by Louis Bignami

Twain deserves a better fate than "children's book" author if only for his quotes such as, "The efficiency of our criminal jury system is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don't know anything and can't read." And "it could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."

Lake Tahoe enforces and returns what we bring to it, for "Tahoe" encompasses more than a lake. It's a basin and a lifestyle seen at its best during the spring or fall off season or, if you must summer there, at dawn before the RVs perform their 10 mile per hour mating rituals on the 200 degree dogleg above Emerald Bay. So when I drive round the lake, I never go alone. Mark Twain rides in my back seat puffing a big Cuban cigar and discoursing on developments.

I think of my backseat ghost as "Twain." For "Mark" seems more suitable for actors and football players. He customarily boards at the turnout above scenic arched bridge that frames Donner Lake on two lane "Old 40", the scenic route past Soda Springs off the dubious four lane delights of Interstate 80. When he gets his cigar well-lit, I wind down the hill past the railroad snow sheds and yuppie climbers learning on the best granite in the Sierra.

Most visitors want to stop at Donner Memorial State Park and the Donner Party Museum. Others find sustenance in chain eateries of Truckee. So I rarely repeat Twain's muttered, "Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside." It's too close to breakfast, and in the winter of 1846-1847 the Donner Party dined on each other a few miles west of Truckee and its river namesake river, the lake outlet.

Tenters and RV drivers can camp at Donner Memorial State Park or turn south off Highway 89 up the Truckee River to speed past dusty campgrounds and Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, to Tahoe City. Savvy campers stay at uncrowded Logger Campground at nearby Stampede Reservoir north of Interstate 80 past Truckee, or reserve space well ahead at Sugar Pine or D. L. Bliss State Parks on Lake Tahoe.

A railroad chugged tourists along the Truckee River in the 1920's and 1930's after the Tahoe Basin recovered from its deforestation for railroad ties and mine supports in the Lode at Virginia City. Passengers once disembarked in Tahoe City to board steamboats on the huge lake -- Tahoe is 22 miles long, 12 miles wide and over 1,600 feet deep and would cover California 14 inches deep on the odd chance anyone wanted to do that

Today, Tahoe City offers charter fishing trips for Mackinaw trout, boat tours, food, lodging and shopping. I follow Highway 89 south past the massive Mackinaw sculpture to round the lake on the lane away from the water. A stop at the deli just south of Fanny Bridge -- the bridge's name comes from those who bottom up to view the big trout in the pool below -- gleans the makings of an al fresco lunch. Twain says, "Three days of camp life at Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian Mummy to his pristine Vigor and give him an appetite like an alligator."

We head south on Highway 89 on the inside lane away from the vertigo-inducing lake edge scree near Emerald Bay. Early starts avoid summer crowds that clog the two lane road past the architectural delights, boat rentals and seaplane sightseeing tour base in Homewood to Meeks Bay, now site of a popular resort, where pioneers once grew hay and potatoes. Small tributary streams offer early season trout fishing along this stretch of moderately steep shore even though Twain says, "There is no use in your walking five miles to fish when you can depend on being just as unsuccessful near home." With more time to spend I fish off Sugar Pine Point State Park or in Emerald Bay with its picturesque island and the most famous view of Lake Tahoe.

A stop at Vikingshome, replica of an old Norse fortress, lets visitors stretch their legs and allows Twain to sail his cigar butt down the hill that is an easy walk down, but can seem three miles back for those unused to altitude or exercise who might boat in on a stern-wheeler, motor cruiser or catamaran day and dinner cruises from South Lake Tahoe.

Emerald Bay, always scenic and now a diver's site.


If I arrive before mid-morning I always stop at the turnout on the ridge above Emerald Bay for a fine view of Emerald Bay and Cascade Lake, a miniature Lake Tahoe. Highway 89 traffic stalls here on switchbacks so sharp some big RVs much backup to make the turns during the middle of the day before it drops into South Lake Tahoe. I must confess that many North Tahoe residents look at South Tahoe like San Francisco natives see Los Angeles or Manhattan residents view Brooklyn.

So I pause at the National Forest Visitors Center where trout and kokanee fin behind the plate glass at the stream section exhibit to calm nerves and relax eyes. Today Twain might have changed his; "In the first place God made idiots. That was for practice. Then He made School Boards." to "Then he made Zoning Boards." South Tahoe budget motels, discount stores, burger stands, traffic, smog and visual clutter clog flats towards the high-rise Casinos at Stateline. Discount food, fishing gear and outdoor equipment are worth shopping for.

