On the trail to the bottom of a gorge in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument a short drive north from Taos, New Mexico, Stuart Wilde stops abruptly and loops the end of a rope around some branches.
“Here you go, Raja,” he says softly, cooing to a mousey brown llama that stands nose-to-nose with its owner. Wilde instructs me to tie off my llama—a proud, white, fluffy male who is already enthusiastically reaching for a tuft of grass near my feet—and bounces over to inspect a nearby tree.
“Ah, porcupines,” he says, smiling as he points out light patches on the bark, clear indications that the tree has been gnawed on by a prickly forest critter.
“Here,” he says, ripping off a jagged bit of bark and thrusting it into my palm. “What does it smell like?”
I hold my hand up to my nose and breathe deep. It smells like the outdoors, I think. Clean, fresh, a little like Christmas. And a tad sweet, perhaps?
I shoot him a quizzical look and he tells me that we’re standing beneath a ponderosa pine. One of the great trees of the American West, it’s often referred to as a vanilla pine, owing to its strong scent. The local Pueblos once used its sap to create an antiseptic salve.
“Isn’t that fascinating?” Wilde smiles, pushing his nose against the redolent bark one more time, mirroring Raja, who’s got his head buried in a nearby bush.
It is fascinating, but I have one eye on the tree and another on my llama, K2, whose rope has loosened from its branch. Wilde sees it, too, and before I know it, he’s next to K2, petting the white fur on the back of his outstretched neck.
“Ooh, that’s good grass, isn’t it, K2? Yes it is, yes it is!” he purrs, as though addressing an infant who has just swallowed his first spoonful of mashed peas.
All three llamas along on our trek—K2, Raja, and Diego (who is slightly bucktoothed and fond of spitting)—are teenagers, and whenever K2 stops on the path for something tasty, I tug at his rope and he cocks his banana-shape ears, looking at me defiantly (like any teenager, I suppose). But these llamas are Wilde’s babies, and the New Mexico wilderness is his home turf.
When Wilde first came to New Mexico in his early 20s, he quickly found himself a single father of an 18-month-old boy. A lover of the outdoors, Wilde wanted to explore the nearby mountains and gorges, tucked into the Earth like secret passages. But when he realized he couldn’t carry his son, diapers, and his gear, he knew he had a problem. His solution? Get a pack animal to carry his gear for him.
“I started hiking with llamas out of necessity,” he says. Llamas—or “yama,” as Wilde pronounces it—are related to the camel, and they are one of the oldest domesticated animals in the Americas. They’re sure-footed, have thick wool coats, don’t drink a lot of water, and, interestingly, like to relieve themselves in the same spot. This makes them not only the perfect high-altitude pack animal, but also easy to clean up after, thus exemplifying the wilderness enthusiast’s credo of “leave no trace.”
“Llama trekking seemed a perfect fit,” explains Wilde. “As an outdoor educator and conservation advocate, they help me teach about minimal-impact backcountry ethics and sustainable tourism.”
Since founding Wild Earth Llama Adventures two decades ago, Wilde and his family have rescued more than 30 llamas, ten of which have been rehabilitated to accompany trekkers on half-day hikes and multiday backpacking trips.
Wilde’s enthusiasm for the outdoors doesn’t stop in New Mexico. He’s taking his passion all the way to the White House. He succeeded in leading Congressional delegations to protect the 101,000-acre Valle Vidal (often called the “Yellowstone of New Mexico”) from fracking, and just last year, President Obama signed the Presidential Proclamation establishing the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.
“New Mexico has access to both world-class recreation and a rich multicultural history that is integral to the landscape,” says Wilde. The Southwestern state has the desert vastness of Utah and Arizona, along with what Wilde calls the “alpine majesty” of Colorado, but, importantly, “without all the throngs of people.”
And it’s true. On our four-hour hike, we only come across one other group of hikers.
Today, Wilde’s llama treks attract people of all ages and experience levels, from hardcore backpackers looking for a break from their heavy gear to intergenerational clans hoping for an experience that both grandpa and his grandchildren can enjoy.
But his treks aren’t just about the llamas. They’re a biology class, a history class, an anthropology class, and a cooking class, rolled into one. In just a few hours, I’ve learned about edible plants, native Pueblos, forestry laws, Taos history, and, of course, fun facts about llamas.
“I wanted to make the outdoors accessible to everyone,” Wilde says. “I get hikers who just want to experience the wilderness in a different way, and I get people whose first question to me is ‘What’s the difference between a llama and an emu?’” To Wilde, the question is a little like asking the difference between a penguin and a Labradoodle, but he manages to be diplomatic.
“First I explain that one’s a bird, and the rest just follows,” he laughs, leaping onto a nearby boulder. “Look here!”
Faster than K2 and Raja can chow down on fresh grass, Wilde has found a rock decorated with petroglyphs that date back millennia and tell the story of New Mexico’s first human inhabitants.
At first glance, the petroglyphs look misplaced and random, almost as though a misbehaving child who was told to stand next to a big rock for an hour simply carved the images out of boredom, retracing the lines over and over to etch cartoons into the stone.
We pore over the glyphs—which depict deer and buffalo and bear claws, eagles and men and kachinas, spiritual beings to the Pueblo people—trying to deduce their meaning.
“Look up,” Wilde instructs me, and my gaze follows his fingers to a notch at the top of the gorge, some 800 feet above our heads.
“That’s east,” he says matter-of-factly. “From this exact spot, you can see the sun rising through that little window just twice a year.”
Like Wilde and his llamas, everything has its place.
Jeannette Kimmel is the editorial business manager for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Connect with her on Twitter @jeannettekimmel.
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