VIRGINIA CITY — Nothing quite says Northern Nevada like rodeos, cowboys and … camels?
Yes, camels. And sprinkle in a few dozen ostriches, zebras and emus for good measure.
The unlikely combo is on display at the International Camel and Ostrich Races, which are celebrating their 59th year this weekend in this historic town, population 855, that sprang up in 1859 when the Comstock Lode was discovered.
The event delivers exactly as its name promises: jockeys racing on the exotic animals and, for the little ones, duck and emu chases.
For the fans and the folks working behind the chutes, including handler Monte McClurg, the unpredictability of these ungulates and giant flightless birds is part of the show’s draw.
“This ain’t no sport for wussies,” said McClurg, who has worked with camels for more than 25 years. “This is a dangerous sport, and people want to see that.
“Even me, and I train these camels and work with them all the time,” he said, “I don’t know what these camels are going to do every race. They might decide to run perfectly; they might decide to run in circles. The unpredictability of it is what people want to see.”
For nearly six decades, that unpredictability has been helping attract people from across the country who want to see the hoofed creatures gallop through the dirt with cowboys on their back in the middle of Nevada.
People such as Genene Kloppenburg and her 17 fellow “seniors,” as she calls them. The group was on an RV trek that stopped outside Reno on Friday, and they decided to make the 40-minute drive to Virginia City to witness something they’ve never seen before.
“We’re always looking for something quirky,” said Kloppenburg, 55, from Folsom, California.
“How else do you entertain a group of 18 seniors?” she added.
But all the quirkiness of the event might be trumped only by the story of its origin.
As Virginia City tourism director Deny Dotson puts it, it all started with some old-school fake news from the local paper, the Territorial Enterprise, where Mark Twain’s byline once graced the pages some 100 years earlier.
The paper published a story promoting that there would be camel races on the town’s main drag.
Just one problem: There weren’t any camels or races planned, according to Dotson.
“The editor at the Territorial Enterprise basically wrote a spoof,” Dotson said.
The story went out on the wire and hit the desk of the San Francisco Chronicle.
“The San Francisco Chronicle read it, said, ‘Shoot, we got camels right down here at the zoo,” Dotson said.
The paper got the zoo to bring the camels up from the Bay Area, over the Sierra Mountains and into the tiny town 421 miles northwest of Las Vegas. And thus the camel races now steeped in Virginia City lore were born.
Fifty-nine years later, that tradition still holds strong in the town, whose motto is “Step back in time.”
“We do a lot of things up here in Virginia City that are I guess a little unique, a little quirky,” Dotson said. “We try to take a little bit of our history and make it fun.”