“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Llama Luxury: Trekking the Backcountry in Comfort

Less than a mile into our hike through the thickly forested mountains of North Carolina I begin to appreciate my new hiking companion. He carries all my gear, does not bore me with endless conversation and follows silently behind me, keeping a discreet distance, stopping when I stop, trotting alongside when I scramble up a slope.

A couple of hours later we stop for lunch on a level plateau surrounded by a green palette of maple and oak trees. While I contentedly chew on my lunch, he just as contentedly chews on daisy asters and clover.

But what do you expect from a llama? My surefooted companion has freed me to enjoy the wildlife and scenery of the mountains without the burden of a cumbersome backpack full of food and gear. After years of lugging tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, clothes, food, and all the other paraphernalia that I seem to need to make it through a few days in the wilderness, I started thinking that there must be a better way. My answer came when I discovered llama trekking.

A popular activity in the Rockies, llama trekking is slowly catching on in the Smoky Mountains. And for good reason. Llamas are appealing creatures with personalities more like a dog than a horse and the freedom that comes with having a pack animal to carry your gear cannot be overstated.

If you’re like me, you don’t happen to have a llama standing around in your backyard so you’ll need to hook up with a llama trekking outfitter. There are at least two such companies in the Smokies and they offer a variety of treks, ranging from easy half-day adventures to extended three-day camping trips. I picked a company located near the eastern border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Our overnight trek starts with a human-llama bonding session, kind of like one of those high school dances where you circle the crowd trying to pick up a hapless victim. I sidle up to a white and brown llama and he tilts his head sideways to have his ear scratched. That’s all it takes, I’m his new best friend. High school should have been this easy.

Bonding achieved, I load my stuff into my llama’s two saddlebags and we head into the mountains. I feel like Noah leading his charges to higher ground. The narrow mountain trail parallels one of those ubiquitous North Carolina mountain streams, tumbling cold and clear out of the highlands. As we traipse uphill through a lush thicket of mountain laurel I realize that this is going to be a typical Smoky Mountain hike—in a word, steep.

I also immediately grasp that I have entered a whole other level of backcountry trekking. The hiking, minus a thirty pound backpack, is liberating and the usual Spartan rules of lightweight and low volume packing are out the window; with a llama to bear the burden you can add a little extravagance to your trip--maybe a bottle of wine, a book, a pillow, an inflatable mattress. I could grow to love this llama thing.

That’s the bottom line; llama trekking adds a considerable degree of luxury to the usual freeze dried noodles, instant coffee, one set of clothes hiking trip. Goodbye austerity, hello comfort.  But don’t get the idea that llama trekking is just for the out-of-shape and families with little kids. If you’re worried about the wimp factor, you can opt for long distance multi-day trips that offer more adventure.

No matter what your preference, llama trekking is a fun and unique adventure. Just don’t expect any campfire conversation from your new companion.

Details:  Two companies that offer llama trekking in the Smoky Mountains are English Mountain Llama Treks (828-622-9686, www.hikinginthesmokies.com) located near Hot Springs, NC and Smoky Mountain Llama Treks (865-428-6042, www.smokymountainllamatreks.com) near Sevierville, TN.

(A version of this article originally appeared in Blue Ridge Country)

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