Tales from the Chute: The 2017 Virginia City Camel and Ostrich Races
It’s the second weekend in September and I’m in the center of the arena at the Virginia City Camel and Ostrich Races once again. After our brief interviews for the spectators, Joe Hedrick, the man in charge of the show, has just given us the command to head to our respective chutes. As we work our way through the soft sand, the butterflies in my stomach amplify their gentle fluttering to a full-fledged rave. At the last moment I decide to ditch my over-shirt and media badge as potential distractions. I fling them carelessly to the side of the arena and approach the back gate of the chute. Chute number one opens and I get the first look at my mount.
Back in the chute
My camel rocks back and forth vigorously. I lie to myself that this isn’t a problem and feign confidence as I climb up the flimsy wall of the starting gate. Once on top of the narrow, one-inch-thick wall, I see that my beast is still rocking and crammed as far away from me in the chute as he can possibly be. I reach for the handler’s firm, stabilizing grasp while attempting to let go of the back wall. It takes a couple of false starts to release my grip on the only solid thing around. I squat, hoping to slide onto the camel. I struggle to gauge the distance with his movement. I make the mistake of looking down. I freeze for a moment. And now I’m hyper-aware that I’m taking too long to mount. These camel races are fast-paced and the organizers like to keep things moving.
After a couple more attempts to mount gracefully, I accept that grace will not be part of the equation here. I take a deep breath and lunge for it. It’s the only thing to do at this point. I don’t have my timing quite right with the swaying beast so I overshoot a little and end up almost in the next chute. My foot making contact with another camel’s back in lane number two is the only thing that keeps me from going over. I quickly wrestle myself into position, trying to regain focus after my inelegant mounting attempt.
I confirm with the handlers that I’m ready to ride. My camel is swaying even more vigorously now. Holding on fiercely with my legs and arms, I wait for the trumpet call and the gates to burst open. Just before the big moment, something sprays me and my two fellow camel riders from behind. The startling splash makes me turn back to see what was happening. Of course, at that very moment I was turned backwards, the gates opened.
My camel bursts out to the left as much as forward with the first big push of his strong legs. The force sends my disoriented body to the right, clenching the front ring for dear life. I’m all-too-aware that pressure on the side rail of the saddle is ill-advised. The sudden forward motion, along with that jolt to the side, also sends my torso upwards. Fortunately my noggin does not hit the rigid header to the starting gate. It does hit the wooden chute number sign, though. Thankfully, it swings.
I have milliseconds to regain my composure as my mount races headlong down the first stretch of the u-shaped arena. He pulls out strong and in the lead. As he approaches the turn, he slows. I watch as the other racers’ camels run wide around the arena. To save distance, I pull my camel to the left, close into the turn to make up some time. It doesn’t work. He has other ideas. As in, “Nah, I’m going to just jog this one in.”
I watch as the other racers approach the finish line and I begin to laugh. I can hear Monty, one of the camel handlers, behind me trying to get him to run. I’m urging my camel forward with my right heel hard but fruitlessly. My many years of horseback riding clearly do not impress this animal.
I laugh my way across the finish line thinking what a marvelously bizarre day it has been. I hand the lead rope to the handler and prepare to perform a one-legged dismount from my unmotivated camel. I learned how to do this last year so at least that isn’t a surprise. Once again I plummet six feet to the arena floor from the back of this beast. With more skill this time, although not gracefully by any stretch of the imagination.
As for the unexpected splash at the start, it turns out that a wind gust blew a puddle of rain water off of the canopy overhead. My competitor in chute number two took the brunt of it and was completely soaked. And she thought her camel had peed on her. No two camel races are the same.
My first race heat
My run in that last heat wasn’t my first time in the arena that day, though. As a member of the media, my race day was Friday, the first day of the event. It’s kind of a tester day before the big crowds arrive on Saturday and Sunday. This year the good folks of Virginia City tourism decided to add a little prank to the races and a few of us media-types were the guinea pigs during the Friday show.
Unlike the spectators pulled from the stands on the following race days, thinking they were getting an unexpected camel racing adventure, we knew we’d be riding that day. We went through the usual process of being introduced to the crowds before being sent to our chutes for the race. Except we were handed camel-versions of hobby horses—camel puppets on sticks. At first we laughed, thinking we’d put on a little stunt before mounting real racing camels. Nope. They actually intended us to race our stick camels around the arena.
I couldn’t hide the horror on my face. An actress, I am not! Running is not on my personal menu of activities since being hit by a car while riding my motorcycle in 2015. My lingering injuries from that crash make running superbly painful. My head was spinning with how to handle the situation. One option was to bow out. That’s not my style, though. Another was to saunter around the arena with a swagger, trying to play the aloof participant. Or I thought maybe I could just semi-jog it but that seemed lame. Before I could make my decision, the chutes flew open and I had to act. The Camel and Ostrich Races are a show after all. So I went all in. As much as I could. I lost spectacularly, of course. But I did it.
I limped my way out of the arena and sat down for a rest in the VIP tent, shaking with pain. My dear friend Amy, who is no stranger to this level of injuries herself, handed me pain meds and a big bottle of water. Knowing I had an actual camel race ahead shortly meant I wouldn’t be flitting around the arena trying to get pictures of the action. Deep breaths, water, rest, prop up the bum leg. That’s the formula.
Later on, the director of Virginia City tourism, Deny Dotson, remarked at the look on my face when I realized what was happening with the spoof race. He thought my reaction was because it seemed I wouldn’t get to race a camel as expected. That was a minimal surprise and disappointment compared to the feeling of panic at the thought of not only running, but doing it in front of an audience.
I don’t regret giving it a shot. The pain subsides. Well, mostly. What I knew I’d regret is not being true to my personality by allowing someone else’s actions several years ago to continue to dictate how I live my life. So I count it as a win. A painful win, but a win.
Last year my biggest challenge was figuring out how to dismount the camel with a bum leg. Little did I know this year would prove more challenging. Just to be clear, I would rather attempt six-foot leaps off of a camel’s back all day than try to run.
For the love of camel racing
Back in the center of the arena for the post-ride interviews, now being 1-1 in my camel racing career, I lamented my loss to the crowd. And to the question if I’d ever do it again? Oh, yes. You bet your sweet camel I’ll do it again.