Stateline casino hotels, restaurants, buffets and "name" entertainment are all subsidized by gamblers to benefit those who apply Twain's "It is easier to stay out than get out" to the slots and tables. Like those in search of easy profits who agree with Twain's "Virtue has never been as respectable as money", I lose my dole on the slots. Then Twain's ghost and I favor buffets before late evening lounge acts or the late show, for food at dinner shows is adequate, if rushed.

During winter, skiers who seek bargain rates stuff Stateline casinos, for Heavenly Valley, the largest ski resort in America, is a short walk or shuttle trip away. Even in summer the tram ride to the top of Heavenly Restaurant offers fine views of the lake, but casino food seems a better value.

My wife and I like Harrah's, a five diamond AAA lodging at Tahoe, for its huge rooms and fine Summit Room French meals. Harrah's, Harvey's or other buffets offer good value and dishes change nightly. For example, I lust after steamed clams and crab claws on Friday seafood buffets while Twain's ghost checks the bar maids. He likes Stateline; it may remind him of Mississippi river boats and gamblers.

The change from high-rises to granite as Highway 50 swings away from the lake made me think of ways to raze the casinos before Twain's ghost muttered "Let us not be too particular; it is better to have old secondhand diamonds than none at all." Then I realize the alternative to Stateline casinos is South Tahoe.

Twain's ghost always leans toward Highway 50 and Carson City, the Nevada capitol just minutes away. With two days to shepherd guests we tour the Comstock wonders of Virginia City where Twain worked as a newspaper reporter. Otherwise, as afternoon wanes we turn toward California on Highway 28 above classic mansions and nude beaches which only the uncharitable claim is the reason binoculars sell well to Tahoe bird watchers.

Sand Harbor, one of Tahoe's better beaches.


The highway returns to the lake shore near Sand Harbor with adequate, if not copious, parking, fine picnic tables, clean bathrooms, beach volleyball nets and lovely, if rocky, beaches. On hot days swimmers enjoy some of the warmest water in the lake here. Open air concerts also draw visitors during the July Music Festival. Nearby Ponderosa Ranch, site of much exterior photography of the Bonanza TV show, attracts tourists. I like lake views on morning breakfast trail rides. For as Twain says, "Nothing improves scenery like ham and eggs."

A few minutes farther, Incline Village --AKA "Income Village" -- has its own ski area with exceptional snowmaking, lake views and a golf course; my wife drags me there for the "quality shopping." Environmental bumper stickers sprout like snow flowers here. Twain lights another cigar -- odd how their smoke does not cloud Tahoe vistas -- and notes "Prosperity is the best protector of principle."

Casinos at Crystal Bay and Stateline Point offer a last fling at the tables and slots in a rather calmer, less crowded atmosphere than at Stateline. Twain's ghost usually leaves here to play poker with "all the confidence of a Christian with four aces."

On special occasions my wife and I -- or visitors who can spring for the tab -- enjoy the best French food near the lake at Le Petit Pier in Tahoe Vista or at La Cheminee at Kings Beach where fresh salmon, wild duck, pheasants and decadent pastries wait! On days when thunderheads build over the Desolation Wilderness Area behind Emerald Bay, views rival vittles. It does seem odd that Kings Beach, a refuge for Haight-Ashbury survivors, has one of the most expensive, and most successful, restaurants at Tahoe.

If I do not stop for dinner I drive back to Interstate 80 on Highway 267 past Northstar-at-Tahoe, a beautiful resort with fine skiing at the top of the hill and a golf course at the bottom. Across the highway, Martis Reservoir offers catch and release fishing for cutthroat trout just minutes from Truckee Airport where the annual Truckee-Tahoe Airshow offers a close-up look at classic aircraft. In the winter dogsled races run nearby. Truckee deserves a quick look for decent main street shopping before it's time to race dusk up the Donner Pass and home.

As the freeway grinds up the pass the Donner Party failed to scale, I miss Twain puffing his cigar in the back seat, but know everyone should know his ". . . to get the full value of a joy you must have someone to divide it with." Lake Tahoe still enchants. While it is no longer the Tahoe Twain saw, it's not his "grasshopper soup" either.