From The Hump of Clyde

Experiences with Camelot

Oh Clyde. Clyde Clyde Clyde.

Clyde was acting up, I guess you'd say. He was running me into trees, brushing me against rock and, perhaps worst of all, stopping with no warning (and no invitation) to chew on tumbleweeds. Not perfect behavior, perhaps, but exactly what to expect from a camel if the animal senses you are not in control.

Precisely. I was not in control of Clyde because I had to keep swinging around in my seat to take pictures of the spectacular terrain Clyde was carrying me through, or scrawl notes about what it was I noticed as we plodded along through the spectacular desert west of Moab. If you can excuse me for being slightly preoccupied, then perhaps you can excuse Clyde for taking advantage of the situation.

'He's testing you,' said Marcee Moore, Clyde's guardian and the co-owner of Moab's Camelot Adventure Lodge. 'They do figure things out.'

Indeed they do, for this is the camel's territory, really, not the humans'. Clyde and I and Marcee, along with Laura, who was atop Bill, and Terry Moore, Marcee's husband and the other half of Camelot, were winding through low dunes and scrub that hugged a thin strip of relatively flat land between the Colorado River and towering red buttes and pinnacles that reached skyward on either side: Camel Butte, Saddlehorn Butte, and Pyramid Butte, along with Dead Horse Point State Park and the Anticline Overlook, both high above us, and Canyonlands National Park, which started a few miles downriver. Over hill and through scrub and across rough rock, Clyde plodded along.

If the essence of Utah is its accessible wilderness, then Camelot Adventure Lodge is perhaps the embodiment of that. The five-room lodge is just 16 miles west of Moab, yet it takes an hour to get there by vehicle, and the road is so rough even those in four wheel drive and low range will wonder if their trucks are being pulled apart. Once at the lodge, there is no television, not much in the way of radio, and no crowds; the lodge is off the grid - it uses its own well for water and solar cells for power - and there is only one other home in the vicinity. Beyond that, it is pure Utah wilderness.

This lodge has been the embodiment of a dream for Terry and Marcee, who have run lodges in Alaska, where Marcee is from, and had extensive work with animals - Terry is a longtime animal trainer. After the long Alaska winters started to wear on Marcee, the couple moved south and set up in Moab, building their choice lodge on a 50-acre sliver of private land wedged between the state and national park as well as wild, largely-inaccessible Bureau of Land Management land.

It took three years to build Camelot, and that was hard work, said Terry, since he did almost all of it himself and brought out building materials one pickup-truck load at a time (he drives a truck with a V-10 engine). But while the lodge is certainly beautiful, it is the six camels who live next to it that make the place truly special.

Clyde, Moto, Raji, Bill ('It's funny,' said Marcee. 'People who come and stay several days come to see that Bill really is a beautiful camel.'), Lady Guenivere and Curly are all mature one-humped camels who get along just fine in the Utah desert with all the tumbleweeds they can eat ('For these guys, thistle is like a Powerbar,' explained Marcee), though Terry does supply the beasts, which can grow to be 10 feet at the shoulder and 1,600 pounds thin, with plenty of high-quality hay.

Terry and Marcee say the camels ought to be at home here. Camels originally lived in North America tens of thousands of years ago, though the animals were about the size of a hare. Later, the animals grew and branched into one-humped and two-humped camels, as well as llamas, shaggy beasts in the camel family but more typically found in South America. Though camels were not endemic to North America when explorers made it here, a large contingent was brought over in the mid-19th century for use in expeditions into the Southwest. Camels, of course, do well with heavy loads in hot areas devoid of water, but they never caught on in the way that horses did. After abandonment, a large herd lived wild until the 20th century in Nevada, but camels never really found widespread use again. Today, said Terry, Camelot operates the only camel-based tour company in America.

In a way, then, it's a shame that camels should be treated as novelty. While they may not have the emotional charm that horses do (and I doubt, for example, that there will ever be a book called All The Pretty Camels or a movie called The Camel Whisperer), they do have a certain beauty of their own.

Camels stand tall, much taller than a horse, but lay down nearly flat for you to climb on. Once on, the well trained ones respond to simple commands: Hut, to stand up; Hush, to sit down, and Whoa, to stop. To my admittedly untrained rump, camels seem to offer a much smoother, more predictable ride than horses.

For me, I think they are hilarious. When I stopped to think about it, I had never seen a camel up close and in person. They have huge eyes that naturally flow into Dumbo-sized nostrils, and each nostril becomes a part of their lip, and their mouth often seems to be half open. If they've had a good hike then the seem to foam at the mouth, which Terry said was normal.

Out on the trail, Terry points out the unexpected variety of plant and animal life that make a home in the low desert: everything from the predictable sagebrush to yucca, globemallow, and wild onion.

'The desert is lush,' said Terry, 'not barren.' In the vicinity there are also odd geologic wonders, Anasazi petroglyphs and tool-making sites, and an Anasazi granary. The area is also popular to four-wheel drive enthusiasts, boaters, hikers and mountain bikers, who tackle the famous Amasa Back trail.

Obviously, due to its remote location Camelot is not for everyone, and Terry and Marcee apparently don't want it to be for everyone, either. To drive to the site you need four wheel drive and high clearance and, since the Hurrah Pass road skirts numerous sheer cliffs, you also ought to arrive during daylight (Laura and I, even in her Pathfinder, found out the hard way) and if rains or snowmelt swells Kane Creek, which must be forded, you can be cut off from the rest of the world while you wait for the waters to recede. Once you are at the lodge Marcee prepares delicious meals, but there are no other services nearby. Alternatives to the four-wheel drive adventure are to mountain bike to the lodge or hire a jet boat in Moab to drop you off at the lodge (it overlooks the Colorado) and pick you up at the end of your stay. Moab has an airport with regular passenger service to Salt Lake City International Airport, and Moab itself has all (well, most) services.

Laura and I saw Camelot the wrong way: we arrived late at night and were gone by noon the next day. What you really have to do is spend about a week out here and, like Marcee said, get to know the beauty of the camels. This way, you also get to take much longer camel rides as well as hikes and go swim and play in the languid Colorado.

On the way back to the lodge Laura, riding Bill and led by Terry, went ahead, and I stayed behind to take pictures of the three of them meandering over sand dunes and up against cliffs. It was a queer sultry summer day in the desert, and a thunderstorm was already brewing along the high country over Canyonlands National Park. The air was the sort of dead-weight heavy air, thick, promising rain, and Clyde, after riding me through the ringer, was taking his time, plodding one three-toed foot at a time. But on a certain more difficult-to-manage slope we caught up with Laura and got a good look, and now I can say this with absolute certainty: Bill is a beautiful camel.

For more information check out Camelot Lodge

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