Sometimes you just need to leave Reno. As beautiful and as unique as it is, it can also feel confined and almost psychedelically bizarre. Every now and again it’s important to run away and experience something normal and boring in order to get back in touch with reality and reset your brain. For instance, Virginia City’s Camel and Ostrich Races.
Over the weekend of Sept. 8-Sept. 10, Virginia City held its 58th Annual International Camel & Ostrich Races, implying there had been 57 previous International Camel & Ostrich Races. This would come as a surprise to anyone who had been unaware that camel or ostrich races existed, let alone on an international level.
To venture to the 58th Annual International Camel & Ostrich Races means to venture 26 miles southeast of Reno and roughly 158 years into the past. For those unaware, Virginia City is a kitschy tourist town, celebrating Nevada’s glorious past of mining. Did you know Mark Twain used to live right here in Nevada? Wild, right?
While walking the dusty Virginia City streets toward the camel racing grounds, there are shops offering fudge, old time photos, Mark Twain memorabilia (did you know he lived right here in Nevada [wild, right?]), year-round Christmas paraphernalia and knick knacks promoting the Confederate flag. A quick Google search proves Nevada supported the union in the Civil War. Fun fact: Nevada was one of two states to gain statehood during the civil war, on Halloween nonetheless. That’s where our state motto “Battle Born” comes from. I digress.
To watch a camel and/or an ostrich race is a hilarious sight to behold. Three of either animal would be let loose onto the racetrack at a time. The animals would aimlessly meander. The camels definitely had a more mellow disposition, nonchalantly trotting around as their jockeys feverishly attempted to spank them into focus. The ostriches were much more frantic but equally hapless, manically darting in every direction except the correct one. Never before have I witnessed a person riding an ostrich, and I must say it is deeply unsettling. That is not the way God intended ostriches and humans to interact.
Sidebar: There were also zebras on the premises. They could be found backstage lounging around indifferently. However, on Sunday at least, there were no zebra races to be seen. Conclusion: zebras are divas. There was some lighthearted entertainment in between races, including small children adorably attempting to wrangle chickens, that is until the denim-clad adults grew impatient and aggressively snatched the chickens into nets.
Away from the racetrack, there was a smattering of vendors and inflatable whatevers. For food, the camel races offered such delicacies as deep-fried Oreos and Red Bull slushies.
The 58th Annual International Camel & Ostrich Races drew diverse and interesting crowds. Grace Shevell came all the way from Bristol in the UK.
“I’m just backpacking through America at the moment,” Shevell said. “I somehow met a lady who has been apart of these races for 30-odd years. She camped right next to us at Burning Man.”
Shevell went on to say that she had never seen a camel up close before. She was working as a back-up jockey but did not get a chance to race because of “camel politics”.
Blake Zacarias is a business management student from UNR who races camels, ostriches and zebras, and also works as a ranch hand.
“It’s good fun,” Zacarias said. “It’s local. You get people from around the world to come here.”
Zacarias had a friend freshman year whose family was involved in the camel races. He jokingly offered to be a rider. The next day he was racing. He was injured Friday, Sept. 8, after being bucked off of a zebra.
Zacarias added, “You gotta be tough if you’re gonna be stupid.”
Michael Wright raced in Virginia City for 38 years, and the organization he is involved with has been there since 1959.
He explained the legendary origin of the Virginia City camel races: “Back in the 1800s all the camels were up here for the cavalry. They were set loose into the desert. The governor of Nevada and the governor of San Francisco challenged each other to a phony race. That started it, and it continued every year on.”
According to the internet, the Virginia City camel races were born out of a satirical article in the newspaper “Territorial Enterprise,” announcing there would be camel races down Virginia City’s main street. He challenged other newspapers to join. Although it was a joke, the San Francisco Chronicle took them up on it and beat them.
I am not clear on all the semantics of this tall tale and I don’t think anyone is and I think that’s kind of the point. The story in and of itself is so Nevada: the wry sarcasm taken too far, being overshadowed by California and a grand mythos of the desert and freedom. All I know is that the vast and infinite universe has evolved in such a specific way that deep-fried Oreos and lackadaisical zebras were in walking distance from one another, and I think I’m okay with that.
The camel and ostrich races represent what makes Nevada so lovely and so confounding. It is the perfect combination of its absurd sense of humor and obsession with the wild west. As Reno becomes more and more gentrified and too hip for its own good, it’s important for UNR students to attend events like Virginia City’s International Camel & Ostrich Races to remind them what really makes Nevada beautiful and unique.