Hoofin’ It with My Llama Friends
An afternoon in Vail, Colorado with  Gus and Steffles
By Kathy Chin Leong

Donnie Shefchik knows his guys. He knows when they are happy, uncomfortable, or upset. Even though they cannot speak English, he knows these two pretty well, and all work together in harmony as ideal partners.

Donnie, 68, is a senior hiking guide and field director of Paragon Guides, and the two others are Gus and Sneffles, known to the outside world as llamas. Contrary to popular belief, these do not spit nor are they mean. Those characteristics belong to the realm of alpacas and camels but not llamas.  These long necked creatures are gentle, quiet, and calm. Even barking and growling dogs do not unfetter them or scare them. What delighted us was the fact that they hum. Who knows why, but at certain times they hum in a human-like tone.

I know this because of Donnie.  On our recent wine and cheese hike in Vail, Colorado, Donnie was our leader on this 3-hour expedition in the aspen-covered hills. The role of the llamas was to carry our food and water and jackets. My husband Frank and I were to lead them with a rope that was tied loosely around their long necks. And no, we did not ride them.

While the hike was moderate in difficulty, the 8,000-foot-plus elevation was challenging for my lungs and even a slight degree higher in the grade had me huffing and puffing.  We hiked through yellow-tinged groves and crossed streams and rocks. Every so often we took needed water breaks to replenish our bodies and take in the autumn vistas before us.

Donnie was ever mindful of the skies. In the mountains you can experience sun, wind, and rain all in one day and at any moment. People learn to read the clouds and to take notice of how these white puffs are moving and where the rain storm will migrate next. 

In our case, the late afternoon was warm on our faces until the skies started to gray. Donnie felt it best to stop by a nearby stream, tie up the llamas and set up our wine and snacks. As he unbuckled the llama’s pannier bags, out came one item after another like multiple clowns at a circus flowing out of a tiny Volkswagon Beetle. It was surprising how much emerged. Donnie found a flat stable rock and set up red wine, white wine, Brie, hard cheese, salami, Marconi almonds, dried cranberries, grapes, and pistachios.

Our jaws dropped like anvils at the delightful display of gourmet treasures.  We managed to find suitable rock seats and toasted our hiking triumph with Napa red elixir in plastic cups.

Meanwhile, the llamas munched on the foliage surrounding them. Donnie explained that while they are content critters, they are useless in an emergency. If one of us got hurt, they would not have the doggie instinct to try to retrieve help. They would not be featured in a Lassie episode to say the least. They would just look at you bleeding to death and keep eating away.

Fortunately, we were in a good place, and the rains held back as we nibbled on our smorgasbord. After 30 minutes of getting-to-know-you banter, we were back on the trail going downhill this time. As other hikers passed by, each one pulled out their phones to take llama photos. It was understandable because those giant eyeballs and long lashes just pull you in. You cannot help but smile when you see them.

A couple of times growling dogs started barking at Gus and Steffles, and these guys just looked at them as if they were crazy. The owners dragged their pets away, and we continued our journey to the base where the truck was parked.

Donnie confessed that the short hikes are not his favorite. It’s the multi day hut-to-hut hikes that are challenging and most fun for him. On these excursions, you stay in cabins along the trail and also cook and clean up together. These are often life-changing trips where he has taken families with small kids as well as groups of friend and also groups of strangers.

Paragon also offers “Lunch with a Llama” hikes that tread on more level paths right on Vail resort property. These can be thought of as sampler hikes with llamas.  All of these llama excursions are  in good fun. Whether you go for the gold on a hut-to-hut expedition, or a wine and cheese hike, or a lunch stroll, you’ll learn more than you will ever want to know about these peaceful animals. And, for anyone who has a beating heart, you will experience Llama Love.

Paragon Guides – www.paragonguides.com
Rates: Arrowhead Lunch with a Llama, approximately $415, half-day hike 10-2 p.m. or agreed upon time.
Phone: 970.926.5299
Season: June to September; must book ahead.

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