West of Tuttletown, California, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Yosemite National Park and the San Joaquin Valley, my wife and I discovered a faded and weathered sign pointing up a dirt trail to “Mark Twain’s Cabin.” We eased off the narrow highway into the ruts that our GPS identified as Jackass Hill Road with the hill itself as our destination.
After a short distance, wondering if the name of our destination was actually a clue for what awaited us, we found a tiny cabin that had served as the winter shelter for one Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his friends, the Gillis brothers from December 4, 1864, to the end of February, 1865. Located between Virginia City and San Francisco in a region, like Sutter’s Mill, where gold mining had been the name of the game, the site had recently been restored by the Sonora Sunrise Rotary Club.
It has long been said, “There are no new stories, just endless ways to tell them.” Like Shakespeare who used history and mythology as the fabric to be woven into great plays, Sam Clemens had spent endless hours in public libraries in those cities across the Midwest where he found work as a newspaper typesetter. Parlaying his literary knowledge with real world experiences in those communities and later piloting a steamboat up and down the Mississippi River, Clemens honed his unique storytelling skills. His stories were not new, but were uniquely spun. Even the pen name, Mark Twain, referring to the depth of navigable waters, was borrowed from earlier writers along the river.
Twain was a traveler, and the American literary importance of the tiny cabin was not the Gillis brothers or the gold mines in the area but instead was its close proximity to a community named Angel Camp. Angel Camp had sprung out of the mountains during the gold rush era and was base camp for the seedy underbelly of a society that was course and reckless. Men who frequented the camp were not virtuous, and the women who resided there were anything but angels.