A Camel Walks into a Saloon
It’s another severe clear summer day on the Comstock. I’m at the end of the bar nursing a cold beer. I’ve earned a drink or two to quench my thirst after racing camels all day in the high desert. Gazing out the picture window, I contemplate the vastness of the Nevada desert from the comfort of the dark saloon. On my barstool, safe from the glaring sun outside, I consider the majesty of the rugged landscape. A landscape that pioneers seeking their fortune in precious metals once braved with far less resources than I have at my disposal today.
As I take my next sip of frothy goodness, in strolls a camel. Quite nonchalantly.
The serene late-afternoon atmosphere at the Bucket of Blood Saloon is no more. Patrons fawn over the beast, burying their hands in his soft fur. He doesn’t stay long. It’s already been a long day and he needs to rest up for another round of races tomorrow. He’ll return to C Street and his adoring fans at the saloon tomorrow for another appearance.
This scene might surprise a lot of folks but it’s par for the course in Virginia City, especially after 57 years of camel racing history here. The fact that the saloon in question is an icon of the west, notorious for its bloody past during the mining boom of the mid-1800s, is also the norm.
It’s also a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Because here you can race camels. Or ostriches, or zebras for that matter. And it all started as a practical joke by the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, the same publication that gave Mark Twain his start. In an environment as unforgiving as Nevada, having a sense of humor is a must.
I knew I had to be a part of this tradition the moment I learned about it, oddly enough, thanks to a moving truck with a mural of the races emblazoned in its flanks. Three years later, I found myself clinging to a camel’s saddle rail with one hand while pumping my fist in the air as I crossed the finish line, having vanquished my challengers.
Truthfully though, I climbed onto the camel’s back in the rickety starting gate simply hoping I wouldn’t end up dead or injured. Between the warnings of possible death and destruction by the camel handlers and watching riders fall all day, my turn in the final round left me plenty of time to reconsider my life choices.
And now, sitting in the Bucket of Blood, celebrating my unexpected camel-racing victory, I’m utterly taken in with this place. The combination of Virginia City and camel racing is a modern-day twist on the old wild west. The textures of the old buildings, the volatile history, the quirky experiences, and the genuinely friendly locals—this is why I keep coming back.
Want to join in the fun? Get your fill of Virginia City’s Camel and Ostrich Races during this year’s event running from September 8th-10th.