The All American Camel

Between my former home nestled in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and my new home in eastern Missouri, is just over 2000 miles of road. Google maps estimates the drive time at just about 31 hours if you follow the most logical route through Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, and of course most of the great state of Missouri.

If you want to get really crazy and add a hundred miles or so to the journey you can swing a little bit south and hit Colorado and Kansas. Either way it’s a pretty drive that will take you through gorgeous mountain passes and wide fields of grazing antelope.

Road signal along Arizona Route 66
Road signal along Arizona Route 66 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But we didn’t go that way. Instead, we began our journey following I-5 south through much of California and then followed Route 66 (roughly of course as “the Mainstreet of America” doesn’t technically exist anymore) across Arizona, New Mexico, a smidgeon of Texas, Oklahoma, and finally Missouri. For some reason, Google Maps does not recommend this particular route, but then there are a few things Google maps fails to consider:

  1. Northern Mountain passes can be quite snowy and, at times, even closed in the middle of February.
  2. Repeating routes fails to help my ambitious 8-year-old reach his goal of visiting each of the fifty states in the United States by the time he is an ambitious 25-year-old.
  3. As much fun as counting bazillions of antelope can be, the possibility of crossing paths with an Arizona ghost camel is even more exciting.

You may have heard that old rumor that there were once wild camels roaming the Arizona desert. First of all, you can rest assured that this particular rumor is absolutely true, though the camels did not start out either wild or ghostly. Actually, the US Army imported around 75 camels following the Mexican-American War and the accompanying expansion of US territory.

The idea was kind of brilliant. Struggling to supply far-flung outposts in the desert, the army realized that camels might be the perfect solution. They can carry heavy loads, require little water, and will happily graze on much of the rough desert plants that cause horses and mules to turn up their noses. But they do have a few drawbacks as well. Unfortunately they have a habit of wandering far and wide to graze, tend to spook other pack animals, and have hooves that are much better suited to fine grains of sand than to the rocky terrain of the Painted and Mohave deserts which often rendered them lame.

In the end, the army abandoned the experiment (to be fair, the Civil War probably gave it bigger things to think about than camels), auctioned what camels it could (alas, for some reason the demand was somewhat lower than anticipated), and simply released the rest.

Enter the era of wild camels roaming the Arizona desert. The camels seemed to do pretty well for themselves and no one outside of a few overexcited hunters paid them much attention except in the case of one very large beast dubbed “Red Ghost.” The first encounter with Red Ghost occurred when a woman was found trampled to death. Next to her, witnesses found large camel prints and tufts of reddish fur.

today I stared a camel in the face
today I stared a camel in the face (Photo credit: Adam Foster | Codefor)

Not long after, a couple of camped out miners reported seeing the beast with what looked like a dead rider on its back. Again, the Red Ghost left behind a few hair samples and his very large footprints. Soon more witnesses were getting in the game, one group insisting that they watched as something fell from the camel’s back and upon further inspection found that it was in fact a human skull.

When, in 1893, an Arizona farmer shot the reddish animal as it grazed in the man’s garden, the apparently dead and now headless rider was no longer atop the  camel’s back, but a saddle complete with unusual leather straps remained. No one ever determined the identity of the rider who, I think we can assume, met with a pretty terrible end.

Mojave National Preserve (53)
Mojave National Preserve (53) (Photo credit: Ken Lund)

But even though the last wild American camel is thought to have died by 1934, rumor has it that one might occasionally spot the Red Ghost and his headless rider wandering through the deserts of Arizona. Whether the witnesses are all stranded motorists who forgot their bottles of Evian, I can’t say. What I do know is that having recently followed the trail myself (thankfully not on the back of a camel) I would have welcomed a change of scenery.  Sadly, we didn’t spot the ghostly pair on our drive, but my son did manage to mark off four new states and we did see a field full of antelope.

Antelope (Photo credit: freedom-studios)

4 thoughts on “The All American Camel

      1. Fun! I like road trips. You must have had quite a time. Good thing you made your trip before the blizzard blew thru this week.
        And that antelope … Definitely an antelope, but seems to have the characteristics of a South African bontebok or its cousin, the blesbok. I wonder what the herd of American pronghorn antelope you spotted thought of that baby.
        I guess you didn’t see the jackalope or you’d have mentioned it. Quite unusual. They’re a cross betwen a pronghorn antelope and the jackrabbit. They are very shy and seldom seen. Of course, they are v-e-r-r-r-r-y fast, with the genes of both animals. Never heard of them? Well, like I say, they’re very shy. They’re a bit miffed because some people think they aren’t for real, so they hide when they see strangers coming.
        Keep your eyes peeled next time you cross the Great Plains.
        You never know …

      2. You caught me, Sam. This is a stock photo and does not accurately depict the field full of pronghorns that we saw just outside the boundaries of Petrified Forest National Park. We had not expected to see them and I didn’t have the camera ready. No jackalopes on this trip. That would have been even more surprising than a the red ghost, I think.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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