ARUN RATH, HOST:

Not sure if this fits in with The New and The Next, but here's an unusual business idea that seems to be working. In Texas, a former zookeeper takes intrepid travelers camping via camel. NPR's Wade Goodwyn went with him to a place where camels were once a common sight, the Big Bend region of West Texas.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: It's 10 o'clock on a crisp west Texas morning and a group of five camel trekkers stand under the open sky of the Davis Mountains. A few feet away, guide Doug Baum and Jason Mayfield load up five camels.

DOUG BAUM: Jason, let's take this, and it's going to go on Irenie. She's going to end up carrying two of these bags.

JASON MAYFIELD: Or we can leave it. It's only the cook gear, right? We don't need it.

GOODWYN: You have to like a man who brings his own camel to a camel trek. On Jason Mayfield's arm is a tall beautiful blond.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMEL GRUNTING)

MAYFIELD: Yeah. Her name is Butter. She is 8 years old. I've raised her since she was 24 hours old. I raised her on a bottle. She is truly one of my best friends on this planet. There's nobody that I would rather go hiking with or camping with.

GOODWYN: Mayfield says everything Americans think they know about camels is wrong. They aren't mean, they don't spit - it's the camel's cousin the lamas who spit - and they're every bit as smart as a horse, if not smarter. Mayfield says he loves his wife and children dearly, but he'd rather be with Butter on trips into the wild.

MAYFIELD: Butter never complains. Butter's always eager to go. Butter's always happy to see new places, new faces. And that's what makes it exciting for me. About as good as they come.

GOODWYN: For thousands of years, camels have carried men and women across the world's deserts. Butter, Irenie, Richard, Cinco and Ibrahim know they're about to go on a camping trip, and they're practically as excited as the guests - talking to each other as the men load them up.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMELS GRUNTING)

GOODWYN: The camels kneel down on all fours so that you don't have to board by trampoline. When the camel stands up, it's quite the roller coaster. But then it's like you're riding an 18-wheeler. You can see everything from up here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMEL GRUNTING)

BAUM: As we roll, folks, we go single file. If your camel tries to pass the next camel, slow them down with the reigns.

GOODWYN: And with that, we're off into the beautiful Chihuahuan desert of the Davis Mountains. At more than a mile above sea level, this is Big Bend country. In the winter, the yucca and prickly pear cactus combine with the gama grass to paint an endless vista of green and gold. The mountain peaks reach to more than 8,000 feet and hide stands of juniper, oak and pine. In a crowded world, this is the antidote. The scale out here is so vast it's diminishing. It's impossible to feel master of the universe in this place. Guide Doug Baum says an indigenous people lived here 9,000 years ago.

BAUM: If you look at virtually any limestone shelter in the hills or mountains, the discoloration on the ceiling owes its color to the soot from fires.

GOODWYN: Later, this became the realm of the Mescalero Apache and the Spanish and the Comanche. And finally in the 1850s, the first American settlers took root as the nation moved west. And the soldiers that came to guard them discovered that their horses and mules didn't cut it out here. They couldn't traverse the distances between the water supplies. So General Jefferson Davis brought in camels before turning his attention to other things, like secession.

BAUM: The U.S. actually sent a sailing ship, the USS Supply, twice. And they bought camels in the modern countries of Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and what's now Turkey.

GOODWYN: Eventually, hundreds of camels would be in use in the Big Bend by the army and private owners. What happened to them all? Well, after the Civil War, everything that the Confederate traitor Jefferson Davis had advocated for was scrubbed away, and that included the Army's camels. The railroads finished them off. By the 1870s, the camels were mostly gone, that is until Doug Baum and his Texas Camel Corps brought them back.

Michael and Brandi Wilbanks left their three teenage children back in Fort Worth to log some precious time alone together. It was Michael's idea to camel trek. When he first proposed it to Brandi...

BRANDI WILBANKS: What?

(LAUGHTER)

WILBANKS: Are you kidding me? I don't think so.

(LAUGHTER)

WILBANKS: And then it kind of grew on me.

GOODWYN: Camel trekking is like backpacking, only without having to carry anything. When you tire of riding, you walk. Got a long climb ahead? Get back on your camel. Bird watchers in particular love the freedom it affords them. This is the Wilbanks' first time riding a camel, their first day.

WILBANKS: It's been a little scary.

(LAUGHTER)

WILBANKS: But it's good. It's good.

GOODWYN: Ten thousand years ago, a species of prehistoric camel roamed Big Bend. Smaller than the camels of North Africa, they were eventually hunted to extinction by humans and other predators. But a tiny echo of their existence still walks the Trans-Pecos. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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