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LLAMA LOVE

A WILDE AND WOOLY ROMANCE

By Jane Cassie

He checks me out with wide curious eyes; one is steely blue, the other one cocoa brown. It's a quirky mix that gives him character, just like his Rastafarian hairdo. When I glance his way, he blinks bashfully -or is it flirtatiously? I take the hint by rubbing his neck, just the way he likes. He immediately comes closer and nudges up to my body. I'm pretty sure it's love at first sight.

I'm on a tour with Wild Earth Llama Adventures, trekking New Mexico's Rio Grande Gorge, an eight hundred-foot deep canyon that slices through the state's tortilla-flat plateau. The scenic six-hour jaunt into the volcanic rift provides some insight into the area's culture and history, right back to the early days when the Pueblo people first arrived. And just like Peruvians, who for centuries have hiked the high Andes, toting our load and lunch are a few loyal llamas.

Our pony-tailed informative guide, Stuart Wilde leads the way. Accompanying us are two couples from Texas, a pair from South Carolina and, of course, our four silent and very steadfast valets.

"Raja prefers to be the caboose, Zepher is the teenage trouble maker, Rusty likes to sniff your face, and Azul, (who becomes my four-legged valet) takes the lead," Wilde says with pride, as we head out from the Big Arsenic Campground in Wild Rivers Recreation area. He understands these animals as well as he knows New Mexico's wilderness terrain, and it's clear that he's passionate about both.

Wild Earth Llama Adventures has been going strong for nearly two decades and as well as tailor-making the treks to suit every group, this owner guides every single one. "I'm fortunate, as an outfitter, to be able to spend two hundred days a year hiking and exploring New Mexico's pristine wilderness," he explains. "From May to October we head into the high country and in spring and fall we are here in the Rio Grande Gorge." Beneath his wide-brimmed Stetson he produces an ear to ear smile. "I love this job and I'll probably be doing it for another twenty years."

We're led through some bushy ridge-top that opens up to a drop-dead gorge-ous vista. The massive basalt crevice, a geological phenomenon, was created by ice age water flows thousands of years ago. And far below, snaking along the valley floor is the unruly Rio Grande River. Zig-zaggy switchbacks are etched into the steep hillside and flanking our descent is plentiful flora. We brush past Mountain Juniper and breeze by broad-leafed Yuccas. Spindly Indian rice grass and prickly pear cacti thrive in the higher desert regions, while the roots of moss and trumpet gooseberries are quenched by freshwater springs that bubble right out of the volcanic rock.

A lunch feast of gourmet sandwiches and sweets is served at the base of the canyon next to pools of spring water that cascade in waterfalls into the Rio below. Before doing the return route we retrace the area's history by checking out nearby petroglyphs. Centuries-old depictions are etched into smooth-faced boulders and rocky outcroppings. Some tell a story, others share a theme. Images of big horn sheep, bear and rabbit are engraved next to hunters, gatherers and fertility folk. We discover that the primitive drawings represented the glorification of community. As well as expressing abundance and beauty, many of symbolized birth and renewal.

Still today, it's an area of ageless beauty boasting expansive views, flora and fauna. "There's everything from mountain lion and elk to lizards and rattle snakes," our guide explains. My toes immediately curl and I quickly pan the surrounding desert grass for any signs of rustling. Fortunately, our llama pals can sense danger from a distance. And being paired up with the alpha male and leader of the pack, I not only feel loved, but also protected.

As I lead Azul on the upward trek towards the ridge, I can hear his heavy breathing and smell his breath, scented lightly with sage. Then, without enticement, he begins to softly moan in my ear.

"All the llamas have that distinctive bray," Wilde reports, as we continue to plod onwards. But I know the truth. When I turn around and finally make eye contact with my wonderful wooly companion, I'm sure it must be love.

IF YOU GO

Wild Earth Llama Adventures www.llamaadventures.com/

Where to stay
The Taos Inn www.taosinn.com/

PHOTOS:

1. Azul poses for the camera
2. Rio Grande Gorge slices through the state's tortilla-flat plateau
3. Loyal llamas tote our lunch and load
4. Drop-dead gorge-ous vista
5. Lunch is served at the base of the canyon
6. I'm sure it must be llama love

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