When one hears the name Lake Tahoe, thoughts of stunning natural beauty come to mind. Supposedly when Mark Twain heard it, he got “disgustingly sick.”
Born Samuel Clemens in 1835, Twain was an avid traveler. He left his Missouri home at a fairly young age and crisscrossed the countryside working as a printer, typesetter, and master riverboat captain on the Mississippi River.
The gold rush brought him west to Nevada in 1861, where he tried to make it as a miner. He failed as a prospector, but soon struck gold as a reporter for the Virginia City newspaper. That is where he first used his pen name, “Mark Twain” in a series of articles.
About that time, in a small cabin in Tuolumne County, he also finished his work “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which garnered him nation-wide success.
The beauty of the Sierra Nevada – particularly Lake Tahoe – immediately captivated Twain. In his book, Roughing It, he stated:
“We plodded on, two or three hours longer, and at last the Lake burst upon us — a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still! It was a vast oval, and one would have to use up eighty or a hundred good miles in traveling around it. As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”
He ended up not only hiking down to the shoreline, but staying there for quite some time. “Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor,” Twain wrote.
While the alpine scenery of Lake Tahoe overwhelmed him, apparently the name itself had quite the opposite effect. He did believe that most natural wonders and locations should bear Native American-related names, but ‘Tahoe’ was not one of them. To him, it sounded awful to the ear and Lake Bigler was the more appropriate title.
“I hope some bird will catch this grub the next time he calls Lake Bigler by so disgustingly sick and silly a name as Lake Tahoe…They say it means ‘Fallen Leaf’ – well suppose it meant Fallen Devil or Fallen Angel, would that make its hideous, discordant syllables more endurable?” he wrote.
It is true that Mark Twain is one of the most prolific, talented American writers. Just about every child remembers reading Adventures of Huck Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in school. When it comes to his writing about changing Lake Tahoe to Lake Bigler, however, that may be one read better left on the shelf.
To think that the word “Tahoe” makes someone sick to his stomach is just downright comical. But, as one famous American writer once stated — “humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.”
Perhaps that’s the big point.