THE REAL REASON THAT camels are called ships of the desert is that riding them can make you seasick, declares cowboy evangelist Howdy Fowler. “There are two rules of the road,” he told me as he boosted me up and onto the back of the huge double-humped Bactrian camel known as K.C., short for King of the Camels. “Don’t scream and don’t throw up.” Fowler was smiling beneath the broad brim of his black cowboy hat, but I soon realized he wasn’t kidding. As I hunkered down between K.C.’s humps, the animal, who had appeared as placid as an old steer, began to crow-hop like a riled-up rodeo bronc. It was like bull-riding with safety cushions in front and back.
I had caught up with Fowler and his family a couple of days before Thanksgiving near the little town of Alamogordo, New Mexico, about halfway into a mission that was as idiosyncratic as it was idealistic: to travel by camel across Texas and on to California. Fowler’s aim in undertaking the trek was twofold: first, to spread the gospel, and second, to recreate an obscure bit of Western history. The first part of this goal was something Fowler and his wife, Yahooskin, had done many times before, leading horse and mule expeditions into the back country of the Southwest to bring the Word of God to ranchers, cowboys, and Native Americans. They had devoted this particular expedition to publicizing the problem of gang violence, which, says Fowler, “is spreading like a virus into our rural communities.”
Their second purpose was an idea that had seized Fowler’s imagination several years earlier. He wanted to relive part of the extraordinary camel experiments conducted by the military in the nineteenth century, when the Secretary of War asked the U.S. Army to see whether camels could be used as beast of burden in the rough, dry terrain of the American West. Specifically, the Fowlers, who live in Tularosa, just a few miles north of Alamogordo, set out to recreate an 1857 venture from Texas to California led by Lieutenant Edward Beale. Using camels to carry their supplies, Beale’s troops surveyed a trail that later became part of old Route 66.
Dubbing their trek Beale Expedition II, the Fowlers had picked up their four camels last August at Port Lavaca (near the historic but extinct port of Indianola, where the nineteenth-century camels landed). Over the next three and a half months the traffic-stopping caravan had covered nearly nine hundred miles, traveling along the highways of West Texas and eastern New Mexico. They had stopped for a ten-day rest at the fairgrounds north of Alamogordo, while they repaired their van, when I contacted them and asked to join them for a couple of days. Now that K.C. and his compatriots were refreshed, they were feeling their oats—or rather, their hay and creosote bush—and, as I found out, camels are no different from horses or mules or people when they have to get back to work after a vacation.
As K.C. hopped and lurched and I played bronc rider ten feet above the ground, the Fowlers’ fifteen-year-old son, Tobby—who was perched on a smaller single-humped dromedary camel named L. Scott—reached over and held on to K.C.’s halter, talking to him calmly but firmly for two or three bone-jarring minutes until the rambunctious beast settled down. Knowing that the Fowlers used to perform in a wild West show, I assumed that a bucking camel would be no big deal to them, but Tobby later told me that he had been thrown off and knocked silly when he and the camels had first gotten acquainted.
Once I was squared away, Howdy boarded his dromedary, Roxie (a single-humped beast), who had been kneeling patiently, and signaled her to rise with the tap of the shepherd’s crook he uses in lieu of a whip. He secured the rope of a white camel named Cindy, who was riderless because she was recovering from an abscessed foot, and we were ready to head out. Bringing up the rear of the caravan was Yahooskin, who was driving a battered van with supplies and two dogs, Hank and Tex, inside and bales of hay tied on top.
Howdy again tapped Roxie with his crook, made a chirping sound, and shook the reins attached to her halter. We made our way out of the fairgrounds on the north side of Alamogordo and headed south, down White Sands Boulevard toward Holloman Air Force Base and the vast missile range that sprawls north, west, and south of White Sands National Monument. As Stealth bombers circled on the horizon and commuters honked and waved, the camels settled into the ancient rocking gait that is soothing to some and stomach-churning to others. Roxie and L. Scott were fitted with padded camel saddles that allow passengers to ride in relative comfort behind the hump. Riding bareback, though, I could feel every vertebra in K.C.’s spine, and I knew I’d be walking as gingerly as a greenhorn as soon as I hit the ground. Already, though, I was becoming fond of K.C. Camels have a way of looking noble and goofy at the same time and are obviously smarter than horses. And with their penchant for moaning and complaining, they leave little question about what they think of a given situation. “Sometimes I think there’s a human being inside that ugly body,” Howdy had said of Roxie.
Fowler, who has a blunt, earthy way of talking, seems more an adventurer than a preacher. He organizes mule-back photography and hunting expeditions to raise money, and he carries a gun along on his treks. With his drooping moustache, black hat, and long braid dangling down his back, he has the look of someone from an old Western daguerreotype. Born to a cowboy father and a Paiute Indian mother, the 38-year-old Fowler grew up in eastern Oregon roping mustangs with his dad. After he married, he and Yahooskin (who, like Howdy’s mother, is Pauite) started the traveling Fowler Wild West show.