Imagine a furry horse with a long upright neck, rabbit ears like parentheses, a face like a kindly squirrel, eyes like a giraffe’s, legs like a camel’s.
What you’ve got is a llama, ears tipping out at maybe six feet, weighing 300 or 400 pounds. Not overly friendly, with a cat’s independent attitude that says, “I’ll tolerate you, but we’re not bonding.”
That was my hiking partner on a recent day-long trek in the Pisgah National Forest within the Great Smoky Mountains. Aloof to the point of turning his head every time I looked at him, projecting disdain tempered by tolerance – after all, I did hold the halter rope which gave me dominance if not acceptance.
He could probably trace his ancestry back over 6,000 years to the earliest llamas domesticated by the Incas around Lake Titicaca in South America. He must have sensed I couldn’t trace my heritage back more than a few generations to Germany on one side and Ireland on the other. Maybe.
In fact, the whole llama genus probably sprang from some mammalian Camelidae family in prehistoric North America that split, part going south to become llamas, the other part trekking west into Africa or Asia and becoming camels.
Whatever, now their surefootedness and padded feet, along with their ability to graze on almost anything (except mountain laurel and rhododendron, both extremely toxic to the breed), combined with a gentle manner and great common sense has made them excellent pack animals and trail companions, able to carry up to about 120 pounds – 30 less than I weigh, which made riding out of the question.
It’s claimed that llamas enjoy hiking as much as their handlers do. But how can you tell someone’s having a good time if they won’t even look at you?
Our llama wranglers, Lucy and Laura, had loaded our llamas with folding stools, folding tables, folding potties, a lavish picnic, rain shields and first aid supplies. Our five-hour trek took us through lovely trails, crossing the Appalachian Trial (pack animals aren’t allowed on the Trail itself, although hikers we met eyed our llamas with envy), through woods and wildflowers up to a grassy clearing high in the mountaintops for lunch.
The trek along a different route back to the starting point was highlighted with mountain vistas whose misty tops proved the aptness of their Smoky Mountain name. Throughout the trek, Lucy and Laura kept us entertained with mountain lore, flora/fauna info and llama facts (they really don’t spit – unless they’re really provoked, then it’s mostly at other animals, so stay out of the line of fire!).
Towards the end, our llamas showed a real eagerness to reach the base camp. One kept nudging its handler in the back; all were emitting an excited high-pitched whine sounding a lot like a chorus of operatic divas.
I think mine even glanced at me once with a look that said, “For a city boy you did okay.”
– Rich Steck