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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter XVIII

Roughing It

Chapter XVIII

At eight in the morning we reached the remnant and ruin of what had been
the important military station of "Camp Floyd," some forty-five or fifty
miles from Salt Lake City. At four P.M. we had doubled our distance and
were ninety or a hundred miles from Salt Lake. And now we entered upon
one of that species of deserts whose concentrated hideousness shames the
diffused and diluted horrors of Sahara--an "alkali" desert. For sixty-
eight miles there was but one break in it. I do not remember that this
was really a break; indeed it seems to me that it was nothing but a
watering depot in the midst of the stretch of sixty-eight miles. If my
memory serves me, there was no well or spring at this place, but the
water was hauled there by mule and ox teams from the further side of the
desert. There was a stage station there. It was forty-five miles from
the beginning of the desert, and twenty-three from the end of it.

We plowed and dragged and groped along, the whole live-long night, and at
the end of this uncomfortable twelve hours we finished the forty-five-
mile part of the desert and got to the stage station where the imported
water was. The sun was just rising. It was easy enough to cross a
desert in the night while we were asleep; and it was pleasant to reflect,
in the morning, that we in actual person had encountered an absolute
desert and could always speak knowingly of deserts in presence of the
ignorant thenceforward. And it was pleasant also to reflect that this
was not an obscure, back country desert, but a very celebrated one, the
metropolis itself, as you may say. All this was very well and very
comfortable and satisfactory--but now we were to cross a desert in
daylight. This was fine--novel--romantic--dramatically adventurous--
this, indeed, was worth living for, worth traveling for! We would write
home all about it.

This enthusiasm, this stern thirst for adventure, wilted under the sultry
August sun and did not last above one hour. One poor little hour--and
then we were ashamed that we had "gushed" so. The poetry was all in the
anticipation--there is none in the reality. Imagine a vast, waveless
ocean stricken dead and turned to ashes; imagine this solemn waste tufted
with ash-dusted sage-bushes; imagine the lifeless silence and solitude
that belong to such a place; imagine a coach, creeping like a bug through
the midst of this shoreless level, and sending up tumbled volumes of dust
as if it were a bug that went by steam; imagine this aching monotony of
toiling and plowing kept up hour after hour, and the shore still as far
away as ever, apparently; imagine team, driver, coach and passengers so
deeply coated with ashes that they are all one colorless color; imagine
ash-drifts roosting above moustaches and eyebrows like snow accumulations
on boughs and bushes. This is the reality of it.

The sun beats down with dead, blistering, relentless malignity; the
perspiration is welling from every pore in man and beast, but scarcely a
sign of it finds its way to the surface--it is absorbed before it gets
there; there is not the faintest breath of air stirring; there is not a
merciful shred of cloud in all the brilliant firmament; there is not a
living creature visible in any direction whither one searches the blank
level that stretches its monotonous miles on every hand; there is not a
sound--not a sigh--not a whisper--not a buzz, or a whir of wings, or
distant pipe of bird--not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless
people that dead air. And so the occasional sneezing of the resting
mules, and the champing of the bits, grate harshly on the grim stillness,
not dissipating the spell but accenting it and making one feel more
lonesome and forsaken than before.

The mules, under violent swearing, coaxing and whip-cracking, would make
at stated intervals a "spurt," and drag the coach a hundred or may be two
hundred yards, stirring up a billowy cloud of dust that rolled back,
enveloping the vehicle to the wheel-tops or higher, and making it seem
afloat in a fog. Then a rest followed, with the usual sneezing and bit-
champing. Then another "spurt" of a hundred yards and another rest at
the end of it. All day long we kept this up, without water for the mules
and without ever changing the team. At least we kept it up ten hours,
which, I take it, is a day, and a pretty honest one, in an alkali desert.
It was from four in the morning till two in the afternoon. And it was so
hot! and so close! and our water canteens went dry in the middle of the
day and we got so thirsty! It was so stupid and tiresome and dull! and
the tedious hours did lag and drag and limp along with such a cruel
deliberation! It was so trying to give one's watch a good long
undisturbed spell and then take it out and find that it had been fooling
away the time and not trying to get ahead any! The alkali dust cut
through our lips, it persecuted our eyes, it ate through the delicate
membranes and made our noses bleed and kept them bleeding--and truly and
seriously the romance all faded far away and disappeared, and left the
desert trip nothing but a harsh reality--a thirsty, sweltering, longing,
hateful reality!

Two miles and a quarter an hour for ten hours--that was what we
accomplished. It was hard to bring the comprehension away down to such a
snail-pace as that, when we had been used to making eight and ten miles
an hour. When we reached the station on the farther verge of the desert,
we were glad, for the first time, that the dictionary was along, because
we never could have found language to tell how glad we were, in any sort
of dictionary but an unabridged one with pictures in it. But there could
not have been found in a whole library of dictionaries language
sufficient to tell how tired those mules were after their twenty-three
mile pull. To try to give the reader an idea of how thirsty they were,
would be to "gild refined gold or paint the lily."

Somehow, now that it is there, the quotation does not seem to fit--but no
matter, let it stay, anyhow. I think it is a graceful and attractive
thing, and therefore have tried time and time again to work it in where
it would fit, but could not succeed. These efforts have kept my mind
distracted and ill at ease, and made my narrative seem broken and
disjointed, in places. Under these circumstances it seems to me best to
leave it in, as above, since this will afford at least a temporary
respite from the wear and tear of trying to "lead up" to this really apt
and beautiful quotation.

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Index Index

Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV
Chapter XV
Chapter XVI
Chapter XVII
Chapter XVIII
Chapter XIX
Chapter XX
Chapter XXI
Chapter XXII
Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIV
Chapter XXV
Chapter XXVI
Chapter XXVII
Chapter XXVIII
Chapter XXIX
Chapter XXX
Chapter XXXI
Chapter XXXII
Chapter XXXIII
Chapter XXXIV
Chapter XXXV
Chapter XXXVI
Chapter XXXVII
Chapter XXXIX
Chapter XL
Chapter XLI
Chapter XLII
Chapter XLIII
Chapter XLIV
Chapter XLV
Chapter XLVI
Chapter XLVII
Chapter XLVIII
Chapter XLIX
Chapter L
Chapter LI
Chapter LII
Chapter LIII
Chapter LIV
Chapter LV
Chapter LVI
Chapter LVII
Chapter LVIII
Chapter LIX
Chapter LX
Chapter LXI
Chapter LXII
Chapter LXIII
Chapter LXIV
Chapter LXV
Chapter LXVI
Chapter LXVII
Chapter LXVIII
Chapter LXIX
Chapter LXX
Chapter LXXI
Chapter LXXII
Chapter LXXIII
Chapter LXXIV
Chapter LXXV
Chapter LXXVI
Chapter LXXVII
Chapter LXXIX

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