Try Not to Annoy Your Llama
Stephen Matera for The New York Times
The trekking party setting off through Pinto Park. Llamashave long been used as porters in the South American altiplano.

Published: September 12, 2004

The outfitter hangs the last saddlebag on the last llama and turns to address The Question. Always, somebody asks The Question.

''The way I look at it,'' he answers, aiming for reassurance, ''if they spit on you, you probably deserve it.'' He waves and is gone, his words floating in the warming June air like some strange benediction. The guide, Shad Hamilton, cinches the loads and strings together the train. Then we are lighting out for high country, four men and five woolly beasts freighted with tents, fly rods, coolers, water jugs, books, whiskey, bedrolls -- as well as one enormous frying pan, knowable by its long handle, which noses out from beneath a tarp.

I have long pictured myself trekking with pack animals into the Wind River Range of Wyoming, one of the great, lesser-known mountainscapes of the American West. In this mental film reel, I am always John Wayne spurring a big bay upward through sage and boiling trail dust, past freestone streams running thick with unsophisticated trout, until I pitch camp in a meadow of blushing lupine beneath angular peaks. It never occurred to me that I would not be the Duke but rather Dr. Doolittle leading a family of Pushmipullyus.

Cream Soda is a contrary brown, with the high rump and lean legs of a basketball center. He is the first llama on my string. With every few steps I feel his hot llama breath on my neck. Behind him, a younger llama, Atlantic, begins to hum -- a sound like helium being pinched from a balloon. Shad says the hum can signify satisfaction, or curiosity, or nervousness, or irritation. This is a broad and potentially hazardous array of emotions for a new llama skinner to confuse. So I ignore him.

Then discontent erupts in front of me. Arter could be the thoroughbred of the group -- he is strong like a skittish racehorse, with a neck the handsome color of bitter chocolate and depthless, unreadable eyes. He is also competitive. He tries once, twice, to trot ahead in the pack string. But Brighton is the alpha llama. When Arter pushes alongside him a third time, Brighton pins his corn-husk ears against his skull. Swivels his head. Fires. Arter's head vanishes briefly in an aerosol of cud. The spit-spray is so foul that both llamas walk with their mouths open for several minutes, trying to lose the taste.

Arter doesn't take the hint for long. I do. Too much handsome country lies ahead, as do too many days before the next hot shower, to risk a stomach-juice parfum. I drop back behind Cream Soda and enjoy the views.

Conjure Wyoming in summer and the mind fills with the same postcards of the American recreational zeitgeist: chuck-wagon dinners in the lee of the Tetons. Stockbrokers ropin' dogies before a Devil's Tower dipped in Ansel Adams light. Rarely when Americans think of the Big Wonderful do we picture the Wind River Range of west-central Wyoming, despite its arching granite walls of high Gothic grace, its roughly 1,300 mountain lakes and its claim to 23 of the state's 26 peaks over 13,000 feet, including Wyoming's roof, Gannett Peak.

Always just off the main stage of the American drama -- that has been the fate of ''the Winds,'' though men did brush against them whose names now take up space in any history of the West's opening. Jedediah Smith slept here. ''A gigantic disorder of enormous masses,'' wrote an awed Lt. John C. Fremont, after Kit Carson led him into the heart of the range, ''and a savage sublimity of naked rock.'' Albert Bierstadt used the sketches from his 1859 visit to the foothills as the basis for ''The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak,'' his grandest romantic painting. New Yorkers can still go to the Metropolitan Museum and see Bierstadt's vision of a saw-toothed Arcadia, the high peaks merging with heaven, the grand waterfall bathed in Annunciation light.

Neither the sojourns of mountain men nor brush strokes produced real fame for the Winds, however. Just a few miles away lies South Pass, a geologic caesura where the Rockies vanish completely into the thirsty sagelands. Pioneers on the Oregon Trail could cross the Continental Divide here without ever noticing they'd entered the watershed of the Pacific. Prairie schooners traversing the pass looked north and saw the Winds as shoals to be steered clear of. And they did. Anyway, trappers had already cleaned out the most marketable asset, beavers, to make top hats for the British bourgeoisie.

So the Winds were spared much history. Today the lack of man's imprint is part of the allure. Not one road splits the range between Union Pass in the north and South Pass, a distance of more than 100 miles passing through three federal wilderness areas and the Wind River Indian Reservation. No one climbed the 13,804-foot Gannett Peak until 1922. The ranks of Vibram-soled visitors who tramp these mountains have grown since then, of course. Yet the Winds remain raw enough, their weather fierce and fickle enough, their wandering moose and bears common enough, that they still have the whiff of ultima Thule. ''These are good mountains,'' allowed the Wyoming writer C. L. Rawlins in ''Sky's Witness,'' his memoir of a year's work among the peaks. ''No permits. No rescue squad. You can still die in peace up here.''

