping the earth and one lone pine tree. When the wind picks up, they remember that they haven't tied the boat securely so they hurry back to find it. Alas, the boat is drifting offshore; they are now stuck on the island since the water is too caustic to swim across. After an hour, the boat drifts near the shore and they manage to catch it. By then, a late-afternoon storm is brewing and they debate whether they should risk returning to the mainland. Their thirst drives them to try, and the waves soak them as Higbie rows. (Twain manages to avoid rowing by claiming that he can't leave the steering oar during the storm, lest the boat should capsize.) The boat flips over just as they reach the mainland, and though the water burns, it does no lasting harm to them. Later that week, they go on a fishing trip in the Sierras and then return to Esmeralda, where Mr. Ballou departs alone for Humboldt.

Twain then tells of an accidental explosion that happens when a neighbor hides gunpowder in an unused oven. A "half-tamed Indian" who is hired to do the washing lights a fire in the oven, and it explodes, destroying part of the roof of the shed nearby. The unfazed Indian merely remarks, "Mph! Dam stove heap gone!" Twain explains that "heap" means "very much" in "Injun-English."

Chapter 40

Twain next tells of "the most curious" episode he had yet experienced during his "slothful, valueless, heedless career." The "Wide West" mine suddenly begins producing rich ore, and crowds of townsfolk visit the mine to scoop up specimens of rock, including Higbie. The mine's stock skyrockets in value, and the management puts a stop to the specimen gathering. Twain sinks into depression, for it pains him to hear of others' good fortune while he has no money to his name. Meanwhile, Higbie, declares that the rock specimen he had gathered was "not Wide West rock," or at least, not the rock the Wide West has produced in the past. He decides to sneak into the mineshaft to examine the rock more closely. There, he discovers that the new strike of ore is indeed coming from a different vein that cuts across the Wide West shaft. "I knew it!" he informs Twain with glee, "We are rich! It's a BLIND LEAD!" Such an unclaimed vein was, by law at the time, up for grabs to anyone.

Twain and Higbie recruit a third man, the Wide West foreman, into their scheme to claim and take possession of the new vein. He agrees eagerly, and they each claim quickly 200 feet and register their claims. Immediately, they begin daydreaming of wealth, fancy homes in San Francisco, trips around the world, and other luxuries. The news spreads fast the next day, and people offer to buy the shares for exorbitant amounts of money, but the men won't sell. Twain then informs the reader that in order to maintain their claims, the three men must "do a fair and reasonable amount of work" on the property within 10 days. They are to start work the next day, but Twain is called away to attend on Captain Nye, who is dangerously ill. He leaves a note for Higbie at their cabin and departs to Nye's ranch.

Chapter 41

Nye is indeed quite ill, and in his worst moments, he rants and raves like a madman. Twain is too happy thinking about his newfound wealth to mind. He endures the caretaking patiently while dreaming of exotic vacations and servants for his soon-to-be home. On the ninth day, though, Nye tries to shoot him during an intense fit of pain, so Twain decides to return to Esmeralda. He arrives on the outskirts of town at a quarter to midnight and notices a crowd gathered at the Wide West operation, but decides to keep heading toward home rather than investigate. There, he finds Higbie "gazing stupidly at my note" and "looking pale, old, and haggard."

Higbie announces that they are ruined—they haven't done the work on the claims, and now the land has been claimed by others. Each of the three partners had depended on the others to do the work, but none of them had. Higbie had been called away to meet Whiteman in an unsuccessful search for the cement mine; he had left a similar note for Twain. The foreman, meanwhile, had been called away to California. The crowd Twain had seen by the mine was waiting to pounce on the claims, and so they did. A crew of fourteen armed men laid claim to the vein, and the foreman managed to join in on their claim at the last minute. Later, the new vein and the Wide West are consolidated, and the foreman sells his shares for $90,000 rather than face possible litigation. Twain bitterly regrets that they had not worked "one little day on our property and so secured our ownership." Still, he notes that at least he was a bonafide millionaire for ten days.


In Chapter 38, Twain shifts into travel writer mode to offer detailed descriptions of the exotic Mono Lake. The hazardous, bizarre lake may seem like a fictional place, but in this case, Twain is hardly exaggerating the strangeness of the locale. The features and characteristics he describes are accurate, with his usual exaggerations being reserved for personal anecdotes of their visit. The dog's speed is inflated to 250 mph to make the reader laugh, and Twain also attempts humor with his "joke" about Indians drinking the soapy water. (Because the Indians are "liars" in Twain's view, they must be washing their own mouths out with soap—a classic punishment for telling lies.) Twain's bias against Indians shows clearly here once more.

Yet another life-threatening disaster happens in Chapter 39 because of carelessness when Twain and Higbie row to the islands in the lake. While it is not their fault the canteen water spoils, they are certainly to blame for not tying up the boat, which then drifts away. Twain's avoidance of physical labor is noticeable here again as he horns Higbie into doing all the rowing. Twain doesn't say much about Mr. Ballou's departure, but the reader might reasonably conjecture that the older miner is tired of dealing with his heedless, unproductive partners. The anecdote about the exploding oven touches on Twain's interest in language again when he mocks the Indian for his imperfect English. Words such as "heap" were a part of American-Indian pidgin. This informal language developed over time as a bridge between Indians and English speakers. It is unclear whether the words originated with the Indians, or whether the tribes adopted them from white settlers. At any rate, this manner of speech became stereotypically associated with Indians through books, movies, and other portrayals (such as Twain's). The term "Injun" is considered an ethnic slur today by many, and it seems to have been used as such by Twain as well.

The men's blind lead fiasco in Chapters 40 and 41 showcases Twain's dream of getting rich quick without any effort. While Twain has characterized himself throughout the book as lazy, this time he and his partners seem willing to do the work. Unfortunately, circumstance intervenes for each of the three partners, an unlikely occurrence that ruins their fortunes. If anyone is to blame, it may be Higbie, who doesn't have to go off chasing Whiteman's pipedream "cement mine." Rather than protect what he already has, Higbie greedily seeks even more. Whether he is driven by greed or simply the desire to solve the Whiteman mystery, it is a poor decision that costs them all. On the other hand, it was Higbie's discovery of the blind lead that brought fortune to the partners in the first place. Without Higbie, they would have neither gained nor lost a fortune. Easy come, easy go ... and back to the drawing board for Twain.

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