Ghost Relics

By  |  April 12, 2019
Photo by Sasha von Oldershausen Photo by Sasha von Oldershausen

“To walk along these paths feels like you’re accessing the long history of the land.”


 

A year and a half after Sasha von Oldershausen left Presidio, Texas, where she spent three years reporting for a community newspaper and national news outlets, she continues to write about the border. Her coverage consistently recognizes the region’s complexity with a precise attention to lived experience at its most vulnerable—the expression on a painted mural figure’s pensive face above surrounding slopes, a pronghorn peeking from a body bag while dangling from a helicopter. Her first piece for the Oxford American, The Camel Experiment, reveals the roots of Southern border security, an issue that’s often presented as a byproduct of current politics. Situating camels as a link between historical and contemporary border surveillance, von Oldershausen traces two border walks separated by time: Jefferson Davis’s experimental traverse of newly acquired U.S. territory with camels in the 1850s and her own recent trek through the Big Bend region. Her essay evokes a sense of fractured ongoingness, inviting questions about artifacts brought into or born of the desert landscape: “The camels at Cibolo Creek aren’t descendants of the original Camel Corps, but they’re a reminder,” she writes. “They graze along the fence line like ghosts; I saw them, and then they were gone.”

Von Oldershausen is currently enrolled in an MFA program in nonfiction writing at Columbia University, where she’s working on a book about her experiences as a journalist covering the border in West Texas. She continues to look for stories that move across cultural lines, including the Persian diaspora, with recent pieces examining the Iranian film adaptation of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and the confluence of pollution and religious practice along the Karun River in Iran. Her OA essay is her first in a series on animals as symbols of regional issues in the borderlands.

I spoke with von Oldershausen about her adventures in camel research and how border policy and the landscape of West Texas are inextricable. 


When you first moved to Presidio, you saw camels grazing along a fence and they piqued your curiosity. How did the story evolve from there?

It was basically a five-year evolution toward this story. I saw those camels and I was immediately reminded of Iran, where my family is from. I had that feeling like when you wake up and you don’t know where you are, and that feeling stayed with me the entire time that I was living in Presidio. I had asked around and heard something about how the camels were brought to the area before the Civil War, but I didn’t actually pursue the story until I left Texas. One day I was poking around in the library and discovered this whole history behind them that was so fascinating. I found this book of Jefferson Davis’s correspondence as Secretary of War with various officials in the government; he was trying to persuade them to go along with his camel experiment. I spent weeks reading through these old letters. I discovered that there was this man, Doug Baum, in the middle of West Texas who was leading camel treks, and I decided that I absolutely needed to go on one, so I reached out to him.

As you were researching, did anything surprise you or had you heard bits and pieces of the history before?

There was some misinformation that was circulating. I’d heard from folks in West Texas that the camels had been brought there to aid in the Civil War, which was not the case. The camels were brought there prior to the Civil War as a way of navigating border security at the time. In fact, they were kind of cast aside because of the war. People know implicitly that the camels belong to the landscape and I feel like that’s the case with so much of what exists in the West Texas border region. So much of our history is literally written into the landscape.

What was your experience like on the trek, beyond what you reported in your essay?

To want to participate in a trip like this, you’re likely to find people with weird and quirky obsessive tendencies. Doug and I shared that obsession with the history. Then, one of the women on the trek, Donelle, was an exotic animal enthusiast and had several llamas and emus on her own ranch, so she brought this whole other infatuation. She had a very close relationship with one of her llamas, she told us; he would wait like a dog at the doorstep for her to come home. He was allowed inside the house. Her brother, Dale—the one who let me ride his camel—was a cross-country runner and endurance horse racer and had that staid obsessiveness that so many endurance racers have. Throughout the trek, he kept impressing upon me that I have the perfect build to be an endurance horse racer, and eventually I became obsessed with the idea that endurance horse racing was my true calling. I never did follow up on that, though.

It was truly wild to see how much the camels could carry and their tenacity throughout the trip. They didn’t have a sip of water the entire time, and at no point did they make a fuss or put up a fight as they carried the trekkers, as well as all our baggage—even the littlest one, Daleel. When we made it back to the ranch, Daleel made a beeline for the water tub, and took these immense slurps; it sounded like finishing the dregs of a milkshake through a big straw.

You wrote about how the camel trek exposed you to a more lush environment than you’d experienced during your time in West Texas. How did the landscape infuse your writing for this piece?

The high desert of far West Texas is a big source of inspiration in my writing. I think when you’ve lived in a place like that, you notice the ways in which the landscape is so tethered to daily experience; you’re constantly interacting with the flora and fauna of the place, constantly forced to notice. Maybe I was more cognizant of it because I’d grown up in New York City, where our experience of wildlife consists of encountering rats on the subway and pigeons fighting over a stale bagel in the street. One summer in Presidio, I had a scorpion problem in my house. Each day, I’d find six, seven, eight little scorpions in my casita. I had to search my bed sheets each night. The pillowcases, too. I was taking a bath once when I saw one dangling by its tail from the spout of my bath, and then plunged into my bathwater. Or, I would sit at my writing desk, and discover a six-inch millipede creeping along the pages of my notebook. You were forced to interact with these things. So I started to pay attention more.