A place so little shackled by history also seems a particularly appropriate place for llama-packing, which has become an ecologically gentler, New West way to experience the grand landscapes here.

Like many backpackers, I often trudge through the mountains bent beneath the anvil weight of a pack like some wheezy mendicant. Elevation brings me lower still: my shriveled sea-level lungs drown in the thin air of 8,000 feet. Llamas change everything. Our guide, Shad, loads their panniers with about 75 pounds of gear. My friend Tan and I shoulder day packs containing only a jacket and a tube of sunscreen. Backs straighten. Eyes lift and take new notice of things. Starting at a trailhead outside the city of Lander, we hike along the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River as it rises through a strata of ecological zones, first the drier foothills of sagebrush and sunflowerlike balsamroot, later colonies of aspens where shards of Wyoming sky hang in the branches. Shad, who is 29 and a high-school teacher and principal with a John Brown beard and a librarian's voice, says little and sets a good pace as the trail climbs past a wooden sign for the Popo Agie Wilderness and enters deeper forest. The smell of dry pine needles crushed underfoot rises like incense. The wind pushes through the lodgepole pines, a sound that has just the right amount of lonesome in it. It sounds like the West.

As we hike, we also have plenty of energy and time to consider our porters. There is something of the spare-parts bin about llamas' appearance. Consider Brighton: he has the split footpad and strong hocks of an elk, soldered to a sheep's woolly back. One end concludes in a dust-mop tail. At the other end a thin camel's face rises on a periscope neck. He has long, coquettish eyelashes. Fathomless eyes. Splendid ears rotate independently to follow sounds. It would be a face of curiosity and intelligence, nobility even, except for the unfortunate fact of two mossy buckteeth that insist themselves from beneath his llama lips. He looks, in short, like a rube.

Stitch these pieces together, however, and the result is an animal that's a natural for work in the mountains. Llamas have been pressed into service as porters for millenniums on the South American altiplano. Kin to the camel, they are sure-footed, with an evolved hemoglobin that sponges up oxygen faster than that of other mammals, and an ability to move all day on a few sips of water and meager high-altitude plants. Adults can carry up to 100 pounds. Llamas are also docile when trained, which makes them particularly appealing to older backpackers, hikers with bad knees and families with young children. Commercial llama outfitters now operate from Yosemite to the North Cascades, the Sangre de Cristos to the Great Smokies.

Obeisant is not the same as affectionate. Llamas are fuzzy, but they are not warm and fuzzy. They permit a human pat with reluctance. Their aversion to touch in certain places -- the face, the legs -- is immediate and unsoftened by time. Touching the forbidden zones will earn you a spit, warns Shad. Don't try it.

The llamas soon enough settle into their work, and we cover 10 miles and 2,000 vertical feet with ease. Shad pitches camp on sandy ground in an open stand of pines. My first move would usually be to the river to soak my feet; this time it's to try to hook dinner. The brook trout aren't biting at first (though the next afternoon small panfish will leap at nearly every cast). High season hasn't yet arrived in June, and we are alone in these mountains tonight. Thunderheads shake out a few drops and drift apart. A deer fords the river and disappears.

Retreating from the river, I find the resting llamas folded down on themselves in the meadow's blue twilight, a backcountry creche. My mistake is to approach for a goodnight scratch. Five llamas leap up and fix me with the same smoldering dromedary gaze. Since I've already ruined their peace, I give Pylon a healthy rub on the throat. He belches softly, and turns his head away.

During winter in Wyoming, storms steamroller across the high desert and break against the Winds, where 350 inches of snow can drop annually into its cirques and valleys. Drifts sometimes linger until mid-July in the range's deep recesses at the stunning Cirque of the Towers, which is our ideal destination. We are traveling in the very first days of summer. And llamas don't favor snow. We decide to do the next best thing: bet on the warmth of the preceding spring and climb out of the lower valleys to Pinto Park. If we can reach it, Shad promises pluperfect Wind Rivers scenery and chances for exploration.

