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Camel Jockeys of the Sierra Nevada 

At the Virginia City International Camel Races, the camels may go fast or slow, but the riders are always appreciative

Wednesday, Sep 10 2003
VIRGINIA CITY, Nev. -- Time was, Virginia City could lay claim to 30,000 residents, two newspapers, five police precincts, countless opium dens, a Shakespearean theater, a thriving red-light district, and the first elevator to rise out of the dust on this side of the nation. It was while living here, in the largest, wildest, and richest municipality in the west, that Mark Twain postulated state revenue might be gained by taxing murder rather than real estate; he also suggested that, given a choice between Nevada and hell, the devil would return home with his tail between his legs. Now a small, quiet town of 1,500, Virginia City clings to a craggy edge of the Sierra Nevadas, seemingly forgotten and frozen in time. The buildings, which have been lovingly preserved since the great fire of 1875, look out over wooden boardwalks and antiquated hitching posts, and, while the main thoroughfare is paved, dirt and well-packed gravel still serve well enough just two streets down. Here, even flanked by the mountains, the sky is a forcible presence, as pitilessly vast as the desert below and wholly undiminished by the massive white clouds that stalk its heights like whales etched in quicksilver. It is little wonder that people around here believe in UFOs, or that Virginia City is rumored to be a seat of modern-day Freemasonry, or that the town marshal, one RT Carlyle, walks around with a six-shooter strapped to his leg, looking just like Buffalo Bill with his black cowboy hat, gray goatee, leather vest, and long wavy hair. Even if Virginia City's economy now turns on the prospect of tourists rather than gold, a fact made clear by the proliferation of art galleries and souvenir shops euphemistically described as "trading posts," it remains frontier country, remote, rugged, and unruly. Anything might happen out here.

"So I said, 'Camels? Yeah, right. Next, you'll be telling me the Ponderosa is just around the corner, and Carson Daily is coming up over the hill,'" chuckles Tyrone David, recalling his introduction to the Virginia City International Camel Races in 1974. A Bay Area native who drove to Lake Tahoe on that warm September day over 20 years ago just to put some miles on his new motorbike, David stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 235 pounds. Not the type of person one might easily mistake for a camel jockey. Of course, that presupposes one knows what a camel jockey looks like.

"I was curious, and the road was winding," continues David, lowering his cowboy hat against an infernal gust of hot wind and dust, "so I followed him up the mountain, and there they were: camels."

I stare down the rocky incline, over bleachers and hay bales, at a U-shaped corral carved out of the side of the mountain. At one end of the track, a fleet-fingered banjo player offers up a staunch version of "Raw Hide," while at the other end an unholy growling drone that occasionally peaks at a bone-trembling roar emanates from the holding pen: camels. A flock of emus darts between the two, seemingly undecided on which noise -- banjo or camel -- is more threatening.

"So they gave me a swig of Jack Daniel's and told me there were only two things I should remember," says David, hitching one leg on the fence. "One: Don't fall off. And two: Do not fall off." David grins. "I didn't fall off."

I watch as three handlers try to persuade one of the camels to settle down on its haunches, tugging at its lead and issuing the order that in the world of camels is more accurately a plaintive plea: "Couch," spoken with the soft Arabic sound as "Koush." Finally, with three camels successfully resting on their pads (patches of hardened skin that act as makeshift hooves on their knees, stifles, hocks, and sternums where they come in contact with the ground), three silver-haired jockeys mount: Gino Oliver, otherwise known as Gen. Gino Vino from Reno, whose signature is an impressive cache of Civil War uniforms; Harry W. Shannon, who is the keeper of Virginia City camel lore, from the origin of the race to the etymology of the word; and Elton Whiggelsworth, who, after 25 years as a camel handler and devoted attendee, is riding in his first race.

"This is the first time I've attended the races without my wife," explains Whiggelsworth, touching a golden camel hanging from his neck as a tear runs down his cheek from behind his sunglasses. Despite the sorrow expressed in his voice while telling me about the pendant (after his wife of 49 years passed away, he augmented it with an outline of Nevada by melting down their wedding rings), he cannot hide his glee at taking second place in the race.

