Our fearless writer attempts to commune with a gear-carrying llama
by Kevin Crowe
Iâ’m standing next to a llama, wondering what Iâ’m supposed to do. I try to act natural, projecting a sense of confidence as I lead this animal into the woods. His name is Abu. Heâ’s a youngster by llama standards, just a few years old. His fur has been sheared short, probably sold or given away to any number of Sevier County craftspeople.
â“There you go, pretty boy,â” says Sandy Sgrillo, who has been running Smoky Mountain Llama Treks for the past three years out of her Sevierville home. Sheâ’s an animal fanatic, of course; youâ’d have to be a little crazy about animals to live with 10 llamas, 20 cats, and a few dogs. She keeps pretty busy, even on this quiet and isolated stretch of road.
But right now sheâ’s got a big hunk of alfalfa hanging between her teeth, cooing bits of baby talk to get the llamaâ’s attention. Abu, without any hesitation, lowers his long, muscular neck down to meet her, and he gives her a sloppy kiss as he licks away the alfalfa hunkâ"and, yes, thereâ’s plenty of llama tongue involved.
â“Itâ’s a llama thing,â” Sgrillo says, as if itâ’s the most natural thing in the world. â“Fallinâ’ in llama love.â”
Abu, like many of the llamas that have come under Sgrilloâ’s care, was once a pack llama, spending his days doing donkeywork, hauling supplies up and down Mount LeConte. But he was a little too stubborn to make a career out of hard labor. He never had the right disposition.
â“Theyâ’re all different,â” Sgrillo explains. â“Some will carry more than others. Some are workers. I know them. I know what they can do.â”
Iâ’m standing along a dirt path, barely 100 yards from the trailhead, and Abu has decided that he doesnâ’t want to budge. He looks at me with his big llama eyes, daring me to yank the rope thatâ’s attached to his halter. Heâ’s testing me. Abu may be young, but he knows a greenhorn city slicker when he meets one. I slouch over in frustration, looking helpless, hoping to draw a little bit of sympathy from Sgrillo, who seems to be having no trouble leading her llama along the windy dirt path. â“Câ’mon, Abu,â” she hollers. He still doesnâ’t budge. I give the rope a good, firm tug. Abu and I, at least for the time being, have worked out an understanding. And weâ’re on the move again.
â“Theyâ’re so aloof,â” Sgrillo says when I catch up. â“Arenâ’t they?â”
Maybe it was a beautiful accident that brought Sgrillo to East Tennessee and into the llama business. Maybe, depending on your point of view, it was fate. See, Sgrillo grew up in Connecticut, where she fell in love with the lush backcountry. When she moved to Miami as a young adult, she longed for the rugged kind of freedom of her childhood. â“I lived with all the people, football games, traffic,â” she says. Then, a simple twist of fate led her in an unexpected direction. While flipping through an outdoors magazine, Sgrillo came across an article about llama hiking, which was already a popular tourist activity out west in places like Wyoming. She remembers staring at the picture of a llama, slowly falling in love with an animal she knew nothing about.
â“I donâ’t know why I kept that photo, I just did,â” she says.
Years later, after relocating to the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, Sgrillo went on her first llama hike. â“I didnâ’t know what to expect,â” she recalls. â“I couldnâ’t believe how gentle they were.â”
She began with just two llamas. That was seven years ago. When she moved to her current location, a small plot of land off of Creek Hollow Wayâ"â“Turn left at the old dilapidated cabin,â” she directs visitors, because there isnâ’t a street signâ"her small stable of llamas continued to grow. And her business, too.
Sgrillo says sheâ’s taken as many as 25 people on a single hike. â“I donâ’t do that anymore,â” she laughs, remembering the nightmare logistics of maneuvering so many people and 10 llamas through the woods. â“12 to 14 in a group is pretty good.â”
Each llama can comfortably carry a third of its body weight, which is about 100 to 150 pounds. So what makes these llama treks so enticing to tourists is that they can schlep all the comforts that even the burliest backpacker wouldnâ’t be able to carry.
â“You should see the looks on people faces when we come into a campground with a llama train,â” Sgrillo says, smiling. â“We unpack tables and chairs, and start cooking.â”
Weâ’ve made it to an overlook after nearly an hour. Weâ’re staring down into a valley, and the leaves have just begun to change colors, ever so slightly. Africa, the llama that Sgrillo has been leading, is a stately sight to behold, his long black hair gently blowing in the breeze. Then, just as weâ’ve begun to settle down to take in the view, a large black dog saunters towards us, his tail eagerly wagging. Africa, however, gets a little spooked. â“He doesnâ’t like some dogs,â” Sgrillo says. â“I think he may have been scared by a bear once.â”
We head back, down the hill towards Sgrilloâ’s house. Africa is breathing heavily, walking a little faster than he has all day. â“You just wanna go home?â” I ask rhetorically.
â“Heâ’s anxious to get home,â” Sgrillo says. â“If you spend all day with them, youâ’ll learn each animal, see how they each have their own personality.â”
Each time the llamas take a step, itâ’s a gentle, quiet step, nothing like the loud, indiscriminate thuds of other large mammals. Itâ’s as though each step is calculated ahead of time. The llamas are as surefooted as they come, able to step over fallen log without a single misstep.
We tie Africa and Abu together, creating a very short llama train. Africa continues with his heavy breathing until we emerge from the woods, up the gravel driveway to the stables. Sgrillo offers Africa a bottle of water, he drinks it straight out of the bottle, lapping up each drop.
The other llamas slowly congregate in front of Sgrillo, whoâ’s holding a box of alfalfa clumps. All the necks seem to become entangled as they push forward, each llama trying to get that first bit of alfalfa. Theyâ’re like giant, alien ragdolls, a collection of animals that are as exotic as they are adorable. If you look directly at a llama, it seems like itâ’s a cartoon come to life. Itâ’s a living creature, sure, but it looks like itâ’s been genetically engineered for cuteness.
â“I love animals,â” Sgrillo goes on. â“You can have a stressful, crappy day, and you come home and all the animals come and love you. Everythingâ’s better.â”
For more information on Smoky Mountain Llama Treks, visit www.smokymountainllamatreks.com . Or call their office at (865) 428-4606.
â¢ Lost Trails for Brave Hikers: Local hiking author Ken Wise takes us on some off-trail excursions. â¢ A Kayaking Quest: Kim Trevathan goes on a summer-long expedition to find the original rivers feeding our man-made lakes.
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