Camel-O-Rama! Take a Ride on the Rugged Ruminants That Helped Win the West. (Travel)

Article excerpt

When a camel is unhappy, it makes a sound not unlike the cry Star Wars' Chewbacca issues when he and Han Solo are about to get squashed in a cosmic trash compactor.

On a gray morning near Moab, Utah, my steed's groan and his jerky standing-up motion once I'm in the saddle--it feels like I'm on a bucking bronco that's moving very slowly--do not exactly give me confidence on the first camel ride of my life.

But Terry Moore--wrangler, animal trainer, and owner, with wife Marcee, of Camelot Adventure Lodge, southwest of Moab--says Clyde, my blond Bactrian, is only grumbling because of the drizzly weather. Don't take it personally, he advises.

And once Clyde and I head out, Moore walking, me suspended behind Clyde's second hump in a custom-made saddle, the ride is shockingly comfortable.

I forget the oddity of my transportation as we move through the Colorado River Valley, where the desert stretches in vast swaths of gold and red. Above us on the slow climb to Hurrah Pass, mountain bikers inch along m the red dirt. We regally glide by a group of all-terrain-vehicle riders, one of whom is having engine trouble. It strikes me that riding a camel is the perfect way to travel through this landscape.

In fact, camels and the Western landscape go together like--well, sun and sand. From Utah to California, you can enjoy a veritable ruminant renaissance: You can ride camels, watch camel races, and otherwise pay homage to the beasts that played a small but indelible role in the winning of the West.

Two-toed soldiers

A century and a half ago, Mississippi senator and future Confederate president Jefferson Davis had the bright idea to import camels to aid in exploration of the American Southwest. Davis's vision inspired more than a little mockery but in fact made considerable sense: In 1851, the newly acquired desert lands that became Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah needed surveying. Trade routes were required to support California outposts, booming since the discovery of gold. The harsh, dry terrain was the stuff of Arabia, more suited to camel trekking than mule teams.

Ultimately, about 120 dromedary (one-humped) and Bactrian (two-humped) animals were brought over from the Middle East and Africa for the short-lived Camel Corps. And some skeptics were won over: Camels could carry loads of 1,200 pounds. Their wide, two-toed feet were surprisingly tough and could make speed over sand. They were much hardier than horses, mules, or oxen. They survived on desert scrub that other animals found inedible.

But camels are the lightning rods of livestock. You love them or you hate 'em. A lot of military men back then despised these ships of the desert: They frightened horses. They could be stubborn. They smelled.

When the Civil War started, the camels, like so many American families, found themselves fighting on both sides. A herd in California schlepped materiel around Los Angeles. The 50 or so in Texas packed salt for Rebel soldiers. Then, with the war over and the nation busy rebuilding, the camels somehow seemed unnecessary, beasts of burden that had become burdens themselves.

So the camel experiment ended. Dozens were auctioned off in San Francisco and in Benicia, California, on the Carquinez Strait about 25 miles to the northeast. …