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“Camel II” (2013), from the series Animalia. © Nine François. Courtesy of artist and Agave Print

Issue 104, Spring 2019

The Camel Experiment

The way to get to know a camel is by blowing into its nose. Doug Baum, who guides camel treks through the Trans-Pecos region of Far West Texas, tugs on Daleel’s reins, lowering the camel’s head to meet his own. Doug rubs his cheek against Daleel’s—“Hi, sweetheart,” he says in a near-whisper—then gently blows into Daleel’s right nostril, which flares slightly. “Wait for it,” Doug says, still holding Daleel’s face close to his. Several unblinking seconds pass and suddenly Daleel exhales deeply, emitting a cavernous sigh. “It’s a god-awful smell,” says Doug, turning to me, “but that’s how camels get to know each other.” 

Doug lightly kisses Daleel’s nose before walking away to help out some of his other clients, who will also be coming along on the trek with four other camels. Alone with Daleel, I imitate Doug. I drag Daleel’s face down, and try to mask my apprehension. His size intimidates me: can camels smell fear? His long eyelashes splay out like the legs of a centipede. Our eyes meet. I begin to blow a thin but steady stream of air into his nostril before Daleel reflexively pulls his head away from me. I let go of his reins, suddenly self-conscious of my breath, which lingers with the stale odor of coffee.

It’s a thirty-mile drive from Fort Davis to the Gearhart Ranch, where the camels are corralled. There’s a holy glow in the Davis Mountains that morning. As I make my approach, the two-lane highway narrows, and the untrodden landscape of the desert west, which usually arches back to reveal yawning skies and distant, untouchable mountains, begins to crowd. The hills are closer here, lusher. The hills are made of a green I’ve never seen before in this desert. 

For three years, I resided in the Far West Texas border town of Presidio, where I worked as a journalist covering immigration and border security. I didn’t know much about the border before I moved there, but I’d grown up with two immigrant parents—my mother from Iran, and my father from Germany. Two weeks after I moved to Texas, I saw camels grazing along the fence line of a luxury ranch resort called Cibolo Creek. The same ranch where Antonin Scalia would later die. I felt suddenly transported to Iran; the landscape looked similar enough. And I wondered about the camels. 

At the Gearhart Ranch entrance—its only distinguishing feature a wooden cutout of a camel attached to the property fence—a simple cattle gate swings open onto a dirt road that leads to the ranch headquarters. Just beyond are the camels, which are kept in horse pens. This isn’t Doug’s ranch—he keeps his camels on his own land in Valley Mills—but he has a working relationship with a handful of the area’s ranchers who let him use their vast swaths of land to guide his treks. Since ninety-five percent of Texas land is privately owned, for guides like Doug, these kinds of relationships are necessary. 

Within our caravan is Richard, a twenty-two-year-old Arabian camel who is the patriarch of the bunch; a stalwart, revered presence. Cinco is the next oldest and the only female. Jadid—Arabic for “new”—is a six-year-old in the throes of teenage rebelliousness, with whom Doug is handsier and more assertive. Xi’an is the only Bactrian breed among them, boasting two humps instead of one. When Donelle, the middle-aged woman who will be riding Xi’an, notices that his front hump curves a slight right, Doug jumps to his defense. “It’s perfectly normal,” he says with the custodial alarm of a parent forced to confront someone who sees their child as anything shy of perfect. “It’s just genetic, like having red hair.”

Then there’s Daleel, the youngest of them all, who’s just learning how to abide by the rules of the caravan. Doug’s treks combine a guided tour of the Davis Mountains with lessons in ecology and history, and generally attract the type of tourist who wants to spend time outdoors without the effort of setting up a tent; Doug does that for you. Almost all of his clients are women. Men just aren’t that into camels, Doug explains. Within our group of seven is only one man, a sixty-five-year-old cross-country coach named Dale who agreed to go on the trek with his sister, an exotic-animal enthusiast. The other four include three middle-aged sisters on a reunion trip, as well as the daughter of one of them. 

