When I was just about to send my editor the final revision of Alphabet of Dreams, I began to worry about camels. I had done tons of research on camels, but it was all safe research, the kind I vastly prefer: Reading books about camels. Going to movies with camels in them. Taking brave, camel-riding people out to lunch and asking them camel questions.
So I hadn’t actually ridden a camel, myself. And now this pesky voice in my head started torturing me. “Yeah, you know a lot about camels,” it said, “but what if you’ve missed something? What if you’ve got some little camel-thing wrong, and the camel people will know it, and they’ll all sneer at you?”
I tried to make the voice shut up, but it wouldn’t.
Did I mention that I knew a lot about camels?
So finally I gave up. I went online and found a camel ranch where I could take a half-day camel trek in the desert, and I called to reserve a spot.
“The road to the ranch is kind of tricky,” the woman said.
“Tricky? What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s just that there are some clearance issues.”
“Yeah. In other words, better not rent a sports car or something low to the ground for driving here. There are a few potholes and such. Get an SUV.”
And such. That worried me a little. So I rented a Ford Explorer.
When I cut off the highway for the road to the camel ranch, the road still looked like an actual road. Okay, not a paved road, but still a road.
Pretty soon, although the road still looked more or less like a road, it had narrowed to the width of the Explorer–plus or minus a few inches–and the left-hand shoulder of the road had vanished entirely, replaced by a steep, plunging chasm.
Guard rails? Surely you jest. There was nothing between me and–not to put too fine a point on it–The Yawning Abyss.
I thought I was gonna die.
Later, I found out that just the previous week someone had accidentally driven off the edge and had to be helicoptered to a hospital.
When I finally got past the chasm, the road gave up looking like a road altogether. It seemed to be just a hilly field full of wide, flat, tippy boulders. I had to guess whether this wide, flat, tippy boulder or that wide, flat, tippy boulder was supposed to be the so-called road. And every time I drove up onto one of the boulders, I experienced one of those clearance issues the woman had mentioned: the bottom of the Explorer scraped, with a sickening, grinding sound, on the rock.
By the time I reached the camel ranch, I was laughing hysterically with relief to be alive. It was either that or cry, and frankly, crying is embarrassing.
Camel riding? Piece of cake. Unfortunately there was a torrential thunderstorm going at the time, and I was the highest point in the desert landscape, and the saddle had a metal frame. I looked up at the lightning forking down at me from the heavens and asked the guide to stop the camel and let me get off and walk. I’m really good at walking, I told him. It’s one of my special skills.
No go. But we made it back alive.
And I did find the one little camel-thing that I had wrong. To wit: The camel kneels down so you can climb onto its back. Then it rises to its feet, unfolding its legs in a complicated way: up to its back knees first, then all the way up in front to its feet, then all the way up in back to its feet. Before actually riding a camel, I thought you’d want to lean backward first, then forward, then backward again, to avoid being catapulted off the front or rear of the camel. But all you have to do is lean back the whole time. “Lean back!” the camel guide kept yelling at me.
So there it was—the reason for my journey. I fixed it in the book.
Above is a picture of Clyde, the camel I rode. What a total sweetheart!