Everyone has a childhood story about going to a zoo and getting
spat at by a llama. So let's put this one to rest. It never
happened! You imagined the whole thing! Trust me. I know from
experience. My four llamas spit only at each other, and then
mostly over food or turf. In three years I've been caught in the
line of fire only once. I was currying Ogar, one of my geldings,
when I snagged a knot and pulled a little too briskly. Chewing
on his cud, Ogar swiveled his head toward me and, curling his
upper lip malignantly, hocked a pungent green loogie in my face.
I was amused until I looked in the mirror a half hour later and
saw that my forehead had erupted in an itchy rash. Ogar's cud
was poison ivy.
Normally Ogar's disposition is soothingly calm. As he parades
through the pasture, he is docile and dignified, with his
aristocratically long neck and that sophisticated droop of his
eyelids. He and my other three llamas respond to their names and
follow me around like dogs. Ogar and his younger sister Vanessa
Snakehips even come into the house for visits.
The general cheerfulness of llamas makes them excellent hiking
companions. That and the fact that they can llug as much as one
third of their 300-pound body weight surefootedly up and down
steep mountain paths. "As llamas have never heard of oxygen,
they do not miss it," wrote the humorist Will Cuppy.
In July my wife, Maggie, and our daughters--Gogo, 12, and Daisy,
9--joined me on a llama trek across the high country of Kings
Canyon National Park in central California. "The llamas carry
all the food and equipment," said Lee Stanley, leader of the
five-day expedition, "so the camping and eating can be done in
A bearded man who wears wool shirts in deep pine-forest colors,
Stanley runs LeeLin Llamatrek, one of a few dozen U.S.
commercial llama outfitters. He and his beasts have been
threading through the California wilderness since 1995.
Llamas express themselves with an assortment of odd little
melodies. They convey distress with a series of short, high,
bicycle-horn-like bleats. The piercing, percussive whinny they
make to show fear suggests a very old car trying to start--and
failing. Male llamas challenge other males by snorting, court
females with a gurgling love call and, when content, emit a
soft, tinkling hum that sounds like an entire orchestra of air
Eight of Stanley's llamas await us in a grove of cedars:
Mortimer (the tallest), Larry (the smallest), Regal, Reverend,
Ramsey, X-Man, Jesse and Tex. Gogo claims Larry; Daisy picks
Jesse. Regal is the spitting image of Ogar, so Maggie takes him.
I choose Mortimer. "His lower teeth stick out just like Mortimer
Snerd's," says Stanley.
"Not exactly," says Gogo. "Mortimer Snerd had an overbite."
She's right, of course. Llamas lack upper incisors.
Among pack llamas, there are no mamas. Females stay home to make
little llamas. The trail has no papa llamas, either. Stanley
won't risk having one of his escorts led astray by a shapely set
of ballerina legs.
Setting off from Zumwalt Meadow, we follow a meandering creek
bed that was once a trading trail of the Yokut Indians. The
canyon is a ragged playground of sheer granite walls, alpine
meadows and icy, trout-filled streams that chortle through the
heavy shade of ponderosa pine. Besides Stanley and the llamas,
our party includes two guides and a honeymooning couple from
Indiana. "Before we left, our friends all picked on us," says
Sherry Smith, the bride. "They said the llamas would spit on us,
like they do to kids at the zoo," says Ross Smith, the groom.
"Llamas just spit at each other," says Daisy. "It's like a
secret handshake." She has Jesse firmly in tow, murmuring,
"Hmmmm, Jesse. Hmmmm."
"Hmmmm," Jesse replies.
Every now and then we pause to pick wild raspberries or gaze at
the red firs whose branches arch skyward. Every now and then the
llamas pause to nibble on pine needles or peer inquisitively at
the twitching leaves, the rising dust, the dappling light.
Occasionally they make unscheduled dung stops. Somewhat less
occasionally they stop to kush.
When a pack llama feels overburdened, he folds his front legs
under him like those on a bridge table and refuses to budge. In
llama circles such sit-down strikes are known as kushing.
Halfway up the first switchback Tex sinks into a furry heap. A
passing backpacker shouts, "That animal needs a rest!"
"Not a rest," says Stanley. "An attitude adjustment." Ruminating
on a mouthful of mustang clover, Tex fixes Stanley with a
disapproving stare. After a couple of minutes of prodding,
Stanley yanks the llama to its feet. Tex is led to the back of
the pack. "As soon as Tex loses sight of the herd," says
Stanley, "he'll panic and want to rejoin it."
Maybe so, but he would be wise to steer clear of Larry, the
Roberto Alomar of llamadom. In the three hours it takes to reach
a stand of lodgepole pines, Larry has spritzed X-Man, Jesse and
After getting strafed in the cross fire, Gogo throws in the
towel. She and I swap llamas, Larry for Mortimer. Ten minutes
later Jesse decides to take a dirt bath, and Daisy trades him
for Larry. For the rest of the afternoon we play musical llamas.
By the time we reach camp, I'm reunited with Mortimer. In six
hours we've trekked seven miles and ascended 2,500 feet.
The next day we encounter a couple of hikers struggling under
the weight of their packs. "Cheaters!" yells one. "Get a horse!"
yells his buddy. That's what they said about the automobile. And
look at the world now.
Grazing lightly, llamas disturb vegetation far less than horses.
Consequently they don't leave as much scat behind. And what they
do leave is virtually odorless. Which allows us to pitch our
tents 50 yards downwind from where the llamas are tethered.
Yet for all the llamas' virtues, horse packers tend to look down
their snouts at them. "People say llamas aren't native to North
America," Stanley complains. But they are.
The prehistoric Poebrotherium grazed the Great Plains. In the
middle of the Pleistocene Epoch--about a million years ago--the
Poebrotheria split into at least two lines and parted ways. Some
crossed into Asia, became camels and settled in Mongolia and
Arabia so that tourists could have their pictures taken riding
them. Others became llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicunas and
headed south. Incas of the Andes began domesticating llamas for
heavy hefting nearly 3,000 years ago. Llamas were considered
gifts from the gods, and their ownership was restricted to
royalty. In the central Andes today, use of the llama is all but
absolute. Their hides are turned into sandals. Their fiber is
woven into ponchos and braided into rope. Even their dung,
dried, becomes what is facetiously called carbon peruano, fuel
for altiplano campfires.
In the High Sierra the preferred fuel is cedar bark. As the sun
drops cold and gray behind the mountains, we sit around the
fire, roasting marshmallows. Gogo feeds Tex a raw, boneless
marshmallow. He looks tired. So do the rest of the llamas.
On Day 4 we come upon a pack of horses and riders. Spooked, the
horses buck and bolt into the brush. The llamas stand serenely
to the side until the horses pass. Working her way down a steep
mountain flank, Daisy stumbles on loose scree. Her llama, Jesse,
neatly leaps over her. Though fully loaded, Jesse glides so
gracefully that he almost seems to be floating. Stanley dresses
Daisy's scraped knees. She wears the bandages proudly, like
Before dawn we're awakened by a loud, throaty yodel: X-Man's
alarm call. A black bear is foraging near our provisions. By the
time we rouse ourselves, the bear is gone. We break camp and
head for the foothills. On our final descent we stop to let yet
another backpacker pass. He surveys the train of llamas and
says, "When I was a kid...."
"You went to the zoo," says Gogo.
"And a llama spit at you," says Daisy.
"Yeah! How'd you guys know?"