This is Daleel’s first trek, and I will be walking alongside him. That was the caveat when I asked to come along for free, since the experience normally costs $750. I like to hike, and I’m fairly fit, so I didn’t think twice in accepting Doug’s generous offer. To travel among a caravan of camels in the West Texas desert seemed idyllic, whether or not I was actually riding one. Besides, I liked the idea of walking in solidarity. We will bear the burden of these hills together, I whisper into Daleel’s nostrils. He is still unimpressed with my breath.

While we pack saddlebags and get to know our camels, Doug informs me that Daleel and I will be at the front of the caravan, leading the charge. We set off by mid-morning, leaving the pens behind us as we climb single-file past a windmill along the steep incline of the ranch dirt road. We will follow this road for much of our ten-mile journey, traveling along just a small stretch of the twelve hundred miles traversed by the Beale Expedition of 1857, when frontiersman Edward Beale was commissioned by the United States government to survey and build a road that could connect New Mexico to California. The road would later become part of Route 66 and after that Interstate 40. It was instrumental in the movement of settlers to the west, and paved the way for the transcontinental railroad. It was called Beale’s Wagon Road then, though most would call it by another name, the Beale Camel Trail. 

Daleel is three years old, which is around eight human years. While we walk, he is distracted by any and all sources of food, which in this desert is a surprising amount; mesquite beans, prickly pear, ocotillo, and creosote—all barbed and injurious to a human touch, but the lining of Daleel’s lips is impervious. 

“Yank his head,” says Carson, a high schooler who’s assisting Doug with the trek. She sees me struggling to keep Daleel in line as he veers off the trail in pursuit of some oak. I do as she says, but he doesn’t budge. My only other experience with camels was in Iran, where I’d gone on a tour of the desert dunes outside of the historic city of Yazd, once a crucial point on the Silk Road where traders would stop for days to rest their camels and peddle their wares. There, we met a small group of camels held in pens. At the end of the day, my guide prepared a rich stew of camel meat.

“Harder,” Carson says. I yank hard and successfully lead Daleel back to the head of our charge. At this point Doug tells the caravan to come to a halt, which we do by saying “Whoaaaa” to the animals. I’m pleased to see Daleel slow. He comes to a stop, landing with one foot on top of mine. 

“How you doin’, kid?” Doug asks me as he rounds the front, and I grin and nod emphatically, trying to disguise my efforts to wrest my size 6 1/2 foot from beneath Daleel’s, tears welling in my eyes. He’s about eight hundred pounds distributed onto four legs, which by my calculations means two hundred of those pounds are on my toes. I pull my foot free and immediately step aside. Daleel is eating again.

Doug points out the mountains in the distance to our left—Mt. Livermore, the tallest peak in the Davis Mountains, summits at eight thousand three hundred seventy-nine feet. This landscape is thirty million years old, he tells us. Before that, the desert was more than once covered by an ocean. In the scheme of things, the history of these camels seems negligible. But history is written into this landscape, and the camels are part of it.

In the region we now call the Middle East, the camel held a common nickname: “ship of the desert.” This detail piqued the interest of Jefferson Davis, who in the years following the Mexican-American War, tried to figure out ways to traverse a rapidly expanded Southwest. Davis urged Congress to sponsor an experiment that he thought would offer a simple solution. This was before the Civil War, before Davis became the president of the Confederate States, before he was convicted of treason. Before all this, his title was Secretary of War, and, as such, he set his sights on the camel.

With the passage of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war in 1848, the United States had forcibly acquired nearly half of Mexico’s territory and assumed responsibility for protecting the border and all its crossings. The terrain was wild, rugged, and wanting for water. There was no railroad spanning the country—not yet—and horses and mules required regular water stops. Long before the U.S.–Mexico border was policed by the more than sixteen thousand agents who patrol the southern border today, U.S. officials needed to find a way to actually get there. 

