Doug lightly kisses Daleel’s nose before walking away to help out some of his other clients, who will also be coming along on the trek with four other camels. Alone with Daleel, I imitate Doug. I drag Daleel’s face down, and try to mask my apprehension. His size intimidates me: can camels smell fear? His long eyelashes splay out like the legs of a centipede. Our eyes meet. I begin to blow a thin but steady stream of air into his nostril before Daleel reflexively pulls his head away from me. I let go of his reins, suddenly self-conscious of my breath, which lingers with the stale odor of coffee.
It’s a thirty-mile drive from Fort Davis to the Gearhart Ranch, where the camels are corralled. There’s a holy glow in the Davis Mountains that morning. As I make my approach, the two-lane highway narrows, and the untrodden landscape of the desert west, which usually arches back to reveal yawning skies and distant, untouchable mountains, begins to crowd. The hills are closer here, lusher. The hills are made of a green I’ve never seen before in this desert.
For three years, I resided in the Far West Texas border town of Presidio, where I worked as a journalist covering immigration and border security. I didn’t know much about the border before I moved there, but I’d grown up with two immigrant parents—my mother from Iran, and my father from Germany. Two weeks after I moved to Texas, I saw camels grazing along the fence line of a luxury ranch resort called Cibolo Creek. The same ranch where Antonin Scalia would later die. I felt suddenly transported to Iran; the landscape looked similar enough. And I wondered about the camels.
At the Gearhart Ranch entrance—its only distinguishing feature a wooden cutout of a camel attached to the property fence—a simple cattle gate swings open onto a dirt road that leads to the ranch headquarters. Just beyond are the camels, which are kept in horse pens. This isn’t Doug’s ranch—he keeps his camels on his own land in Valley Mills—but he has a working relationship with a handful of the area’s ranchers who let him use their vast swaths of land to guide his treks. Since ninety-five percent of Texas land is privately owned, for guides like Doug, these kinds of relationships are necessary.
Within our caravan is Richard, a twenty-two-year-old Arabian camel who is the patriarch of the bunch; a stalwart, revered presence. Cinco is the next oldest and the only female. Jadid—Arabic for “new”—is a six-year-old in the throes of teenage rebelliousness, with whom Doug is handsier and more assertive. Xi’an is the only Bactrian breed among them, boasting two humps instead of one. When Donelle, the middle-aged woman who will be riding Xi’an, notices that his front hump curves a slight right, Doug jumps to his defense. “It’s perfectly normal,” he says with the custodial alarm of a parent forced to confront someone who sees their child as anything shy of perfect. “It’s just genetic, like having red hair.”
Then there’s Daleel, the youngest of them all, who’s just learning how to abide by the rules of the caravan. Doug’s treks combine a guided tour of the Davis Mountains with lessons in ecology and history, and generally attract the type of tourist who wants to spend time outdoors without the effort of setting up a tent; Doug does that for you. Almost all of his clients are women. Men just aren’t that into camels, Doug explains. Within our group of seven is only one man, a sixty-five-year-old cross-country coach named Dale who agreed to go on the trek with his sister, an exotic-animal enthusiast. The other four include three middle-aged sisters on a reunion trip, as well as the daughter of one of them.
This is Daleel’s first trek, and I will be walking alongside him. That was the caveat when I asked to come along for free, since the experience normally costs $750. I like to hike, and I’m fairly fit, so I didn’t think twice in accepting Doug’s generous offer. To travel among a caravan of camels in the West Texas desert seemed idyllic, whether or not I was actually riding one. Besides, I liked the idea of walking in solidarity. We will bear the burden of these hills together, I whisper into Daleel’s nostrils. He is still unimpressed with my breath.
While we pack saddlebags and get to know our camels, Doug informs me that Daleel and I will be at the front of the caravan, leading the charge. We set off by mid-morning, leaving the pens behind us as we climb single-file past a windmill along the steep incline of the ranch dirt road. We will follow this road for much of our ten-mile journey, traveling along just a small stretch of the twelve hundred miles traversed by the Beale Expedition of 1857, when frontiersman Edward Beale was commissioned by the United States government to survey and build a road that could connect New Mexico to California. The road would later become part of Route 66 and after that Interstate 40. It was instrumental in the movement of settlers to the west, and paved the way for the transcontinental railroad. It was called Beale’s Wagon Road then, though most would call it by another name, the Beale Camel Trail.
Daleel is three years old, which is around eight human years. While we walk, he is distracted by any and all sources of food, which in this desert is a surprising amount; mesquite beans, prickly pear, ocotillo, and creosote—all barbed and injurious to a human touch, but the lining of Daleel’s lips is impervious.
“Yank his head,” says Carson, a high schooler who’s assisting Doug with the trek. She sees me struggling to keep Daleel in line as he veers off the trail in pursuit of some oak. I do as she says, but he doesn’t budge. My only other experience with camels was in Iran, where I’d gone on a tour of the desert dunes outside of the historic city of Yazd, once a crucial point on the Silk Road where traders would stop for days to rest their camels and peddle their wares. There, we met a small group of camels held in pens. At the end of the day, my guide prepared a rich stew of camel meat.
“Harder,” Carson says. I yank hard and successfully lead Daleel back to the head of our charge. At this point Doug tells the caravan to come to a halt, which we do by saying “Whoaaaa” to the animals. I’m pleased to see Daleel slow. He comes to a stop, landing with one foot on top of mine.
“How you doin’, kid?” Doug asks me as he rounds the front, and I grin and nod emphatically, trying to disguise my efforts to wrest my size 6 1/2 foot from beneath Daleel’s, tears welling in my eyes. He’s about eight hundred pounds distributed onto four legs, which by my calculations means two hundred of those pounds are on my toes. I pull my foot free and immediately step aside. Daleel is eating again.
Doug points out the mountains in the distance to our left—Mt. Livermore, the tallest peak in the Davis Mountains, summits at eight thousand three hundred seventy-nine feet. This landscape is thirty million years old, he tells us. Before that, the desert was more than once covered by an ocean. In the scheme of things, the history of these camels seems negligible. But history is written into this landscape, and the camels are part of it.