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

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 Calhounas Kit Carsonthan 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.

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