Davis also had concerns about the indigenous tribes that inhabited the Southwest and the challenge they posed to the United States’ brazen territorial appropriation, proffered under the guise of “manifest destiny.” He brought up the example of Napoleon in Egypt, who used a fleet of camels to subdue the Arabs, “whose habits and country were very similar to those of the mounted Indians of our western plain,” he wrote. Camels, he thought, would not only provide a way of commuting across the desert, but could also, with their instinctual ability to navigate this terrain and their tenacity in extreme climate, make a worthy opponent to the indigenous tribes who had familiarity with the landscape on their side.

It’s easy to fathom this trepidation of the desert west. Without the narrow roads that connect the handful of towns that populate the area, without the towns themselves, the rest is rust and dust. The broad, bareback land of the Trans-Pecos, even today, looks like a forgotten piece of prehistory. Squinting at the thick, striated deposits of limestone and shale that band the mountainous terrain in latitudes of pink, you can imagine the vast ocean that covered them two hundred fifty million years ago. And what is the desert if not another kind of wayward sea?

Even today, the crossing migrants who lose their way in this desert are seldom found. Even today, the wind is the tide, eroding all surfaces with its rippling design.

Davis made his case over a period of four years, and after several failed attempts, on March 3, 1855, Congress finally signed a bill into law that would permit Davis to move forward with his experiment, and provided $30,000 in appropriations. Under Davis’s charge, Henry Wayne, a major of the U.S. Army, and David Porter, a lieutenant of the U.S. Navy, set sail for the Levant in a storeship called the Supply, with the mission of importing a fleet of camels—the best they could find. Once they acquired a sufficient herd, Davis instructed, they would bring the camels back to Texas, signaling the very beginning of the United States’ border security regime.

Thirst is a gruesome death. The heart pounding as it struggles to maintain oxygen levels. Flushed face and fast breath. The dizziness, the confusion, each staggering step. The tongue begins to swell and split like mud crack. The body goes into shock. The tongue, a dried apricot. The skin desiccates. They say we’re made up of around sixty percent water. The brain and heart are made up of more.

I’ve thought about thirst a lot. Or rather, I’ve thought about dying in the desert. Once while driving the long stretch of road that ran like a dark river, I saw five men walking along its shoulder in a single file. They clutched empty one-gallon plastic jugs. I knew I could not stop for them, but I slowed and they did not look at me as I cruised past.

When you’re a journalist on the border, you hear about the bodies. Bodies found on ranches, and the many more that aren’t found. Those who are found carry little else but the clothes on their backs. Sometimes an empty bottle. Some ranch owners have taken to setting up water stations on their land. No matter your political persuasion, it’s always better to find a living person on your property than a dead one.

By noon, I’m struggling to keep pace with Daleel. It’s nearly ninety degrees—mild for late summer in West Texas—and the clouds overhead provide a shield from the sun’s scorch. Still, my face is flushed, and I’ve depleted the one bottle of water I was told to bring. The camels carry the rest of our water supply in the bulky felt saddlebags—stuffed with our backpacks and sleeping bags and lunch supplies—that we slung over their humps. Daleel plods beside me, wearing his burden well. 

“How long ’til lunch,” I ask Carson casually, so as not to let on that I’m counting the minutes. “Oh, we’ve got a little ways to go,” she responds, clearly not attuned to the urgency of the matter.

Doug calls for us to stop. A series of “Whoaaaa”s issue from each rider behind me. Stopped, I turn to look at the others, perched six feet above me on their camels, unimpaired by heat and dehydration. “Who needs water?” Doug asks the group, and I meekly raise a hand. Doug rifles through Daleel’s saddlebag while Daleel nonchalantly chews on some mesquite. Doug’s face flashes with concern as he passes me a pint bottle of Poland Spring. “Make sure you’re getting enough water,” he says to me. I nod, draining its contents. Meanwhile, Daleel won’t have any water for another day. “Sweet boy,” says Doug, rubbing Daleel’s cream-colored hide affectionately as he takes the front with us.

Doug fell in love with camels while working as a zookeeper in Nashville; shortly thereafter he decided to guide treks of his own. His obsession is comical at times (the last four digits of his phone number alphanumerically spell HUMP), but his admiration for the animal runs deep. 

