Why the hell would anyone want to go on a hike with a llama?
It's a question you might end up asking yourself if you spend enough time tooling around northern New Mexico.
If, for example, you end up SOL in Taos past midnight on a busy weekend, and it's dark and cold and you feel a little bit like crying, but you get lucky and there's a sudden vacancy at the American Artists' Gallery House Bed and Breakfast, then you might ask such a question.
It happens like one of those old "fortunately/unfortunately" stories:
Fortunately, a room is available.
Unfortunately, you have to negotiate past a sporadically cantankerous one-eyed peacock to get to it.
Fortunately, the room has a fireplace with logs at the ready.
Unfortunately, the same peacock wakes you up at the crack of dawn.
Fortunately, the peacock is awkwardly beautiful as he does his mating dance for an empty patio full of lawn furniture.
Unfortunately, you can't dally, as breakfast is on a tight schedule.
Fortunately, breakfast includes blue corn pancakes, fresh turkey sausage and an oral history of the peacock, who turns out to have ditched his family and is, in fact, a deadbeat bird.
Unfortunately, there is no genuine maple syrup.
Fortunately, there's a brochure rack chock full of options for area outings.
Unfortunately, the best on-the-fly option is for Wild Earth Llama Adventures, and that leads to the question, "Why the hell would anyone want to hike with a llama?"
Fortunately, there's an answer. Because llamas frickin' rock.
When Stuart Wilde found himself young and broke in Taos more than 15 years ago, it was no big deal. An avid outdoorsman, Wilde was happy to camp in the backcountry and dip into town only occasionally in order to, uh, hang out with the other young, broke people.
But Wilde's happy-go-lucky and adventurous lifestyle developed a twist when he wound up a father. It was one thing to go it alone in the wilderness, another thing to care for his young child. His solution: a llama.
Agile relatives of the camel, llamas can't carry people around like horses, but an average one can haul approximately 80 pounds of gear. Plus, they're good-natured and sure-footed enough to travel the most arduous trails. With a llama carrying food and gear, Wilde was able to carry and focus on his most important cargo, his kid.
Along the way, Wilde ended up taking in more and more llamas—they're herd animals and enjoy the comfort of one another's company—and eventually Wild Earth Llama Adventures was born.
My hike with Wilde took place on the Big Arsenic trail in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area, just outside of Questa, New Mexico.
It's a short hike, approximately a mile down to the bottom of the Rio Grande Gorge, a 680-foot descent. Our group assembled in a parking area at the trailhead and Wilde introduced us to his llamas. He delivered the obligatory warnings about walking into cacti and drinking plenty of water for folks unfamiliar with the high desert, and then we paired up with animals.
I fancied a dark and fidgety beast named Diego, but he found me downright spooky and was scarcely interested in looking at me, much less carrying my crap. I ended up with an impossibly chill llama named Rusty, who approached all things—obstacles, fresh grass, perilous cliffs, llama newbies—with a kind of infinite, stoic patience.
For the record, I am a bitter loner who dislikes people in general and I maintain particular acrimony for groups following a guide. Part of it is I grew up with a mountaineering-guide father, an exceptional guide in my estimation despite whatever other kinks our relationship has had, and I am generally disappointed in the abilities of others. Tour groups and herds of people following guides or docents or whatever raise my hackles as they tend to be dopey, unobservant and willing to believe whatever they're told.
The day I happily tag along on a guided tour is the day I take the fast way to the bottom of the gorge.
Wilde is different.
Clearly an exceptional husband to his animals, he also is an adept amateur botanist, geologist, ethno-archaeologist and a highly competent guide. Plus, he's an etymology dork, which makes him good company no matter the course of conversation. He's smart enough that he's probably related to Oscar.
Still, there's no need for a llama to carry your gear on a two mile hike, even a steep one.
But there's something in the character of the animals that puts one in a different mind frame than huffing along with a daypack. They have their own pace and their own distinct priorities and observations, and tagging along as a llama's companion alters one's own perception of the wilderness. They're gentle enough for children and the elderly to enjoy, and Wilde cleverly uses the llamas' natural habits and stopping points as opportunities to discuss the flora, fauna and micro-ecologies that are passed through during both short hikes and extended trips.
Plus, even if you're cocky enough to carry your own pack, there's no denying the joy when Wilde whips some folding tables off of one llama and a couple of coolers off another and prepares a gourmet, self-serve Panini bar at the juncture of a freshwater spring and the Rio Grande. Fresh wild watercress picked from the streamside on that sandwich? Yes, please.
I'd go into deeper detail about the wild bank beavers, the hidden New Mexico "Riviera," the fascinating and intense concentration of petroglyphs, the secret perch over the roiling river and exactly where to get yourself a handful of fresh watercress, but then I'd be robbing you of the pleasure of discovery alongside your own llama. It's just something you'll have to experience for yourself.
Wild Earth Llama Adventures