Carried Away

OZZY IS GIVING ME ATTITUDE--bumping against my pack, nosing ahead, blowing his semisweet-fermented breath in my face. I nudge him on the chest to keep him behind me as I inch down the steep sandstone, but he clearly has personal-space issues. I chose Ozzy this morning based on stature--as we were the two shortest members of our respective groups, I presumed we'd get along. But I'm having llama drama.

Since moving to Boulder, I'd been mesmerized--and overwhelmed--by the kaleidoscopic, seemingly infinite vistas. But during that trip, cocooned in a sleeping bag deep inside a canyon, the landscape changed, becoming close and real and personal.

Ahead, my sister-in-law Laurie is leading two llamas, Chaco and Escobar, and she's struggling too. Her tactic is to halt frequently, slowing Chaco down. A school counselor, she's determined not to give up on hard cases. When I suggest she request a different llama, she insists, "We're working it out." My other sister-in-law, Meera, lags behind with Montana and Frodo, and I've barely heard a peep from her--she's too busy bird-watching and tucking sprigs of sagebrush behind her ears. Meera's happiest in nature. Still, she's employing her own llama-handling strategy, holding one arm up like a tour guide while tightening Frodo's rein. Then there's my husband, Dan, who requires no tactics, because his llama is perfect.

My tactic is simple: I trade up. I ask Dan for his llama, Dagwood. And 10 minutes later, as Dagwood and I breeze down a thin, slick track, I feel only minimal guilt when I overhear Dan trying to reason with Ozzy. "Seriously, bro," he's saying. "Stay behind me."

Just yesterday we learned that llamas--members of the camelid family--don't respond to vocal commands. "They're a lot like cats," said our guide, BJ. "Only not your cat. They're like someone else's cat." In other words, attention-averse and just barely tolerant of the human race. BJ also dispelled a popular misconception: Llamas don't spit at people unless improperly trained. (They do spit at one another.) And no, you don't get to ride them.

IT'S EARLY OCTOBER, and I'm in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, with my husband, two sisters-in-law, eight llamas, and BJ Orozco, the laid-back owner of the llama pack-trip outfit Llama2Boot. The monument was designated by President Clinton in 1996 and is run by the Bureau of Land Management, and it is incomprehensibly vast and rugged: nearly 1.9 million acres of golden buttes and vermilion cliffs, slot canyons, mesas, monoliths, dinosaur bones, and Native American ruins--plus plenty of water, wildflowers, and cottonwoods.

We're here because 14 years ago, BJ and I waited tables together at my sister's restaurant, in nearby Boulder, a tiny town right at the monument's edge. BJ moonlighted as a llama-packing guide then, and I joined him on a four-day camping trip with another friend. We borrowed two llamas-in-training to carry our stuff, and at night BJ pointed out constellations and told stories of Everett Ruess, the young poet and artist who explored this area with his burros in the 1930s but mysteriously disappeared. Since moving to Boulder, I'd been mesmerized--and overwhelmed--by the kaleidoscopic, seemingly infinite vistas. But during that trip, cocooned in a sleeping bag deep inside a canyon, the landscape changed, becoming close and real and personal.

Today I live in San Francisco, but Boulder remains my second home. With a population of just 200, this area is part of the West that's still wild. The Escalante Canyons, where we're hiking, was the last place in the country to be explored and mapped. The Escalante River--which we'll cross many times over the next few days--was the last major river discovered in the continental United States. Boulder was the last town in the nation to receive its mail by mule; electricity didn't arrive until 1947; and just five years ago, there was zero cell service.


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Only those willing to risk going too far can find out how far they can go.” –T.S. Eliot