In Western folklore, camels have gotten a bad rap. They’re portrayed as lazy, churlish, ugly. In truth, the camel is a true marvel of evolutionary adaptation, capable of withstanding fluctuations in body heat and water consumption that would kill most other animals. Its hump is a deposit of fatty tissue that provides the camel nourishment when food is scarce and helps minimize water loss. Which is why a camel can go up to a week without water. Which is why, when they do drink, they guzzle it down, fifteen, twenty, fifty gallons at a time. Their spidery lashes shield the camel from the sand and dust lifted during desert storms. Should sediment get in their eyes, they can dislodge it with their transparent third eyelid. The male’s Wookie bleat is his mating call. He is capable of ejaculating four times in a single sexual encounter.

For Doug, camels opened the world to him. After working with camels at the zoo for some time, he’d bought a couple of his own and had begun guiding treks. In 2000, eager to learn more about camel training and with few resources available in the United States, he traveled to Egypt for the first time to meet a Bedouin man named Sala, who agreed to be his mentor.

Doug returned every year thereafter. He began to guide treks in the Sinai Peninsula and in Jordan. He learned how to speak Arabic. He witnessed the onset of the Arab Spring while staying with a family who’d kept camels and led treks for generations in Giza, just three and a half miles from Tahrir Square. 

Doug’s camels also brought him to the Big Bend region of Texas, where he would guide his treks just spitting distance from another contentious territory, the U.S.–Mexico border. His camels plodded upon ground containing underground sensors, placed there in recent decades by Customs and Border Protection to track migrant activity. Past and present converge. They weren’t the first camels to tread here. 

The best camels were thought to be in Persia. Jefferson Davis wrote to his charge, “If circumstances occur of such a nature as to prevent communication with Persia by way of the Black Sea, you will take your ship to the coast of Syria.”

The Bey of Tunis presented the men with two camels as gifts, which they boarded on the Supply. Porter had prepared a lower deck for the camels to board, where they would remain for their entire maritime journey. On rough waters, the camels were chained to the deck and forced to kneel. During one particularly rough storm, they were strapped to the deck for seventy-two hours. 

Inclement winter weather would thwart their journey to Persia as Davis directed, so instead the men set sail for Egypt. Over the course of their Levantine journey, Wayne and Porter would become convinced of the animal’s tenacity and its ability to prove useful on the western frontier. “A horse is, in the United States, considered a valuable animal, but he will, in point of worth for labor, in no way compare with a camel, and I hope to see the day when every southern planter will be using the animal extensively,” wrote Lieutenant Porter to Davis on December 12, 1855. 

Did they sincerely conceive a West populated by cowboys atop camels instead of steeds? Maybe they simply wanted to legitimize the experiment Congress had paid handsomely for. But if Doug is any kind of metric for what happens when you spend a significant amount of time with camels, maybe they really believed it after all. By the end of the first journey, they’d procured thirty-three camels, to whom they’d given Arabic names—Said, Ayesha, Gourmal, Ibrim. The first calf that was born aboard the ship, they named Uncle Sam.

At lunch, we eat ham-and-cheese sandwiches, the cheese melted to the consistency of mayonnaise, and small bags of chips, while the camels, tethered to mesquite trees, happily munch on the local flora. I’m mentally preparing myself for the remaining hike ahead when Dale, the high school track coach who has been riding Jadid, offers me his seat for the remainder of the way to camp. I ask if he’s sure. “Yes, I’d like the walk,” he says, though I suspect he’s made the offer more for my sake than his. Jadid kneels down, and I mount, throwing my leg over the saddle, which sits behind his hump. Once I’m situated, Doug cues Jadid, who springs onto his front knees, extending his back legs before lengthening his front to stand. I lurch forward with him and rise.

Atop Jadid, I survey the steep, craggy terrain around me that once felt so daunting. We climb crumbling hills effortlessly, Jadid decisively planting his fleshy feet on the ground below. I look down upon Dale, wagging in and out of the trail as he now struggles to keep Daleel in line, and a wave of joy washes over me. Atop Jadid, I feel untouchable. My posture straightens. Suddenly, I am seized with a desire to own land, this land. I wonder at my own primal lust to colonize. 

