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Fall 2000, Volume 18.1

Essay

 

Arthur Winfield Knightphoto of Arthur Winfield Knight and his wife, Kit.

Where the Camels Roam


Arthur Winfield Knight is an adjunct Professor at the Univ. of San Francisco.  A widely published poet (and film critic), he has, with his wife, Kit, edited eight volumes on the Beat Generation, including
The Beat Scene.  His novel about John Dillinger, Johnnie D., has just appeared from Forge Press (2000) and will soon be followed by a novel based on maverick movie director Sam Peckinpah.

 

Huge raindrops splatter against our windshield as my wife and I drive into Virginia City, Nevada for the 40th Annual Camel Races. Kit and I haven't seen the sun since we left Reno 40 minutes ago, but at least the rain's intermittent. You could stand under the huge Comstock sky for an hour without getting soaked.

I was here for the first camel race, in 1960, which was held as a publicity stunt. The locals claim it was a "result of monotony," and that's easy to believe, although I've always liked the "city." (It had 40,000 residents during the height of the silver boom in 1876, but the population has shrunk to about a thousand year round residents.) Lucius Beebe, who owned the Territorial Enterprise, conceived of the race on a slow news week in 1957, but it didn't take place due to "camel illness," according to local legend.

In 1960 the race was held on B Street, a block above Highway 341, which also functions as the main street. John Huston, who was directing The Misfits in the area, rode a camel sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle, and Billy Pearson rode one sponsored by the Phoenix Sun. There were two other riders who came from Indio, California, but everyone knew they didn't have a chance, since Huston was an accomplished rider and Pearson was a professional jockey.

Huston won the race easily because he paid someone to take his camel to the starting line, then lead it back to the barn where the race ended and where the camel was fed everyday for a week prior to the event. In a very real sense, Huston "directed" the outcome of the race.

Huston told reporters, "Billy is an obvious disgrace to the camel-riding profession. Pearson's camel jumped onto the bed of a pickup truck, cleared a Thunderbird, and finally, going full tilt, disappeared into Piper's Opera House, with Billy hanging on for dear life. Pearson just doesn't belong up there on the hump of a camel."

Kit and I mention the story to someone who calls himself Doc Holliday and who's probably in his sixties. Doc says he was at the first race, too, and he has a huge belt buckle that proclaims he's a member of the International Order of Camel Jockeys, as if that gives him an identity. He says, "All of the camels were brought in from the San Francisco Zoo that day," but I'm uncomfortable with his certainty.

Later, Kit tells me, "I like the camel-feeding version better, the one we've always heard."

"Yeah," I say, remembering a line from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Camels were brought to America by the Secretary-of-War, Jefferson Davis, in 1855, but they didn't arrive in the Comstock until the Civil War began six years later. The camels carried salt used to reclaim the silver and gold ore, but they scared the horses and were outlawed by the Nevada State Legislature in 1875. Their bankrupt owners turned the animals lose in the desert, where the last wild camel was discovered 61 years later, in 1936.

Actually, I didn't see the first camel race, but I was in Virginia City that Labor Day Weekend. (The races are now held the weekend after Labor Day, extending the tourist season.) Friends and I had been unable to get a beer because the bars were packed, and it was a blazing, sweaty afternoon. When everyone came out to watch the race, the three of us went into the Bucket of Blood. "Give us three cold ones," we said, resting our elbows on the bar. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

There are four camels in each race, reminiscent of that first one 40 years ago, but the races now take place at a makeshift track a couple of blocks below the main street, not far from St. Mary's in the Mountains, one of the most famousóand one of the most photographedóchurches in Nevada. Probably the shift in location has something to do with liability laws, but it also has something to do with economics. The races are now sponsored by the Virginia City Chamber of Commerce and produced by Roadshows, Inc. in Reno and participants come from as faraway as Australia.

The camels are nasty beasts, spitting and snorting, but most of the riders manage to stay in the saddle and complete the race, which is probably a good thing, since it's a long way to the ground. I'd thought of riding one, but my wife said she didn't want to visit me in the Storey County Hospital after I fell off one of the so-called "ships of the desert."

Kit and I attend the Awards Ceremony at the Bucket of Blood Friday night, where a black cowboy wearing a red shirt keeps saying, "I protest, I protest," every time someone gets an award, but no one seems to know what he's protesting, not even the cowboy.

We watch the Camels on Parade Saturday morning, led by the Comstock Kazoo Symphony Orchestra, and followed by a lot of vintage cars and some aging bikers on their Harleys. A cowpoke who calls himself Cletus Mayfield fires blanks into the air, and some middle-aged women who call themselves "Ms. Candy's girls" come down the street in their dance hall costumes. (Later, Ms. Candy's daughter, Noelle, who's come from Sacramento, tells me it gives the girls "a chance to play dress-up.")

The crowd consists, largely, of geezers in shorts and tennis shoes. Kit tells me it's not polite to use a word like geezers, but I tell her I'm allowed since I'm 61. "The hell with being politically correct," I say.

It's been a long day, fueled by a lot of alcohol. We go to bed, exhausted, early Saturday night. I can hear a train whistle in the distance before I fall asleep, imagining the huge hooves of the camels hitting the dirt as they run. (Already the cottonwoods are turning yellow in the mountains.) I dream about wild camels, unseen since 1936, but I know they're out there, beneath the vast obsidian sky, roaming the high desert, their mythic breath suspended in the chill air. I dream of camels.

 

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