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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter LVI

Roughing It

Chapter LVI


We rumbled over the plains and valleys, climbed the Sierras to the
clouds, and looked down upon summer-clad California. And I will remark
here, in passing, that all scenery in California requires distance to
give it its highest charm. The mountains are imposing in their sublimity
and their majesty of form and altitude, from any point of view--but one
must have distance to soften their ruggedness and enrich their tintings;
a Californian forest is best at a little distance, for there is a sad
poverty of variety in species, the trees being chiefly of one monotonous
family--redwood, pine, spruce, fir--and so, at a near view there is a
wearisome sameness of attitude in their rigid arms, stretched down ward
and outward in one continued and reiterated appeal to all men to "Sh!--
don't say a word!--you might disturb somebody!" Close at hand, too,
there is a reliefless and relentless smell of pitch and turpentine; there
is a ceaseless melancholy in their sighing and complaining foliage; one
walks over a soundless carpet of beaten yellow bark and dead spines of
the foliage till he feels like a wandering spirit bereft of a footfall;
he tires of the endless tufts of needles and yearns for substantial,
shapely leaves; he looks for moss and grass to loll upon, and finds none,
for where there is no bark there is naked clay and dirt, enemies to
pensive musing and clean apparel. Often a grassy plain in California, is
what it should be, but often, too, it is best contemplated at a distance,
because although its grass blades are tall, they stand up vindictively
straight and self-sufficient, and are unsociably wide apart, with
uncomely spots of barren sand between.

One of the queerest things I know of, is to hear tourists from "the
States" go into ecstasies over the loveliness of "ever-blooming
California." And they always do go into that sort of ecstasies. But
perhaps they would modify them if they knew how old Californians, with
the memory full upon them of the dust-covered and questionable summer
greens of Californian "verdure," stand astonished, and filled with
worshipping admiration, in the presence of the lavish richness, the
brilliant green, the infinite freshness, the spend-thrift variety of form
and species and foliage that make an Eastern landscape a vision of
Paradise itself. The idea of a man falling into raptures over grave and
sombre California, when that man has seen New England's meadow-expanses
and her maples, oaks and cathedral-windowed elms decked in summer attire,
or the opaline splendors of autumn descending upon her forests, comes
very near being funny--would be, in fact, but that it is so pathetic.
No land with an unvarying climate can be very beautiful. The tropics are
not, for all the sentiment that is wasted on them. They seem beautiful
at first, but sameness impairs the charm by and by. Change is the
handmaiden Nature requires to do her miracles with. The land that has
four well-defined seasons, cannot lack beauty, or pall with monotony.
Each season brings a world of enjoyment and interest in the watching of
its unfolding, its gradual, harmonious development, its culminating
graces--and just as one begins to tire of it, it passes away and a
radical change comes, with new witcheries and new glories in its train.
And I think that to one in sympathy with nature, each season, in its
turn, seems the loveliest.

San Francisco, a truly fascinating city to live in, is stately and
handsome at a fair distance, but close at hand one notes that the
architecture is mostly old-fashioned, many streets are made up of
decaying, smoke-grimed, wooden houses, and the barren sand-hills toward
the outskirts obtrude themselves too prominently. Even the kindly
climate is sometimes pleasanter when read about than personally
experienced, for a lovely, cloudless sky wears out its welcome by and by,
and then when the longed for rain does come it stays. Even the playful
earthquake is better contemplated at a dis--

However there are varying opinions about that.

The climate of San Francisco is mild and singularly equable. The
thermometer stands at about seventy degrees the year round. It hardly
changes at all. You sleep under one or two light blankets Summer and
Winter, and never use a mosquito bar. Nobody ever wears Summer clothing.
You wear black broadcloth--if you have it--in August and January, just
the same. It is no colder, and no warmer, in the one month than the
other. You do not use overcoats and you do not use fans. It is as
pleasant a climate as could well be contrived, take it all around, and is
doubtless the most unvarying in the whole world. The wind blows there a
good deal in the summer months, but then you can go over to Oakland, if
you choose--three or four miles away--it does not blow there. It has
only snowed twice in San Francisco in nineteen years, and then it only
remained on the ground long enough to astonish the children, and set them
to wondering what the feathery stuff was.