We arrive at our basecamp for the evening—a shady alcove adjacent to a large stock tank—where Doug already set up tents for everyone the night prior. We dismount our camels and unload their saddlebags. Doug tethers each to a tree and throws hay at their feet.

For the humans, Doug has laid out chips, salsa, and an array of sodas in a cooler beneath a safari tent. While the others enjoy the provisions, Doug begins preparing dinner—a brothy cactus soup, prepared with thick cuts of kielbasa sausage, black beans, corn, and cilantro. 

I take this moment to walk over to the twisting mesquite tree under which Daleel now stands. I run my hand along the length of his hide, soft like a high-pile rug, and stand before him. His mouth gyrates as he chews his cud, and every so often a loud gurgling noise issues from his throat, delivering more into his mouth. I tug on his rein and lower his head to meet mine. Here I try once more, sending my breath into his right nostril. This time, something registers. His nostrils flare, and he exhales almost immediately, his breath the smell of a rancid burp. Now, I belong.

When the camels finally landed on Texas soil, they became excited to an almost uncontrollable degree, wrote Major Wayne to Davis on May 14, 1856, “rearing, kicking, crying out, breaking halters, tearing up pickets, and by other fantastic tricks demonstrating their enjoyment of ‘the liberty of the soil.’” Some of them had been onboard the supply ship for nine months. 

Along with the camels, the men brought with them a few camel drivers, representing some of the first Arab immigrants to the United States. Among them was a man they called “Hi Jolly”—a bastardization of Hadji Ali—who would become the subject of children’s stories and songs. He married a Sonoran Mexican woman, who bore two daughters. 

Since the hardest part—transporting the camels overseas—was done, and they’d only expended a third of their budget, Davis immediately sent for another shipment. On February 10, 1857, another forty-four camels arrived. 

In the meantime, the first shipment of camels was tested. Major Wayne set up a camp for them at Camp Verde, a military outpost some sixty miles southwest of San Antonio. A frequently cited story tells of the skeptical Texans and Major Wayne, who, eager to disprove them, loaded a sitting camel with twelve hundred fifty-six pounds of hay. To the townspeople’s great astonishment, the camel had no trouble standing and walking off with the weight on its back. 

Later, Beale would use a fleet of the camels to clear the land for the transcontinental railroad, successfully traversing those twelve hundred miles under the summer’s blaze and accomplishing what most thought could not be done. 

By most measures, the camel experiment proved a success. But, shortly after the animals landed in the United States, the Civil War broke out, and Congress was more concerned with Southern nationalism than the threat of foreign agents. After the war, any endeavor associated with the treasonous Davis was condemned.

After all it took to get them there, the camels were no longer wanted. They were auctioned, and some were sold to the circus, while others were turned loose. Over time they faded into the landscape, only to be remembered when passersby saw them by chance while lingering for a moment in the desert. 

The first time I saw the camels, two weeks after I’d moved to Presidio, I did a double-take: Their tan hides nearly blended into the khaki-colored dirt, and the only good look I got was of their smiling mouths masticating the grasses. In the desert, all flora and fauna seem to inhabit a more nuanced color wheel, comprising hues that, once overlapped, reveal their delicate complexity. 

To belong here is to belong to these colors. Like the mountain lion with her variegated fur, who appears only as a set of honey-glazed eyes through the yellow-green mesquite brush. Like the pronghorn, who bound in and out among the billowing native grasses like dolphins, their bodies just a shade shy of invisible. The camels at Cibolo Creek aren’t descendants of the original Camel Corps but they’re a reminder. They graze along the fence line like ghosts; I saw them, and then they were gone.

What other specters abide in this desert? Thirty miles from here as the crow flies, there’s been talk of building a wall. 

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Sasha von Oldershausen

Sasha von Oldershausen is an Iranian American journalist writing about the Texas–Mexico border. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, the Paris Review, and Texas Monthly, among others.