Even at the time it seemed bizarre, but the U.S. War Department had a logical enough idea: Why not mount horse soldiers on camels?
After all, a camel could go a lot longer without water than a horse. True, soldiers charging on camels might not be as intimidating as a wave of saber-brandishing, bluecoated troopers astride galloping horses, but for getting from Point A to B in the desert Southwest, camels would be highly efficient. Too, they could carry more supplies than mules.
The Army acquired 33 camels from the Middle East and shipped the animals and their North African handlers to the Texas port of Indianola. In 1859, a Cavalry camel caravan traversed the Big Bend as the military continued the experimentation it had begun two years earlier. Their route included moving through a feature now known as Dog Canyon, though given its history it seems like Camel Canyon would be more appropriate and alliterative.
Each camel carried more than 400 pounds of equipment, went up to 72 hours without water, and enjoyed eating the ever-present creosote bush that no other stock would touch.
As a modern interpretive marker in Big Bend National Park explains, in summarizing the camel’s performance in the Big Bend, Lt. Edward L. Hartz said they effortlessly crossed terrain of the “most difficult nature” while covering 20 to 34 miles a day.
Several years ago, by accident, an acquaintance and I decided to do what the soldiers on camels had done — hike Dog Canyon. My original plan had been to walk the two-mile Grapevine Hill Trail west of the Panther Junction visitor’s center, but a heavy rain in that part of the park the day before had left the trail temporarily closed.
At the visitor’s center, I asked a yucca-thin, old-hippie-looking park ranger if he could recommend any short trails not impacted by the recent rain.
“Dog Canyon,” he said right away. “It’s only a little over four miles and easy. It’s only called moderate because once you get in Nine-Mile Draw, it’s rocky.”
He provided a one-sheet map of the trail, which begins 22.5 miles north of Panther Junction. Once we got to the trail head, we parked, smeared on sunscreen and packed two 16-ounce bottles of water each. We set out about 12:30 p.m. The temperature was around 90, relatively cool for mid-day in the Chihuahua Desert low country in early summer.
I was doing fine, but we had barely gone a half-mile of the 1.5 miles to the cut off to the canyon when my fellow hiker — hefty and not in great shape — said he couldn’t go any farther. I knew I couldn’t carry him out if he got in trouble, so I didn’t try to convince him otherwise. Since I had already started on my first bottle of water, he graciously gave me both of his and headed back to the car.
The trail to the canyon is “cairned.” That means that every so often, there’s a pile of rocks to mark the route. If you see one pile on your left, the next pile should be on your right and so on. The trail crossed white, dusty hardpan dotted with an occasional cactus, including the strongspiked variety known as the horse-crippler. Patches of grass and brush with rising yucca stalks completed the landscape.
The rock piles are a lowimpact way to guide hikers, but I somehow managed to get off course by mistaking a left-side rock pile for rightside.
When I finally figured that out, which cost me some distance, time and water, I had to cut through shin-high grass to get back to the trail, hitting the cover with my walking stick to ward off any rattlers that might be lurking there waiting for lunch to wander by. Not being able to see where I was stepping had me spooked so I jumped the last foot or so to get back on the trail. I landed too hard on my left foot, which was already a little sore. Now it hurt worse and I was walking with a decided limp.
As I continued to navigate the rock piles, it was getting hotter. I was hitting the water regularly and before long I had finished the second of my four bottles.
I finally reached the Y where the trail turns east up Nine-Mile Draw to Dog Canyon. The draw proved much more interesting than the trail. But the walking was harder. Now I was alternately walking over gravelly sand still moist from the previous day’s rain or large beds of water-smoothed rocks of all shapes and numerous colors ranging from pebbles to basketball-size. Interesting geology, but I was now significantly hotter, thirstier and more tired than I had expected to be.
Still not to the canyon, I decided to take a break. I picked a shady spot against the bank of the draw, took off my fanny pack, hat, bandana, and sunglasses and sat down in some still runoff-moist sand. I ate some trail mix and drank some water. After about five minutes, feeling better, I got up and started out again.
As I approached the entrance to the canyon, a party of young hikers from Angelo State University passed me on their way out. The professor leading the students stopped to ask if I was by myself and I said yes, that my erstwhile co-hiker had turned back and was waiting in my vehicle. I had decided to go it alone, I said. “Bravo!” he said, moving on.
Finally, I reached the deepest part of the canyon. With high rock on either side, it would have been a great place for an ambush back in the day. But heat, fatigue and a low water supply were now my enemies, not renegade Apaches or Mexican bandits. Still, I kept going toward the eastern mouth of the canyon before finally deciding I had gone far enough. When I got to the highest wall, which also made for the most shade, I again took a break to eat more trail mix and down more water.
Now, I had less than one bottle to make it back on and began to realize that when savvy desert hikers say you should always take more water than you think you’ll need, they know what they’re talking about. I should have rested longer, but I knew if I sat too long, which is what I felt like — even lying down sounded good — it might cause my fellow traveler to think I was in trouble. Which I was about to be.
Continued next week.
An award-winning author of
more than 30 non-fiction books, Mike Cox is an elected member of the Texas Institute of Letters. A long-time freelance writer
and public speaker, he lives near Wimberley in the Hill Country.