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Roughing It | Summary

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Summary

The Overland Journey

An eager young Twain travels West with his brother, the new Secretary of Nevada Territory. Twain will serve as his brother's personal secretary. They travel up the Missouri River from St. Louis to St. Joseph, where their stagecoach will depart. The men must leave behind a few luxury items of clothing, since their baggage is overweight, but both take along guns. They meet fellow passenger George Bemis, and the trip begins. The coach breaks down due to the weight, so half of the mail is left by the side of the road for another coach to pick up, and they continue on their way. The men sleep atop the mail sacks, bounced around but content enough.

The coach passes through Overland City, a frontier town, and continues onward, but their wagon breaks down the next day. The passengers go on a buffalo hunt while the wagon is being repaired, and Bemis gets chased up a tree by a wounded buffalo. Later along the route, they excitedly witness a Pony Express rider race by, encounter their first alkali water (poisonous surface water that contains salts and sediments), and pass the site of a former Indian robbery and massacre. One night, bandits attack the coach and kill the driver, but the conductor gets the passengers to the safety of the next station. Twain also hears for the first time of Slade, a murderous outlaw who is now a ruthlessly effective division agent for the stagecoach company. Slade has a feud with the former agent, Mr. Jules, and eventually kills him in a cruel fashion. Slade is later hanged for other crimes in Montana, where he cries and pleads in vain to see his loving wife before death.

The stagecoach overtakes emigrant trains heading through the Rocky Mountains. Twain marvels at snow during the summer as the coach travels high in the mountains. They pass an endless number of graves and livestock skeletons of those who have traveled the route before, and they nearly wreck during a terrible rainstorm. Just before arriving in Salt Lake City, they have dinner with a family of Mormons, Twain's first encounter with the "peculiar institution" of polygamy. They spend two days in Salt Lake City seeing the sights, and Twain even meets Brigham Young, who ignores him entirely. Stories of the famous Young abound, from the people's complete devotion to him to tales of his dozens of wives and children. Twain also gets hold of a copy of the Mormon Bible, which he finds absurd in content and pompous in language.

As the coach travels onward, Twain recounts the "Mountain Meadows Massacre," a slaughtering of innocent emigrants by Mormons. He also notes how prices for everything are higher in the West and how people there look down on emigrants. They then travel through a 70-mile desert, during which they run out of water and get nosebleeds from the dry, alkali dust. At Rocky Canyon, they come upon some Goshute Indians, whom Twain considers dirty, disgusting, dangerous, and useless to society. Next they cross the Great American Desert and are forced to walk because the mules can't pull the loaded coach through the thick sand.

Carson City

The coach arrives at its destination, Carson City, where Twain and his brother find lodging in a boarding house with other political hopefuls and appointees. A crew of the lodgers are sent out to survey the surrounding area, and they bring back tarantulas in jars. One night during a great windstorm, the tarantulas escape into the dark house and terrify the men, but they are never seen again. Bored and with no actual work to do, Twain hikes to Tahoe with friends. They claim a piece of land on the nearly uninhabited lake and start building a bare-bones homestead. After a few weeks of fishing and euchre, Twain accidentally starts a forest fire that burns down their dwelling, and the men are forced to return to Carson City. There, gullible Twain buys a horse with a terrible reputation for bucking, and then he can't get rid of it. He finally gives the horse away to an unsuspecting emigrant passing through town.

Meanwhile, Twain's brother, the Secretary of Nevada, is having troubles with his job. The federal government won't pay for needed expenses, deducting them from his salary instead. Twain gets swept up in "silver fever" and decides to travel to Humboldt with three partners to try mining there. They build a rough cabin with a canvas roof to keep out the cold and steal firewood from Indians when they can. Twain expects to get rich within a week, and he quickly slips away to look for silver on his own. He gets excited over a shiny specimen of rock, but his partner Ballou bursts his bubble, saying the rock is just worthless mica. After a while, the men find a real prospect and start digging at their new claim. It is much harder work than expected, though, so Twain and two of the partners quit. People are trading shares of mines like crazy, and the men acquire some "feet" (shares) of a mine in Esmeralda. They set off to visit that area, but are stuck at an isolated inn for eight days because of a flood. Fed up with the annoying crowd at the inn, the men leave during a snowstorm and subsequently get lost. When their horses wander away and they can't start a fire, the men believe they will die, and they make their peace with each other and vow to live better lives if they should survive. The next morning they awaken to find the horses only a few feet away, sheltered at a stagecoach station, and they kick themselves for their stupidity.

