Sopris Unlimited
Chapter One of Tales of the Trail


     The extraordinary two-year-old was standing out in the field—or perhaps I should say, outstanding in the field. Tall for his age but well balanced, he was a physical specimen and when he moved it was with athletic grace. Dark brown eyes that sparkled with intelligence were set in a handsome masculine head. With pride I reflected that he was a genetic duplicate of his father, and an outstanding stud prospect. Yes, my son Andy was a joy to watch as he stood with arms outstretched feeding a handful of hay to newly delivered Llarry, our very first pack llama.
     Five-year-old Llarry was a sharp contrast to Andy. Llarry grew up with horses and actually thought he was a horse. As a matter of fact, he even looked like a horse. His eyes protruded from sockets that were set in a large head that looked heavy and out of proportion atop his long neck. A long back (possibly his short legs just made his back look long) gave the impression of a weenie dog. Yes, that's it. Llarry looked like a woolly, long-necked horse with a weenie dog body. He was battle-scarred and had a fourth of one ear cropped off from tangling with some male llamas who still had their fighting teeth.
     As it turned out, Llarry's looks were among his better attributes. I bought him, matched with a female, for use as a packer and a stud. Because I had to mortgage my house to buy the pair, I thought it prudent to have the vet check them out immediately after they were paid for and delivered. Only moments after the vet arrived, Llarry aged approximately seven years and developed a heart murmur. The heart murmur was possibly genetic, and Llarry had to be castrated.
     The castration of Llarry was a huge loss for me and even more so for Llarry. However, I knew that we would both recover and that it was for the best. Llarry had packed in a commercial pack string the summer before I bought him and it was comforting to know that the surgery, when healed, wouldn't affect his ability to pack. It was time to begin the process of learning about llamas. I am a quick learner (as you've probably already gathered) and Llarry turned out to be a very effective teacher. This was typical of my luck—I would be taught by a pro who knew every trick in the book.
     I had been told to build a small pen to catch my new llamas, so I did. However, trying to herd Llarry from an open field into a small catch pen was as fruitless as trying to push a logging chain into the pen. After reaching the gate, Llarry would turn and look at me as if to say, "Do you really think I'm that stupid?" Then he would wheel past me and travel the entire fifty yards to the far end of my spread, and we would begin the ritual again. A bribe of grain proved to be the solution, but Llarry would not enter the pen unless I left the grain and walked out. I would hide around the side of the barn until he started to eat, and then I'd rush to beat him to the gate. Of course I would have to feed him frequently in the pen without putting the rush on him so he could be assured that at least fifty percent of the time he would get the grain without being harassed. See how quickly I learn?
     During the haltering process, Llarry would jerk his head away or try to outreach me. When he became bored with that game he allowed me to halter him and I began brushing. This was Llarry's cue to chest-ram me or swing his rear around to try to knock me off my feet. To counter this I anticipated the move and gave him a good strong "NO!” He would smile and wink at me, which was my hint to try something a little stronger. A well-timed knee to the chest earned me a measure of respect. He would then stand, head forward and ears back, glaring at me out of the corner of his eye while I brushed.
     It was time for my lesson in pack training. I stepped out of the house with the pack saddle just in time to see Llarry (who had been occupying his time throwing his head in the air and pacing the fence line) charge the fence in the direction of my neighbor, a cattle rancher, who was riding by on his horse. I was very impressed with Tom's ability to stay on his horse for as long as he did under those conditions. Tom must have been very impressed with my llamas also, because he offered to buy me out lock, stock, and barrel right on the spot. I refused the offer, and before long Tom's horse didn't pay any attention to Llarry.
     The point of this digression is that the whole incident upset Llarry so much that he refused my offer of grain in the catch pen until I had completely hidden the pack saddle, which I found a little strange. In any case, with the saddle hidden I caught and haltered Llarry, tied him to the fence, and then brought the saddle out to put on his back. Either Llarry had forgotten everything he had learned about the commercial packing business or the saddle reminded him of something about the business that he didn't like, because he immediately removed the fence rail that I had just put the finishing touches on a few days before. After the dust settled, Llarry taught me how to train a llama to accept a pack. Then it was time to hit the trail.
     At the trailhead, my family of four loaded up and began the trip to a lake about three miles in. It would take two trips because Llarry was our only pack llama (and by now I used this phrase loosely). The hike went really well for about two hundred feet. Then the trail narrowed and offered a steep drop off to the left, which presented Llarry with the opportunity to teach me how to trail-train a spoiled pack llama. The first few times he rammed me from behind, knocking me off the trail and over the embankment, I thought it was an accident. However, by the time we had reached the lake I was fairly certain that even with my luck, accidents couldn't possibly happen with that kind of regularity. My family stayed to set up the tent while Llarry and I went back to get the rest of the gear. On our return to the lake I tied some extra rope to the end of the lead. When Llarry made his move I side-stepped, placed a foot on a pannier, and pushed him over the bank. The look on Llarry's face was worth a thousand words. The student had surpassed the master.

