Llamas: They expect YOU to know what you're doing

  • Llamas Juan and Booker trek through a Colorado wilderness

    Hal Clifford

DURANGO, Colo. - Juan stares at me with soulful brown eyes. We have spent six hours on high trails without seeing anyone else, descending finally to a timberline camp. Above us looms a cirque of tundra painted with the muted, water-color palette of high country autumn. Heavy trout rise just beyond casting range in this abandoned lake. Life, says the look in Juan's eyes, is good.

I open a bottle of beer I've chilled in the lake. Dipping a corn chip into a jar of salsa, I pose Juan a question: Do you always stare like that? Or only when you're chewing your cud?

The previous night I lay awake pondering Bob Harmes' admonition. "The last thing you want is a loose llama. Don't let go of the rope. Sometimes," said the owner of Buckhorn Llamas, "they take months to catch. You lose 'em, you own 'em."

We had come to southwestern Colorado to lease a pair of llamas and take them, without guides or wranglers, into the Weminuche Wilderness, a 55-by-25-mile swath of the San Juan Mountains. We are not livestock people: Marty lives in suburban Boston; I have two spoiled house cats. But after decades of backpacking, our knees hurt. We were intrigued by the idea of a docile animal that walks gently on the land - unlike horses and mules - and carries 80 pounds without complaining.

Llamas don't like to be alone so we leased two geldings - light brown Juan and black-and-white Booker. Bob went over the basics in a day: how to saddle and load, what to do if they lie down in the trail (spin them around) or won't cross a log (pull and push). They will go anywhere we can walk without using our hands. They'll graze on the grasses in the high country and - because they're camelids - may not drink water for several days.

We spent the cool hours of that evening in the hotel parking lot, packing $95 worth of steak, mushrooms, fresh basil, French bread, smoked Gouda, grapes, peaches, beer and wine into the fat canvas panniers each llama carries. Each pair of panniers must balance; we carried a scale and weighed them each morning. Shuffling gear for balance, we quickly lost track of where things were. The camp chairs, the telephoto lenses, the tent and tarps and two-burner stove all went - somewhere. We carried only small belt packs. By the time we were done packing we had 144 pounds of gear and food for a three-day outing. I had been seduced by the idea that the llamas would carry the gear; I hadn't thought about lifting it on and off the saddles. By the end of the first day my back was killing me - but not my knees.

The Weminuche is Colorado's largest designated wilderness area, still rough enough to shelter at least the rumor of grizzly bears. We had time only to nick the southwest corner of it. Recent rains had sent a fresh crop of mushrooms up through the grass, and open meadows near treeline were lined with the porcelain blue of fringed gentian. We climbed slowly through scattered timber, onto a spreading plain 11,000 feet high: a mesa formed by an ancient seabed.

With Booker's lead rope tied to Juan's saddle, and the gear on their furry backs, we seemed to be strolling, not hiking. The llamas hummed at first, and when a llama hums, we were told, he's saying, "What are we doing now? I'm not sure I like this." Booker hummed at any change in the status quo.

Still, he liked to walk. He liked it so much he would crowd me, breathing pestilent llama breath into my ear. Both of the boys, as we came to call them, enjoyed going uphill so much I almost ran to stay ahead of them on steep pitches. It was a "let's get it over with" pace. But for the most part, when Marty led the llamas I wandered along the trail, hands in pockets. I didn't break a sweat the whole trip, a novel experience after endless weekends humping a 50-pound pack.

My main problem with llamas was psychological: they were a responsibility. As a backpacker I've grown accustomed to being able to do what I want and go where I want. What I expected from this trip was an extension of that freedom. In fact, having llamas with us was akin to bringing children along. Before we could flop we had to picket the llamas. Traveling off-trail meant finding routes that avoided hands-and-feet scrambling. Bushwhacking through dense timber or blowdowns was out.

We picked campsites near water and grass, watched for other livestock, hikers or dogs, checked on the boys in the morning and evening. Nor did the boys seem to care much about us, something hard for the pet-lover in me to accept. They're not pets; they're livestock - cute livestock, but still livestock. They don't want their ears scratched. They don't want to play. They expect you to know what you're doing and follow the rules they have come to understand.

The payback came at camp: steak; pasta with mushrooms, Parmesan and basil; soup; quesadillas; cookies; salad; beer and wine. Perhaps, I thought as the stars broke out that first evening, I could adapt.

The second day, 13,000-foot peaks ranged through the distance as we picked our way among the tarns and creeks on a broad finger of land reaching out from the Needle Mountains. At dusk, at the pond we had chosen from the map, a meteor came in low and hard across the horizon, rushing the breadth of the sky, outshining the moon for three heartbeats.

The first rains of autumn pattered on the tent. Come dawn the mesa was covered with fog, the llamas indistinct lumps in the grass. Coffee brewed a red sunrise and the slow unveiling of more mountains to the east. We were headed out this day, but those mountains beckoned. Our mistake, I realized, was in not staying long enough. We had been intrigued by the llamas' carrying capacity, only to find ourselves with too much food, beer, gear. Better to live more ascetically and stay longer, walk through those mountains for 10 days.

We had gotten to know the llamas. They let us rub their necks. They put their noses close to ours, curious. We confidently cinched the saddles, and when I swung the panniers in place my back felt fine; I had learned how to lift correctly. Booker hummed infrequently.

At the trailhead that afternoon I fed Booker and Juan handfuls of rolled corn. They remained curious and alert as they rode away in the back of Bob's pickup. I don't imagine they miss us. Who knows what goes on in a llama's brain? But I was sorry to see them go. I liked them.

Hal Clifford writes in Aspen, Colorado.

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