They continue onward with Captain John Nye, a friendly man with a knack for solving problems. Upon arriving in Esmeralda, they discover their mining claims are worthless frauds. Out of money, Twain takes a job at a quartz mill processing ore, a dreary, labor-intensive job that he abhors. He gets himself fired, after which he cooks up a secret scheme to help Mr. Whiteman find the "cement mines," a legendary mine supposedly brimming with gold. Twain and his new partners, Higbie and Van Dorn, quietly leave town to rendezvous with Whiteman at Mono Lake. Crowds of hopeful miners follow them, trying to horn in on the action, so they must abandon the plan. They camp for a week at Mono Lake to take in the scenery. It's an alkali lake with two islands in the middle and almost no life in its caustic, dangerous waters. Twain and Higbie row a boat out to explore the barren, ashy islands, where they run out of water and their boat drifts away. Higbie catches the boat and rows them safely back to the mainland during a terrible storm.

They return to Esmeralda, and wily Higbie discovers an unclaimed "blind lead" worth millions. They claim the mine in glee, but due to unforeseen circumstances and poor decision making, they lose the claim ten days later. After a half-hearted attempt at another mining venture, Twain is offered the job of city editor of the Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, and he accepts.

Virginia City

Twain struggles to scrape together stories at first and resorts to making up "news" about the hay wagon trade and fake Indian attacks on emigrant wagons. Eventually, he makes inroads in the community and develops a network of colleagues with whom he exchanges newsworthy information. After he scoops a rival journalist, Boggs, over a school report, Boggs tricks Twain into spending the afternoon stranded at the bottom of a mine. Virginia City is booming with "flush times," and everyone is trading stock in a frenzy. Twain is bribed with many gifts of stock but misses out on the ones that actually have value. Twain writes of local funerals, the city's predisposition toward murder, and the laughable local justice system. Desperadoes abound, robbing and murdering both common citizens and each other.

Twain then joins a group of authors in writing a novel for serial publication in a literary journal. This enterprise fails as well after a new writer botches the story by killing off all of the characters. Twain then tours a mine that has just had a cave-in, and he describes the subterranean features and activities of the miners to readers. He also enjoys a visit to Chinatown, an exotic quarter with opium smokers and fancy imported goods for sale. Twain, who admires the Chinese immigrants for their hard work and frugality, recounts how their bodies are often shipped back to China after death for burial. After a disastrous week in which Twain is left in charge of the Enterprise by his boss, Twain resigns from the paper. A new prospect arises for him quickly, though: a potential trip to New York to help two men sell Nevada mining land. While he is waiting for this to materialize, he travels to San Francisco to experience the famous city he has longed to see.

San Francisco and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii)

As Twain journeys to San Francisco, he describes the austere landscape and tells of California's pioneer mining days, a heyday of whiskey and gambling. Expecting that he will soon be rich from the upcoming New York venture, Twain checks into an expensive hotel and lives it up around town. When the mining boom crashes in Nevada, though, his stock becomes worthless and Twain realizes he needs to economize. He moves into a boarding house and takes a job as a reporter to bring in some cash. One day when he misses work, a telegram comes to his office about the New York trip, but he misses it—and the boat to New York. Another opportunity blown, a disappointed Twain resigns himself to his meager living. He then experiences an earthquake, a thrilling event that rolls the ground beneath his feet and causes buildings to collapse around him. Not long thereafter, he learns that the New York venture was an enormous success, making the men involved millionaires. Twain becomes so depressed that he loses his job.

For two months, Twain lives for a time as a penniless mooch, depending on the kindness of his landlady for meals and shelter. He then travels to Tuolumne to try pocket mining for several weeks, but doesn't earn a dime from the expedition. When he returns to San Francisco, he lands a job for the Sacramento Union, a newspaper that assigns him to travel to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) as a correspondent. Twain travels from island to island at the newspaper's expense, taking boats and riding horses as his main forms of transportation. He visits the ancient ruins of pagan temples, hikes through tropical forests, gives surfing a try, and attends the state funeral procession for Princess Victoria. He also makes observations about the culture and history, particularly the arrival of the missionaries, who brought Christianity to the island nation. He gives an outline of the government and relates a bit of the history of the royal rulers, such as the warrior-king Kamehameha. One of his most exciting adventures is a nighttime hike across the bottom of Kilauea volcano, a fiery crater with rivers and lakes of molten lava.

The Return Home

After many months in Hawaii, Twain returns to San Francisco, where he is again jobless. He decides to offer a humorous lecture to the public, and goes into debt renting an opera house and advertising for the event. Stressed out, he recruits friends and strangers to attend the show and laugh at his jokes, and his plan works. The show sells out and is a big success, netting him plenty of money to live on. Twain takes the show on the road for a few weeks in California and Nevada, returning to the Virginia City area to lecture. He is robbed at gunpoint while traveling between towns. The robbery turns out to be a practical joke played on him by his friends. At last, Twain decides to return to his old home of New York, but finds that it has changed for the worse during his seven-year absence. Twain then delivers a moral for his readers: if you are lazy, you should leave home to make your way in the world, for then you will be forced to work and make good in life.

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