Over the Hump
Preacher Howdy Fowler dreamed of crossing the West by camel. Many spine-jarring miles later, his wish has come true.
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. As part of their act, Howdy, dressed in vaquero splendor as King of the Cowboys, shot balloons out of Yahooskin’s hand. She, wearing Native American garb, performed tribal dances and rode bulls until she broke a vertebra in a bad fall. Their sons, Tobby and Shane (who is now in the Marines), were part of the show too—riding, shooting, and roping along with their parents.
Reminiscing on his cowboy days, Fowler readily admits that he was more the heavy than the hero. Back then, all he wanted to do was ride broncs and get drunk. But after a frightening binge that landed him in the hospital, he was led to the Lord by a rodeo evangelist. Since then he has used his wrangling skills in the service of his ministry.
He got the idea for a camel trek about five years ago, when he became fascinated with a group of camels that had recently been brought to New Mexico by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of an experiment to control the creosote bush, mesquite, and tarbush that had flourished in the overgrazed southern part of that state. His interest piqued, Fowler did some research on camels and read about the historic experiments in Texas; he learned that the 25 animals that carried the supplies for Beale and his soldiers had been shipped from the Middle East to Indianola and stabled in Camp Verde, north of San Antonio, before the trip.
Beale, who had never worked with camels, grew to respect and even admire the animals. “They are the most docile, patient, and easily managed creatures in the world and infinitely more workable than mules,” he wrote to Secretary of War John B. Floyd, who had ordered the expedition. After the success of Beale’s trip, Floyd requested a second expedition, led by Lieutenant William Echols, to reconnoiter the part of West Texas between the Rio Grande and the Pecos. Echols, a topographical engineer, also found camels admirably suited to the West Texas terrain and credited them on one occasion with saving lives: The group ran short of water, but the camels were able to travel for more than a week without a drop, leaving the dwindling supply for the men.
Like Beale, Howdy Fowler says he has come to respect his camels, although he has found that Beale overstated some of the animals’ good qualities and downplayed others that were less desirable. Fowler arranged for the use of the camels, which are worth $7,000 each, with Tom Smith, a spry, elderly wild-animal trainer from Kokomo, Indiana, who delivered the camels from his farm in Kokomo to Port Lavaca in a trailer. The Fowlers scrimped and saved for more than two years to raise the money for the trip. Even so, they’ve relied heavily on the kindness of strangers.
When the camels were led out of the trailer, Fowler, who is not a timid man, took a few steps back. The camels, he says, were roaring like lions, they stank, and they were not happy about being cooped up in a trailer. Smith had told Fowler that the animals were “trained,” a statement that Fowler feels was somewhat exaggerated. Smith guaranteed the animals wouldn’t bite, but he would not promise they wouldn’t kick. Kicking, however, proved to be the least of the Fowlers’ problems. A far more obnoxious aspect of the camels’ behavior is their spitting. Actually, they don’t just spit. “They puke,” says Fowler, who discovered that fact the hard way. And while they are well suited to dirt, sand, and even asphalt, they slip and slide in the mud. Fowler and his family made only 6 miles the first day, although they now average 15 to 20 miles. On a few occasions, they have covered as much as 35 miles a day.
Fowler says his experiences on the journey have been mixed, but mostly good. In any case, he’s glad he started in Texas. Residents of Port Lavaca, who watched him learn the peculiar ways of camels in a very short time, have kept track of the expedition’s progress with a weekly dispatch published in the local newspaper, the Port Lavaca Wave. Editor Steve Bales says that Fowler’s project “has created some excitement around here and put us on the map again.”
On the road, the camel caravan inspired double takes not only from people but also from animals. Brahman cattle grazing near the road would take one look, freeze, then head off in the opposite direction. In the town of Marathon, two cowboys riding quarter horses and leading a couple of unbroken horses down Main Street suddenly found themselves with four out-of-control animals in a mini-stampede.
Some of the ranchers the caravan encountered were happy to put up the camels in a corral or pasture for the night. But others, says Fowler, could not have cared less. “They were hardened. We could have been riding gorillas—they look at it as foolishness.”
Fire ants and drunks were the worst pests the Fowler’s found on their journey through Texas, and things could become problematic late at night, when the bars closed. After a glimpse of the camels, says Fowler, “a few people probably went home and swore off drinking.” One night, however, when the caravan was camped near Hindes, a carload of drunks stopped to gawk, and one trigger-happy man aimed a pistol at K.C. “I had to take out my gun,” Fowler recalls, “and level it at the driver. They left, but we stayed awake all night praying they wouldn’t come back.”
In Marfa, by happy coincidence, they ran into San Antonio sculptor Bill Sandidge, who was there working on an adobe construction project. It happened that Sandidge had been dreaming for ten years of reenacting the Beale expedition, and when the Fowlers invited him to join them for part of the journey, he was elated. Sandidge has done a good bit of thinking about camels and their place in history. “There’s a lot of symbolism to the camel,” he says. “It’s not just the Christmas image, the camel is also an environmental animal—it saves water. It’s nature’s masterpiece of conservation.” What’s more, for Sandidge as well as for Fowler, the notion of camels silhouetted against the setting sun of West Texas has come to have a certain rightness to it, especially because the fossilized bone of the camel’s ancestors lie beneath the terrain all across Texas. Giant camels, now extinct, roamed the arid terrain of West Texas long before cowboys, Indians, and mustangs formed our modern iconography of the West. If the experiments of the nineteenth century had turned West Texas into camel country instead of horse country, one of our most cherished symbols would be decidedly different. And who knows what rodeos would be like.