During eight months of the year, straight along, the skies are bright and
cloudless, and never a drop of rain falls. But when the other four
months come along, you will need to go and steal an umbrella. Because
you will require it. Not just one day, but one hundred and twenty days
in hardly varying succession. When you want to go visiting, or attend
church, or the theatre, you never look up at the clouds to see whether it
is likely to rain or not--you look at the almanac. If it is Winter, it
will rain--and if it is Summer, it won't rain, and you cannot help it.
You never need a lightning-rod, because it never thunders and it never
lightens. And after you have listened for six or eight weeks, every
night, to the dismal monotony of those quiet rains, you will wish in your
heart the thunder would leap and crash and roar along those drowsy skies
once, and make everything alive--you will wish the prisoned lightnings
would cleave the dull firmament asunder and light it with a blinding
glare for one little instant. You would give anything to hear the old
familiar thunder again and see the lightning strike somebody. And along
in the Summer, when you have suffered about four months of lustrous,
pitiless sunshine, you are ready to go down on your knees and plead for
rain--hail--snow--thunder and lightning--anything to break the monotony--
you will take an earthquake, if you cannot do any better. And the
chances are that you'll get it, too.

San Francisco is built on sand hills, but they are prolific sand hills.
They yield a generous vegetation. All the rare flowers which people in
"the States" rear with such patient care in parlor flower-pots and green-
houses, flourish luxuriantly in the open air there all the year round.
Calla lilies, all sorts of geraniums, passion flowers, moss roses--I do
not know the names of a tenth part of them. I only know that while New
Yorkers are burdened with banks and drifts of snow, Californians are
burdened with banks and drifts of flowers, if they only keep their hands
off and let them grow. And I have heard that they have also that rarest
and most curious of all the flowers, the beautiful Espiritu Santo, as the
Spaniards call it--or flower of the Holy Spirit--though I thought it grew
only in Central America--down on the Isthmus. In its cup is the
daintiest little facsimile of a dove, as pure as snow. The Spaniards
have a superstitious reverence for it. The blossom has been conveyed to
the States, submerged in ether; and the bulb has been taken thither also,
but every attempt to make it bloom after it arrived, has failed.

I have elsewhere spoken of the endless Winter of Mono, California, and
but this moment of the eternal Spring of San Francisco. Now if we travel
a hundred miles in a straight line, we come to the eternal Summer of
Sacramento. One never sees Summer-clothing or mosquitoes in San
Francisco--but they can be found in Sacramento. Not always and
unvaryingly, but about one hundred and forty-three months out of twelve
years, perhaps. Flowers bloom there, always, the reader can easily
believe--people suffer and sweat, and swear, morning, noon and night, and
wear out their stanchest energies fanning themselves. It gets hot there,
but if you go down to Fort Yuma you will find it hotter. Fort Yuma is
probably the hottest place on earth. The thermometer stays at one
hundred and twenty in the shade there all the time--except when it varies
and goes higher. It is a U.S. military post, and its occupants get so
used to the terrific heat that they suffer without it. There is a
tradition (attributed to John Phenix [It has been purloined by fifty
different scribblers who were too poor to invent a fancy but not ashamed
to steal one.--M. T.]) that a very, very wicked soldier died there,
once, and of course, went straight to the hottest corner of perdition,--
and the next day he telegraphed back for his blankets. There is no doubt
about the truth of this statement--there can be no doubt about it. I
have seen the place where that soldier used to board. In Sacramento it
is fiery Summer always, and you can gather roses, and eat strawberries
and ice-cream, and wear white linen clothes, and pant and perspire, at
eight or nine o'clock in the morning, and then take the cars, and at noon
put on your furs and your skates, and go skimming over frozen Donner
Lake, seven thousand feet above the valley, among snow banks fifteen feet
deep, and in the shadow of grand mountain peaks that lift their frosty
crags ten thousand feet above the level of the sea.

There is a transition for you! Where will you find another like it in
the Western hemisphere? And some of us have swept around snow-walled
curves of the Pacific Railroad in that vicinity, six thousand feet above
the sea, and looked down as the birds do, upon the deathless Summer of
the Sacramento Valley, with its fruitful fields, its feathery foliage,
its silver streams, all slumbering in the mellow haze of its enchanted
atmosphere, and all infinitely softened and spiritualized by distance--a
dreamy, exquisite glimpse of fairyland, made all the more charming and
striking that it was caught through a forbidden gateway of ice and snow,
and savage crags and precipices.

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Index Index

Prefactory
Contents
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 XXXVIII
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 LXXVIII
Chapter LXXIX
Appendix

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