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Camels Trek In The Texas Desert, Just Like Old Times

The Texas Camel Corps guides camel treks through the Big Bend region of Texas, where such animals once served American settlers in the late 1800s.
Wade Goodwyn
The Texas Camel Corps guides camel treks through the Big Bend region of Texas, where such animals once served American settlers in the late 1800s.

At 10 on a crisp West Texas morning, five camel-trekkers stand under the open sky of the Davis Mountains. A few feet away, guide Doug Baum and Jason Mayfield load up five camels.

Baum, a former zookeeper, runs the Texas Camel Corps. The group guides camel treks around the world. In the Big Bend region, camels were for a brief time widespread, and the guides have brought them back.

'As Good As They Come'

You have to like a man who brings his own camel to a camel trek. On Mayfield's arm is a tall, beautiful blond named Butter.

"She's 8 years old. I've raised her since she was 24 hours old. I raised her on a bottle," he says. "She is truly one of my best friends on this planet. There's nobody that I would rather go hiking with or camping with."

Mayfield says everything Americans think they know about camels is wrong. They aren't mean, they don't spit (it's the camels' cousin, the lamas, who spit), and they're every bit as smart as a horse — if not smarter.

Mayfield says he loves his wife and children dearly, but he'd rather be with Butter on trips into the wild.

"Butter never complains, Butter is always eager to go, Butter is always happy to see new places, new faces, and that's what makes it exciting for me. About as good as they come," he says.

For thousands of years, camels have carried men and women across the world's deserts. Butter, Irenie, Richard, Cinco and Ibrahim know they're about to go on a camping trip, and they're practically as excited as the guests, talking to each other as the men load them up.

The camels kneel down on all fours so that you don't have to board by trampoline. When the camel stands up, it's quite the roller coaster. But then it's like you're riding an 18 wheeler — you can see everything from up here.

The caravan moves in single file.

"If your camel tries to pass the next camel slow them down with the reins," Baum warns.

And with that the group is off into the beautiful Chihuahuan Desert of the Davis Mountains.

Trekking Through History

At more than a mile above sea level, this is Big Bend country. In the winter, the yucca and prickly pear cactus combine with the gamagrass to paint an endless vista of green and gold. The mountain peaks reach to more than 8,000 feet and hide stands of juniper, oak and pine.

In a crowded world, this is the antidote. The scale out here is so vast it's diminishing. It's impossible to feel master of the universe in this place. Baum says an indigenous people lived here 9,000 years ago.

"If you look at virtually any limestone shelter in the hills or mountains, the discoloration on the ceiling owes its color to the soot from fires," he says.

Later, this became the realm of the Mescalero Apache. And the Spanish and the Comanche. And finally in the 1850s, the first American settlers took root as the nation moved west. The soldiers who came to guard them discovered that their horses and mules didn't cut it out here. They couldn't traverse the distances between water supplies. So Gen. Jefferson Davis brought in camels before turning his attention to other things, like secession.

"The U.S. actually sent a sailing ship, the USS Supply, twice. And they bought camels in the modern countries of Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and what's now Turkey," Baum says.

Eventually, hundreds of camels would be in use in the Big Bend by the Army and private owners. What happened to them all? After the Civil War, everything that the Confederate traitor Davis had touched was scrubbed away — and that included the Army's camels. The railroads finished them off. By the 1870s, they were mostly gone.

That is, until Baum and his Texas Camel Corps brought them back.

A Little Escape

The group treks through the Chihuahuan desert of the Davis Mountains, single file.
Wade Goodwyn / NPR
The group treks through the Chihuahuan desert of the Davis Mountains, single file.

Michael and Brandi Wilbanks left their three teenage children back in Fort Worth to log some precious time alone together. It was Michael's idea to camel trek. When he first proposed it to his wife, her initial response was, "What? Are you kidding me? I don't think so." But then, she says, "it kind of grew on me."

Camel trekking is like backpacking, only without having to carry anything. When you tire of riding, you walk. Got a long climb ahead? Get back on your camel. Bird watchers in particular love the freedom it affords them. This is the Wilbanks' first time riding a camel, their first day.

"It's been a little scary. But it's good, it's good," Brandi says.

Ten-thousand years ago, a species of prehistoric camel roamed Big Bend. Smaller than the camels of North Africa, they were eventually hunted to extinction by humans and other predators. But a tiny echo of their existence still walks the Trans-Pecos.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.
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