Sunny Khalsa, tall woman in white cowboy boots and denim, clucked softly at her camel Meshach as she led him around the parking lot of the New Mexico School for the Arts. On their way from Texas to Colorado, they stopped in Santa Fe to pick up a hat from friend and local hat maker Scott O'Farrell, whose shop is right down the street from the school.
Catching sight of the unlikely duo out in the lot, students left their classrooms and gathered at the fence to watch Khalsa gently tap at the camel's feet with a long red and white striped fringed rod to encourage the animal to kneel, stand or move forward.
The sight of a camel cruising through downtown Santa Fe felt nothing short of surreal. But what locals might find even more surprising is the fact that there have been times in this region's history when the sight would hardly have seemed so unusual. And long, long before there were people or coyotes or deer here, there were camels. Meshach is the most recent participant in a millennia-long story of camels' movements across the region.
Khalsa says she's always had a flair for the eccentric. She grew up in a Sikh community outside of Española and attended Carlos Gilbert Elementary and Alameda Junior High in Santa Fe before leaving to attend high school at a boarding school in India. As a kid, she says, she often rode her horse to school. Khalsa always felt more comfortable traveling by horseback than by foot or vehicle, and has spent most of her professional adult life training wild horses. But this is the first time she's ever trained a camel, and the stakes are high; in the next few weeks, she and Meshach, and her horse will set out on a month-long trek out to the Grand Canyon.
The trip, says Khalsa, was inspired by Carol Bishop Stanley, the founder of Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú. In the early 1900s, Stanley and a group of other women traveled together across the rugged Southwest, taking several trips from Northern New Mexico and Colorado to the Grand Canyon. Khalsa spent time working at Ghost Ranch, and as soon as she read Bishop Stanley's biography, Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women & Their Adventures in the American Southwest by Lesley Poling-Kempes, she knew she wanted to do a trek along their original route.
"I read the Ladies of the Canyons and I was just so inspired by all of these incredible women living outside the box, not doing the norm, in a time when that was really outrageous. They were extraordinary people, and I felt especially connected to their story because I worked at the ranch for so long," says Khalsa.
She wanted to do the trek on her own, but she quickly realized that a single horse would not be able to carry enough water to traverse the distance between the small desert towns spread thin along the route.
The solution? Take a camel.
As bizarre as it is to see a camel loping down the street in downtown Santa Fe, SFR was even more surprised when Khalsa said the camels of the Middle East originated in North America. Once upon a paleological time, ancient camels roamed the vast savannas that covered the landscapes of what is now Northern New Mexico. As it turns out, camels also played an important though mostly forgotten role in the more recent history of the American West.
"Prehistoric camels used to live right in the area around what is now Española. Because of the fossil record we know that there were actually many different species of camels," Santa Fe artist Phoebe Adams tells SFR. Adams is an amateur paleontologist and former member of the Amateur Paleontological Club in Albuquerque. Several years ago she found pieces of fossilized bone on BLM land in the badlands that stretch southeast and southwest of Española. Adams estimates that the bone is 10 to 15 million years old.
"It's marvelous to think that what our land looks like now is not what it looked like before," says Adams.
The New Mexico Geological Society estimates that around 60% of the fossilized skeletons found by members of the Santa Fe chapter of the group between 1924 and 1965 belonged to camels.
Scientists believe that for 40 of the 45 million years that camels have existed on Earth, they could only be found in North America. The largest herds roamed across the Trans Pecos region of Texas and the southern portion of New Mexico. At White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, a set of prehistoric camel tracks can be found leading out across the rock flats.
Three to 7 million years ago, one branch of camels migrated south towards South America, eventually becoming the llamas of today. Another branch of camels traveled north, crossing the Bering Straights into Asia. These are the ancestors of modern camels. Native camels in North America went extinct, killed off by disease, hunting and changing climates.
Several million years went by, and then in 1855, camels came back on the scene when Jefferson Davis started the US Camel Corp, sending out troops with militarized camels to secure the territory won in the Mexican American War along routes that often passed through New Mexico. The Army used camels to police local tribes including the Hopi, who gave Khalsa permission to cross their land on her trip with the request that she and Meshach attend a community discussion of the violence inflicted upon the tribe by the US Camel Corp.
After the Civil War, Army camels were auctioned off to traders, miners and circuses, or let loose to roam through the desert. During the Gold Rush they became such a popular form of transportation that owners of major horse ranches felt threatened and lobbied local governments to ban transport by camel.
By the 1920s, camels had once again disappeared from the West's trails and mesas. Today they are slowly making a second comeback with wilderness adventure companies. The most popular camel trekking company is located outside of Fort Davis, Texas, and takes visitors on camel tours of Big Bend.
Khalsa says that if her Grand Canyon trip is successful, she hopes to start a camel trekking adventure company to take tours through the Four Corners region.
Editors note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the schools that Khalsa attended, and misspelled the name of her camel. She attended Carlos Gilbert Elementary and Alameda Jr. High, and the correct spelling is Meshach.
Editor's note: an earlier version of this story did not include the full title of the book that inspired Khalsa's journey. The full title is Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women & Their Adventures in the American Southwest, and the author is Lesley Poling-Kempes.