One Hump or Two?
Riding a camel across the West Texas sand dunes, I got in touch with my inner O'Toole and left the modern world far behind.
“SQUEEZE HIS NOSE,” SAYS DOUG BAUM, a.k.a. the Camel Man, pointing at Gobi, one of three camels kneeling by a big trailer in the campground at Monahans Sandhills State Park, thirty miles southwest of Odessa.
Keeping a prudent distance, I examine these beasts with bad reputations and big teeth and skin like cheap carpet. They look placid enough, so I clamp my cowboy hat on my head and walk closer, trying to move like a man with natural authority over large animals. Gobi has a huge head, enormous eyes, and a long, soft snout like a giant plush toy. “Harder,” says Baum. I grab the top of Gobi’s nose and maul it, and he bats his eyelashes as you might if somebody you liked nibbled your earlobe.
The Camel Man is an amiable, squarely built guy in his mid-thirties. If your church wants to stage the Nativity tableau or your movie script calls for desert action or you simply want the kids at your school to have a fun time, Baum will haul his herd across the Southwest to help you. He and his wife, Trish, run the Texas Camel Corps, the only camel operation in the U.S. that offers regular overnight treks. Our trip through the Sandhills will take us across some of these rolling dunes, which extend for two hundred miles northwest into New Mexico. The park’s active dunes—vast, slowly shifting waves of sand—provide the perfect backdrop for imagining yourself in the real Arabian desert of romance and adventure.
I watch as the Camel Man fits Gobi with his “reverse bra,” a large piece of foam padding with holes for the Bactrian’s two fat humps to flop through. Between the humps goes a wooden saddle; over it Baum slings four heavy packs containing everything we trekkers will need. He supplies the food and tents; we—Joann and Mike, a Houston couple celebrating her fiftieth birthday, and I—bring our sleeping bags, sunscreen, and spare underwear. Gobi is the beast of burden for this trip. The two other camels, single-humped dromedaries named David and Richard, will carry only their riders. The three of them wait patiently in the hot sun while Baum prepares them for the ride and we gingerly get acquainted with our mounts. “Hello, David,” I say, patting my camel’s head. He bares his teeth and wrinkles his nose at me, and I wonder if I am about to be spat upon, but the gesture brings a look of affection to the Camel Man’s eyes. He places a thin foam pad and a Mexican blanket over David’s back, hump and all; together we hoist a three-sided metal frame over the blanket, and he cinches it tight. Baum calls the side rail the “oh, shit” bar. It seems that David is an adolescent camel, not yet ready for a proper saddle—and not exactly broken in. Baum says he figured I would have more to write about this way. Oh . . . darn.
I climb onto the camel’s back and pull on the reins. David lurches to his feet, and I grab the bar and my hat as I am instantly propelled six feet into the air. Unlike Mike, who is sandwiched between Gobi’s floppy humps, Joann and I are riding behind our camels’ one hump, where, like on the back of the bus, you feel every bump. At least Joann gets a proper saddle; I am keenly aware of the sharp ridge of my camel’s backbone. On the way here, I had envisioned myself as Charlie of Arabia, galloping across the sand, but right now the idea of my camel moving any faster than an amble is extremely disconcerting. All illusions shattered, I am immensely relieved that David is tied to Richard, who is tied to Gobi, who is being led by Baum, on foot, at an unhurried pace. Baum explains that, in fact, the bedouin would normally walk their camels over steep sand dunes like the ones here at the park. It’s pretty obvious why. If the camel is the ship of the desert, I am George Clooney trying to ride the perfect storm, except that I feel as if I’m sitting on the steering wheel.
Doug Baum grew up in Big Spring with two passions—music and exotic animals. “I was fascinated with animals as a way of finding out about the geography of other countries,” he says. But music won out initially, and in September 1992 his career as a drummer took him to Nashville, where he found work with rising country star Trace Adkins. Gigging at night left Baum twiddling his thumbs during the day, so he took a job at the Nashville Zoo working with the apes and the monkeys. When the zoo needed a volunteer to help out with its newly acquired camels, he took on the task.