"I always wanted to do it," says Whiggelsworth, who looks more like Rory Calhoun as Kit Carson than any other person I've seen, living or dead. "I love camels. So did she. This camel [pendant] was supposed to be a Christmas present."

Whiggelsworth pins his ribbon to his western shirt as his fellow jockeys approach.

"Thanks, you guys," says Whiggelsworth, his snow-white handlebar mustache bobbing with enthusiasm. "Thank you so much." His friends pat him on the back as if to say Don't mention it and turn to displaying their own ribbons. Given that Shannon's camel decided to slow to an easy meander after the first stretch, Oliver was the clear winner this day. But such is the nature of camel racing. Even if people are chasing on horseback and on foot, a camel that doesn't want to run, won't. In fact, sometimes camels move backward.

"On a track this length, they can travel faster than a horse if they want to," assures Shorty Smith, the international titleholder for camel racing in both Virginia City and Alice Springs, Australia, and the local titleholder for ostrich racing. "But sometimes it's up to the camel."

Widely regarded as cantankerous and obstinate by neophytes, camels are recognized by nearly everyone in Virginia City as being intellectually superior to horses, and, from the saddle, the camel gait feels far more pleasurable and relaxing than a horse's. Of course, that's if the camel likes you, and wants to go.

"You have to watch that they don't smash you against the fence," warns Shannon, who raised two camels inside his house, an activity that he does not count as one of the reasons for his divorce. (He does admit that his son learned to walk holding the back leg of one of those camels.)

And what about the camel's spit, which is actually cud, regurgitated and projectile-vomited onto the often unwitting victim?

"Being spit on by a camel," explains Shannon, "is the same as being spit on by a human being. It's an insult given when you don't care enough about the person to kill him. That camel tried to kill Tyrone [David]. You should know, too, that if a camel is incapable of doing anything else, it will back up and pee on you."

Even so, Shannon's son and his grandson are in attendance, voluntarily.

"It's in our blood," explains Shannon's stepdaughter Noelle Young while holding an ice pack to her knee after a bad fall, of which there are several in the course of the day. "It's genetic. We can't help it."

Today, Young watched her own son, 18-year-old Aaron Young, run his first camel race and place second. Noelle's mother retired from racing only after Noelle was thrown in a race against her. And they're not the only family in attendance claiming three generations of camel jockeys.

"I've tried to avoid this my whole life," says Aaron, hopping around to assuage the sting of a bouncy ride and no saddle. "But there's no denying it."

"We are powerless over camels," concludes Shannon.

Camels were introduced in Virginia City to carry salt in the 1800s; camel races began as a joke perpetrated by Bob Richards, editor of The Territorial Enterprise, in 1959. He was subsequently challenged in print by Herb Caen and staff members of the Phoenix Gazette and the Indio Chamber of Commerce. Camels were borrowed from the San Francisco Zoo, and the race was on. Director John Huston, who was on location filming The Misfits nearby, walked away with the first title.

"After that first year, there were no more uninjured celebrities left to ride," recalls Shannon, "so they called up looking for rodeo riders. I could ride anything until I rode my first camel. Suddenly, it wasn't my manhood, but my intellect and emotions that were being challenged."

Noelle Young agrees.

"Camels may be stinky, but horses are stupid," she submits. She is not the only woman in these parts with a high regard for camels. Of the staggering number of camel jockeys signed up for this year's races, more than half are women. In fact, had I arrived a day earlier, I am told, I would have been but a signed liability waiver away from finding myself on camelback.

Actually, though, featherback seems more my style.

Hanging on for dear life, three jockeys speed down the track atop a trio of angry, galloping ostriches. I am flabbergasted by the sight and strangely, deeply thrilled, even without knowing I have just witnessed a first in Nevada ostrich-racing history: All three jockeys made it across the finish line while still atop their birds.

It is indeed a glorious day: There is only one serious injury (during the exhibition "Honeymoon Race," when one camel sternly refuses to pick up his second charge, Australian rider Andrew Cartright, and expresses its dissatisfaction by trying to walk over the jockey). And Bay Area resident Holly Singleton trots away with the international title on a camel called Shirley.

"Once you go camel," says a pretty young woman leaning against the fence after chatting up one of the camel handlers, "you never go back."

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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