The trail begins cobbled and steep and stays that way, in spots necking down so tightly between trees and boulders that the llamas scrape their panniers against both sides. Cream Soda stumbles. Atlantic begins to hum. But they are professionals, and keep moving. At four miles the trail finally relents. At 10,000 feet, the forest parts to reveal a high green meadow watered by snowmelt and brightened by marsh marigolds: Pinto Park. Another valley, much deeper, cuts off the park to the north, which affords us a balcony-seat view into the Cirque of the Towers, the throne room of the southern Wind Rivers.

Wolfs Head, Sharks Nose, Overhanging Tower -- each of the cirque's peaks is a howl in stone. Just out of sight is War Bonnet, with its trailing arete that resembles a Shoshone headdress. Above all of them surges Lizard Head Peak, the 12,842-foot fang that completes the jawbone. It occurs to me that this must be akin to the last view a mouse sees before the lion's jaws close.

We pitch camp at the park's edge among whitebark pines within view of the cirque, jam the wine bottles in a snowbank and commence the afternoon's work of doing nothing. Tan falls asleep in a pile of unread magazines he brought. I sprawl against a rock in warm sunshine and pick at a chapbook of poetry, but it's hopeless. The parade of clouds is too interesting. How long we laze around is hard to say. This is what I like about going deep into the mountains for long stretches. Time becomes plastic. The world reduces, until what matters is the rough of bark under the palm, the smell of camp smoke, the simple hope that a dinner trout will rise. Later, I sit up to my chest in a snowmelt stream, rub at the grime of three days and let the cold squeeze the breath from me.

If we do want one thing from our catered trip, however, it is better food. The meals devised by the outfitter leave much to be desired. The llamas' strong backs permit enough luxuries that we can have fresh fruit at breakfast, but Rice-A-Roni shouldn't be on the menu.

Shad never stops working. The longer we are on the trail the more he seems like a llama, too -- with his strong back and his sparse soft words, his woolly beard, the way he cinches his floppy hat beneath his chin like a halter, and how his lungs are at ease in the oxygen-stingy air. Though I can't really know him, I admire his quiet competence.

That night, after dinner, sparks from Shad's campfire rise to join the first stars. The sky is clear enough to see the satellites spinning in their orbits. The temperature drops. It's chilly. But there's sunburn enough to go around, and we take the day's warmth to bed with us.

The next morning, flapjacks eaten, Shad finds a game trail at camp's edge and we follow. The deer prints climb through whitebark pine, past blasted old trees that warn against the coming thunder. As the weather moves off, we scramble up a fell-field of boulders Pollocked with lichen, reach one peak, see a higher one, move to it. Soon we are bounding up staircases of boulders, high-stepping through snow patches, touching each of the subpeaks of 11,423-foot Mount Chevo. Here, where the air is thinnest, we seem more awake than ever. With the entire southern range unrolled before him, Shad grows downright chatty. He points out hiking routes, supplies names of the beetling peaks, recounts old trips, plots future adventures. ''I'll spend a lifetime trying to get everywhere,'' he says, happily.

No one wants to be the one to say it's time to descend. An adage from Rawlins's book swims to mind, about how reaching the summit is always the crummiest part of climbing a mountain. Afterward, the only thing left is to go down.

The last morning we pack without a word. Perhaps it's regret at having chosen only a five-day trip, or simply the anticipation of a sweating pint glass of Jack Mormon ale awaiting at the Snake River Brewing Company in Lander. Shad and the llamas trot down the steeps, then nearly run much of the nine miles to our pickup point. There, I try my farewells. His work done, Brighton sidesteps me. Arter rolls his eyes and strains at the lead. Pylon and Cream Soda busy themselves with the grasses on the far side of the rail fence where they're hitched, necks safely unavailable.

Atlantic remains. Atlantic, the one I've been closest to. Once -- I am almost certain of this -- he even leaned into my scratch. Now I reach for him.

Atlantic begins to hum.

RENT-A-LLAMA: The Lander Llama Company offers three- to seven-day, llama-supported treks to Wyoming's Wind River Range from mid-June to mid-September; trips to the nearby Absaroka Mountains are also offered from mid-June to mid-September; treks to Sweetwater Canyon and Red Desert are available in May and June. The five-day Wind Rivers trip costs $925 a person, including pack llamas, guide, food and camping equipment. It is hard to see the best of the range in fewer than five days. Llamas can also be rented out by those who don't want a guide for $90 a day for a llama pair, plus transport cost to the trailhead. Telephone: (800) 582-5262; Web site:

Christopher Solomon is a writer based in Seattle.

Stephen Matera for The New York Times
Tan Vihn leads a panniered Atlantic on the way to the Three Forks camp.
Stephen Matera for The New York Times
The author charts a course.