Lugging the load

On a three-day trek through the stunning mountains of New Mexico, baggage is llamas' burden

October 21, 2007|By Lester Picker | Lester Picker,Special to the Sun

Dave Jaffe won my friends' annual guys-only vacation competition this year. The five of us each pitch a destination, cajoling, using brochures -- and rarely common sense -- to persuade the others to vote our way.

Frankly, the rest of us would have preferred to sail in the Virgin Islands, feet up, sipping Sam Adams and cracking open lobsters. But Jaffe was persuasive.

And, how bad could it be, we figured, hiking for three days in the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico? And with a string of llamas carrying our loads, no less. Piece of cake, a walk in the park, sounds like fun, no problem, we joked.

Six hours into the first day's hike, things were not so funny. Already at an oxygen-deprived 11,000 feet and still short of our base camp, problems were sprouting faster than mushrooms from the rotted logs around us. We had hiked 4 miles uphill, we were sore, we were panting for precious oxygen, we were chugging water like an Oktoberfest drink-off in Munich, Germany, and we felt dazed by our mild altitude headaches.

Yet, while taking a break on the rocky trail and staring down at a magnificent waterfall and roaring stream, all enveloped by a dense forest of fir, pines and yellow-leaved poplars, we knew in our hearts that our efforts were being richly rewarded. With base camp only an hour away, we were tantalizingly close to Shangri-La.

Humble beginnings

After an uneventful June flight from Baltimore, we landed in Albuquerque, N.M., at lunchtime. Jaffe, who knows New Mexico well having completed a stint there as a dermatologist with the Indian Health Service, asked if we could wait a bit for lunch. An hour later, the five of us, starving, pulled our rented sport utility vehicle into Harry's Road House Restaurant.

Despite a packed parking lot, we were seated quickly and perused the multipage menu that features Southwestern fare and ultra-fresh ingredients served in an open setting bathed in pastel colors. Enclosed porch seating is available as well.

Our group ordered an assortment of Southwestern foods, from blue-corn turkey enchiladas to sesame noodles, vegetable muffalettas and garden burgers. While eating, Scott, poked me to say that Gene Hackman was walking into the restaurant. "Ha!" I thought to myself, "a transparent ploy to grab my french fries."

But, sure enough, Hackman, dressed casually in jeans and one of many actors who frequent the funky restaurant, strolled past us and quietly sat himself at a small table on the porch. But the real thrill came when the waiter brought us our bill. Lunch for five, with drinks and a couple of homemade desserts, came to just $65.

Our next stop was Taos, a little more than an hour from Harry's Road House. We had planned to spend a day at Taos' 8,000-foot altitude to give us a chance to adjust. It turns out that was a good decision. Taos is a fun place to explore, with its selection of art galleries, craftspeople, historic locations and good eats.

A llama primer

Technically, our trek began the very next morning, some 45 minutes from Taos. On an unpaved parking area on the shore of mountain-rimmed Cabresto Lake, at an elevation of 9,000 feet, Stuart Wilde, the owner of Wild Earth Llama Adventures, met us with six of his 14 llamas.

In order to get on the trail and make it to our base camp before dark, we hustled to repack our gear into bags that would fit comfortably onto the llamas' backs. Once done, Wilde gave us an introduction to the nature of llamas (very easygoing), their likes (grazing and more grazing), their dislikes (having their faces pet too aggressively) and peculiarities (they hum constantly, the land equivalent of whale songs).

All our llamas were males - they are larger and can carry a heavier load. The presence of even one female would turn the normally docile males into testosterone-crazed hunks vying for her attention.

After a quick map and compass orientation to the 20,000 acre Latir Peak Wilderness area, an admonition to hydrate constantly and a quick review of what to do if we encountered bears (thankfully, we didn't), we were off.

The five of us, friends for years and all of us living in Harford County, are an eclectic mix. Three of us, Jaffe, Scott Brown and Sherif Osman, are physicians. One, Terry Sexton, is a cement contractor. And yours truly is a writer and author.

The trail we climbed was rocky and narrow, so we hiked single file, each man leading a llama. Because of a leg injury, necessitating a slower pace, I brought up the rear, quite literally. For the next 6 1/2 hours, my view ahead was painfully restricted to the rear ends of llamas and men.

Fortunately, the scenery to my sides was spectacular, increasingly so as we climbed and mountain vistas began to open. After a time on the trail, I found that the creaking of the two coolers that were carefully balanced on my llama, Domino, and the constant roar of Cabresto Creek cascading down the mountainside, put me into a meditative zone that kept me shuffling up the trail.

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