     On only one other occasion did Llarry ram me, and that really wasn't his fault. He hadn't taught me how to teach a llama to cross a stream without flying over it. But again, I'm a fast learner, and that only took one lesson.
     Our next trip was a steady uphill hike of four miles with a three-thousand-foot rise in elevation. Llarry was carrying about eighty pounds in his panniers (the bags that hang on either side of the saddle and carry the gear); after a couple of miles he
started to whine and then lay down in the trail. I pulled on the lead rope with all my might, which wasn't much because my legs were a little weak and I was still trying to catch my breath from the steep hike. Llarry wouldn't budge. I dropped the lead and rushed toward him to scare him up. I got a heavy stick and tried to pry his back legs up. I goosed him, screamed at him, begged him, and even prayed that my wife Sandy would have the strength to carry that eighty-pound load out if Llarry refused to go any further. What was his problem?!

     "Llamas aren't what they're cracked up to be," I thought. It was hot and I had worked up a sweat, so I sat down to take a drink of water. As I did, Llarry stood up. "These llamas are strange animals," I said to Sandy as we started back up the trail.
     After a pleasant weekend we loaded up and headed back down the trail to the truck. Sandy was leading Llarry when I noticed that the pack saddle had worked forward on Llarry's back and was riding on his shoulders; it looked uncomfortable. Llarry's saddle didn't come with a breeching strap to help hold the load in place on steep descents. That could have been the problem, or maybe I just didn't get the load packed up right or the front cinch tight enough—these are things I couldn't expect Llarry to teach me. In any case, I hollered at Sandy to hold up for a minute, grabbed the back of the saddle, and gave a good, hard jerk to get the pack back in place. At that moment, two things happened. Sandy turned around to see what was going on, and Llarry spit his previous night's dinner salad. I tried to explain to Sandy that the chain of events was merely a coincidence and she should not blame Llarry, but she wasn't in the mood to listen. As she headed toward me with a large stick I pleaded with her not to strike at Larry.
     "Don't hit him,” I said, "he doesn’t know any better.”
     "You just don't get it, do you, Charlie?" Sandy said.
     Now, you're probably wondering why anyone would buy a llama with so many things wrong with it. Keep in mind that this was in 1982. I'm a lot smarter now. And back then, there were less than two thousand male llamas in the United States to choose from, so I took what was offered.
     As I look back, I realize that although Llarry had just about every bad habit a llama could possess, he was good for me. There was very little information on llamas available at the time, and even less on packing them. I didn't know of any commercial llama packers I could take a trip with and there were no pack clinics offered. Llarry was my educator and I couldn't have learned from a better source. I haven't run across a llama since that had so much to offer.
     And after all was said and done, Llarry wasn't all that bad of a packer. When the training was complete and he was in good physical shape, he went up the trail on a loose lead. Outside of walking on my heels and pacing on the picket line, he was usually more tolerable than my kids.
     Speaking of my kids, Llarry loved them. They could walk up to him in the field and he would stand right there and let them pet him. He let the kids ride him, and only dumped them on one occasion when a motorcycle came up behind him during a parade. My daughter Alexa was leading Llarry and Andy, her younger brother, was in the saddle. When Llarry bolted, Alexa was dragged across the pavement. She skinned herself up pretty badly before she let go of the lead and put Andy on automatic pilot. Andy rode like a Kentucky Derby jockey, but when Llarry took a sharp left on First Street, Andy took a sharp right and was tossed head-first onto Third Street. A scar on Alexa's knee is the only reminder of the experience for her, and although Andy is most always outstanding in his field, he does occasionally need a compass to find his way across town. And Llarry? Llarry died of old age. A local anthropologist had him at over twenty-five years old.
     My family has enjoyed raising and packing with llamas over the years, and I'm not sure which I've enjoyed more, the raising or the packing. But one thing's for sure: I'll never forget old... old... I'll never forget my very first pack llama, old what's-his-name.

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