Driving Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix is boring, to say the least. I joke that all I have to do is point the car east and put it in cruise control, then fall asleep in the back seat. While that’s both an obvious joke (please don’t do such a thing) and not quite true – there are, after all, some turns in the highway – it is not a stretch to say that this several hours of interstate is not so interesting.
I pass the time with the license plate game, seeing how many I can find. (This trip, the final tally is 45 states – I got both Alaska and Hawaii just outside Tucson within ten minutes of each other – plus four Mexican states, two Canadian provinces, and US government plates. Not a bad haul.) That, however, does only so much.
But even in the boring flatness of the Sonoran Desert, there are interesting stories that can be found with a little research or, in my case, a bit of luck. I was on Google Maps, looking for a good place to stop for lunch, and I happened upon Quartzsite, Arizona. Two exits off I-10 where US 95 hits, it is a nothing of a place, a few gas stations and fast food joints… but I noticed a marker on the map for the tomb of Hi Jolly. It being about 45 seconds out of my way after gassing up, I decide to check it out. And I’m glad I did.
Hi Jolly was born Philip Tedro in 1828 “somewhere in Syria,” as the marker reads. After making the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj, he changed his name to Hadji Ali. As Americans are ridiculously incapable of even attempting to pronounce names not in obvious American English, upon arrival in the US in 1856, he was called Hi Jolly, a rather poor attempt at his name’s proper pronunciation, and one likely done in jest more than anything else. Regardless, it stuck.
Hi Jolly was hired by the US Army to help create a camel corps – yes, really – to navigate the long distances of the US southwest. Thirty-three of the animals were acquired and shipped to Arizona via Texas, and Hi Jolly, along with several others, was tasked with overseeing the efforts to both care for the camels, and to test their effectiveness in army maneuvers. It apparently might have been a successful effort, if not for the onset of the Civil War, which caused the camel corps to be disbanded, and the animals auctioned off. (Apparently they also didn’t get along so well with the mules and horses already being used.)
Hi Jolly remained in Arizona, based here in Quartzsite. Using some of the camels, he ran a freight service, bringing supplies to the mines in the region. However, the business wasn’t overly successful, and he released the camels into the Arizona desert, where apparently they survived for quite a while, though none are left today to the best of my knowledge. He became a US citizen in 1880, and died here in Quartzsite in 1902, where the local cemetery was named for him.
(The cemetery is also home to the final resting spot of one Buck Connor, a contemporary and friend of Wild Bill Hickock, and star of a myriad of movies. I stop at the marker and learn a bit more.)
Driving out of Quartzsite, I notice camels decorating various buildings, and even the underside of one of the bridges over I-10. I’ve done this drive literally dozens of times, and never noticed those before. But now, thanks to a bit of luck and a lot of bored curiosity, I am party to one of the more outlandish stories of the Arizona desert. Make this a stop on your next trip, too, and learn the fascinating tale of Hi Jolly, the camel driver of the US southwest.
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