Joe Norman, a 38-year-old wilderness guide from Calhoun, Ga., just returned from a camel trek across a remote area of Saudi Arabian desert. / Contributed photo by Omar Adel Alsughayer via Joe Norman

In another era, Joe Norman might have been called a vagabond. He even has a nickname worthy of a wayfarer, Cotton Joe Norman.

The 38-year-old former Chattanooga resident has spent much of his adult life pursuing an untethered existence. He spent four years living and hiking in Europe. He has spent time riding camels in Morocco and hiked the entirety of the International Appalachian Trail, which stretches hundreds of miles into Canada.

"I've always enjoyed being outside and being in nature," he explained, modestly.

some text
Mark Kennedy

At other points in his life, Norman has worked as an instructor for a North Georgia wilderness therapy company. He is currently employed as a mentor and life coach to troubled teens whom he counsels over Skype.

Earlier this year, Norman, who now lives in Calhoun, Georgia, got the invitation of a lifetime.

Through a network of friends he learned of a one-off opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia. To encourage tourism, the kingdom's Camel Club was staging a camel-back caravan across a portion of the Arabian peninsula called Rub al-Khali, otherwise known as the "Empty Quarter" because of its inhospitable sand dunes and summer temperatures peaking at 130 degrees. The "Empty Quarter" is said to be the largest uninterrupted area of sand on Earth.

The trek, involving camel-riders from many nations, was being staged to commemorate a similar desert caravan in 1932 led by St. John "Jack" Philby, an Englishman who had set out into the "Empty Quarter" to find a lost city called Wabar. Philby didn't find Wabar, but he did discover a deep depression in the desert and chunks of iron thought to have been left by a meteorite impact.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, while accustomed to international business travelers, has no widespread tourist industry, Norman said, and so this "Empty Quarter" trek was a big deal there. It was covered extensively by the Saudi media, he said. About 4,000 people applied for the trip worldwide, and Norman reasons that he was chosen because of his outdoorsman's resume.

"I was one of the lucky ones chosen," he said. "There were only about 20 foreigners picked."

Norman was one of three United States citizens on the trip and the only one to finish the journey. A support crew in cars was on standby to swoop in when travelers faltered physically or simply wished to go home.

Ironically, Norman almost didn't make the trip because he was taking care of his mother, who was battling a serious health condition in Calhoun, he said. When she realized the exclusivity of the trip, though, she insisted that her son not miss his chance.

Norman said the trip was heavily subsidized by the Saudis. He spent only about $250 on the monthlong journey, which included 22 days in the desert. Start to finish, the caravan covered 375 miles. Every three to five days they would stop for a rest day, he said.

A relatively mild period from February to mid-March was picked for the trek, with mid-day temperatures reaching about 105 degrees and then plunging into the 40s at night.

Norman said once in the journey the group ran short of water for a couple of days. A seasoned outdoorsman, he had packed a water filter.

Another time, some in the party tried to swap out his camel under the guise that it was a dangerous animal. Norman knew better. His camel was the "Land Rover" of the caravan, he said, and he successfully lobbied to get it back.

Norman said it was culturally significant that a Saudi woman was on the trip, a fact he called the most historic part of the journey.

"Hearing people's background stories was totally amazing," he said. "You come from different worlds, but you are all human.

"We all want love and belonging. We all want adventure. It was all very eye-opening, and very humbling."

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.