On a recent trip to the Alps I took Robert MacFarlane‘s breathtaking ‘Mountains of the Mind‘. In it I found this delightful tale about Mark Twain taking his family up on to a glacier in the Alps – a fashionable thing to do in the mid-nineteenth century. In short:

Twain took his family up on to the glacier. Having heard that the glacier is constantly moving down the mountain, he decided to sit in the middle, where it moves fastest and use it to travel to Zermat, a town downstream in the valley. Noticing by nightfall that he hadn’t moved anywhere, he consulted his reference book and was appalled to find the glacier only moves at 30 feet a year, and that it would take 500 years to reach his destination.

In this story Twain is my favourite kind of clown, mixing engineering, naivety and entertainment.

(Photo credit 767px-The_Rhone_Glacier_Glacier_Hotel_and_Furka_Road_Valais_Alps_of_Switzerland by Snap Shots of the Past is available under CC BY-SA 2.0 )