Then, in 1996, Adkins landed a record deal, so Baum said good-bye to the zoo and went on the road. He didn’t like it at all. After a year, he and his wife moved back to Texas—to Waco, where Trish found a job at Baylor University.
Pondering his next step, Baum remembered the tale of the short-lived U.S. Camel Corps of the mid-nineteenth century. In 1853 Jefferson Davis, then the U.S. Secretary of War, got wind of a plan to use camels on a trade route across the Southwest and, seeing military possibilities, persuaded Congress to fund a camel military corps. As a result, some seventy camels were transported from the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) and North Africa to Texas. A Lieutenant Edward Beale led the corps from its base at Camp Verde, in Kerr County, on a trial expedition to California. Beale praised the animals, but the troops disliked their smell and their demeanor—and they scared the bejesus out of prospectors’ mules—so the Army eventually abandoned the project.
Inspired by this tale, Baum called Tom Smith, the Indiana animal dealer who had supplied the Nashville Zoo, and Smith told him about a Bactrian that was being sold for a fraction of its value in Indianapolis. The Baums drove to Indiana and returned with Gobi, the first recruit to the Texas Camel Corps. Now six animals strong, the corps has run treks through Big Bend Ranch State Park since 1999 and added the Monahans trip last year.
The Camel Man keeps up a constant stream of instructions, information, and bad jokes as we meander past dunes dotted with tall sunflowers, mesquite, and the largest forest of tiny shin oak trees in the world. Numbness and a growing sense of confidence replace panicky discomfort, and I sit back and start enjoying the ride. I still have to hang on tightly as David follows his fellow camels up and down the sandy slopes—at one point he drops down onto his front knees and crawls up a dune—but I am learning how to keep him from veering off to one side or pulling forward to walk alongside Joann and Richard. That’s especially challenging when Gobi, in the lead, comes to a stubborn halt at the bottom of a hill, leaving me straining to stop David halfway down.
We ride for an hour and a half before Baum, using an old oil tank and a windmill as landmarks, leads us to our campsite. He tends to his camels and sends the rest of us off to forage for firewood. I had resigned myself to sand with everything, but in addition to mild temperatures, we are blessed with just the lightest of breezes, so our food—a fine sausage-and-cactus soup that Baum has cooked over the fire—stays sand-free. We sit around the fire eating and swapping stories as the sun provides the day’s stunning finale. The camels, tethered to huge metal stakes pounded deep into the sand, quietly munch on hay. They will eat anything—Joann delightedly feeds them whole sunflower plants—and can survive for weeks in the wild on a few creosote bushes. After our dinner, we laugh and lie on our backs, gazing at the stars that throng the night sky, happy to be right where we are.
The next morning I watch the sun rise as I drink hot coffee and bite into a pan dulce. The lights of Monahans, glimpsed in the distance across the dunes, fade into the rosy morning glow while Baum prepares our mounts for the trek back. It’s obvious that he knows and loves his camels, and thanks to him, I have not only ridden one of these fascinating animals but have also had the pleasure of spending time with a man who has made his bed and found it very much to his liking.
A bit of a dreamer and a visionary, the Camel Man wants you to love camels as much as he does and is always seeking new ways to proselytize. He has trained his animals to be ambassadors for the breed. He runs camel treks in the Sinai every year, if you want to experience the real real thing. But his greatest desire is to reenact the journey from Indianola, where the original camels landed, in 1856, to Camp Verde. As part of the proper historical backdrop, Baum wants to have an actual tall ship anchored out in Matagorda Bay. From Indianola he would lead at least two dozen camels to schools and other public places as they retraced the caravan’s route to the Hill Country. I wouldn’t bet against his being able to pull it off. As the story of the Texas Camel Corps shows, Baum is a man who brings dreams to life.