As a border reporter you’re hearing about people passing through this landscape. Migrants who come through and often don’t make it. Many of their bodies are never found and the few that are have experienced excruciating wear. It’s really devastating to encounter and after a while of living on the border I’d heard about that more and more. You become desensitized to it. Then when you’re walking on a trail in the desert, as people often do out in the Big Bend because it’s a beautiful place, you might come across a little totem of canned food or somebody’s shirt. They’re these reminders of people coming through that land and it just makes you pause for a moment. I know that I often did.

Were you always interested in covering immigration and border issues?

I was excited by the prospect of reporting from the border but I didn’t know necessarily where that excitement stemmed from. My mom is from Iran, my dad’s from Germany. I grew up with a lot of immigrant friends in Queens, which is a hugely vibrant and diverse area, but my mom was kind of ashamed to say that she was from Iran for most of my life. She had immigrated to the United States at a time when Iran was not perceived well in the media, kind of like it is today, so when people would ask her where she was from she would often just say “the Middle East” to be as vague as possible. But you can’t erase your own culture, and growing up, I was privy to Iranian culture without necessarily knowing it as that. I grew up eating certain foods with certain etiquette and traditions but didn’t know that they were specifically Iranian until I left home for college and was interacting with middle-class white American kids. I had never seen myself as outside the norm of what it means to be “American” and suddenly I was confronted with what seemed to be quintessential Americans. I think I’ve always been drawn to things that straddle two sides. I think ultimately when I moved to the border, it was some version of that as well. I was drawn to this place without knowing why, necessarily, but soon realized that even though I didn’t speak Spanish when I moved there, and even though I didn’t grow up in Texas, some part of this community I could relate to because it resonated with my own experience.

You worked for a local community newspaper, the Big Bend Sentinel, but you also reported for larger outlets, such as Texas Monthly, Texas Observer, the New York Times, and Vice. How did you feel local coverage of border issues compared with approaches that national outlets took with their stories?

Working at the Sentinel was the best experience I ever had as a journalist. Often when you’re writing national stories you have to fit it into some narrative in an effort to make it resonate on a bigger scale, whereas when you’re writing for a local community newspaper you don’t have to do that. You’re writing about the people themselves, you’re writing about concrete, specific things that matter to the community.

An unfortunate thing about mainstream coverage of the border is that people will often report on major cities, which makes sense, but the border is two thousand miles long and there are so many of these small communities in the margins that are no less affected by border policy. I’ve stayed tethered to that community style of reporting after a year of being there and reporting daily. I developed those relationships and those relationships never went away. I wish that more community news could exist because it would lend a ton of nuance to the coverage that we see on a national and international scale.

You lived in West Texas for three years. Over the course of that time, did you notice your own perceptions of the border changing?

I had a very skewed understanding of issues around the border before I moved there, and that changed almost immediately when I was on the ground. After Trump was elected, I was talking to someone in Presidio and they essentially said, in so many words, “We’ve been kind of screwed over for forever on the border. This doesn’t change anything.” And I remember that being a defining moment for me. We often think about the border in these very contemporary, transient terms, but the reality is that there’s this long history tethered to all of these issues. Folks living near the border have been struggling with issues of immigration and border security for a long, long time. That interaction was really helpful in situating my own understanding of the border, and again helped me realize this history that’s existed here for much longer than we think. There were flashy headlines in the news, but this was a sharp contrast to this small town of Presidio where things kind of ran the way that they always ran, for better or for worse. It’s not as if the communities along the border weren’t invested in what was happening around them, but I think that their understanding of what was happening on the news is much different from the way that it’s portrayed in the news.

When you were doing the research for this story, did you come across any details that you wanted to include but left out of the final essay?

There are weird little relics in the landscape of West Texas, and there’s a particular series of landmarks that I love along the road between Presidio and Marfa. The first thing you’ll see is a sign that says THE PROFILE OF LINCOLN and to the left there’s this mountain range, and one of the rock faces looks like Abraham Lincoln is lying down and his profile is jutting into the sky. Then you drive a little bit further and there’s a sign that says ELEPHANT ROCK and there’s this series of rocks on a hill that resemble a herd of elephants. And then you drive a little bit further, and there’s Cibolo Creek Ranch, which is where I first saw the camels when I moved here and it’s also where Antonin Scalia died. I loved how you have these contending characters, Jefferson Davis’s camels and Abraham Lincoln and then between them is the elephant in the room, which I thought was so hilarious.

How did you combine your research on the presence of camels in Texas with your experience on the trek itself?

I loved this story from start to finish. I kept asking Doug if the exact path we were taking was the same one walked by the Beale Expedition. Or if the highway that runs between Presidio and the town of Marfa was the same path trekked by indigenous people. Throughout the trek, I found myself obsessed with the idea of the people who’d crossed before me, and of walking in the same footsteps. I kept trying to imagine what it might have looked like back then—probably not much different, to be honest.

Aside from the highways and small towns, the landscape of West Texas is so untouched, it really is the final frontier. To walk along these paths feels like you’re accessing the long history of the land.


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Julia Thomas is an Oxford American editorial intern and recipient of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship 2017-2018. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Nieman Lab, Off Assignment, and Vela Magazine, among others.