An Enlightening Romance

By Jane Cassie

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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. Although it's just our first encounter, I'm pretty sure it's love at first sight.

As well as receiving lots of flattery during this half-day courtship, I gain more insight into the important aspects of life. They aren't tangible lessons - nothing that I could learn from a stack of books or the Internet, but instead, the true blue essentials; the core values of patience, beauty and peace.

Our day unfortunately begins on somewhat of a sour note. We've pre-booked a tour with Wild Earth Llama Adventures to trek New Mexico's Rio Grande Gorge. The scenic six-hour jaunt into the volcanic rift promises to provide 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 will be a few loyal llamas. Both gentle and sure-footed, these domesticated backpackers are known for their keen sense of direction. It's just too bad we don't.

A detailed route on "how to get there" from the city of Taos had been sent from the tour company, but, somehow, amongst our travel guides and trinkets, it's been misplaced. "The gorge is just a short drive away," I say to my husband as I eyeball it on the map. "How hard can it be to find the Wild Rivers Recreation area?" Unfortunately, it turns out to be more difficult than I think.

The 800-foot [244 m] deep canyon that slices through the state's tortilla-flat plateau stretches all the way from Colorado to the outskirts of Santa Fe. During its rugged course, there are a number of places to take in the views. We cross over the Rio Grande Bridge that spans the chasm. The second tallest in the U.S. highway system, it attracts many vacationers. But there's no sign of our campground, so we stay on the straight and narrow. And that's exactly what it is. Our back road bisects the piñon dotted plane and, like a fine silver thread, traces the flatland for as far as we can see. Although sensationally scenic, it's not what we're looking for.

"We've veered away from the gorge," my husband says with concern. "And there isn't a camper in sight." Actually, there's not much of anything: people, cars, or signage! As the minutes tick away, my heart rate escalates. We've already missed our scheduled rendezvous, and who knows where the heck we are. Finally, as if responding to my distress signals, a ranger's station magically appears. "You're way off track," the park guide says, while pointing in the other direction. "Wild Rivers Recreation area is an hour that-away."

Fortunately, for us, there are as many traffic cops on this deserted byway as there are road signs. With the pedal to the metal, our Chevy Cobalt transforms to a Chevy "go-bolt" and we careen across the palatial mesa. We hurdle back over the yawning gorge and buzz through the wispy towns of Arroyo Hondo and Questa. In spite of the alluring beauty, there's no dilly-dallying or stops to smell the flowers.

In record time, we veer into the Wild Rivers Recreation Area where a cycling-smooth route leads to our sought-after meeting place. Although there's neither man nor beast in sight, the well-trod, hoof-marked path is a dead-giveaway. It leads through some bushy ridge-top then 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.

Although mesmerizing, there's no time for dawdling. "The posse awaits," I say to my husband, as I lead the way. "Let's pick it up a notch." Our steady descent is flanked by indigenous 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 geysers that bubble out of volcanic rock. Finally, at the base of the canyon, is the prettiest picture of all. Grazing next to cascading waterfalls are some lovely looking llamas.

Our ponytailed guide, Stuart Wilde, welcomes us with a winning grin. Immediately, the feelings of anxiety fade and my racy pulse normalizes. Conveniently, we're just in time for lunch and while chowin' down on gourmet sandwiches and sweets, we yak with our new hiking compadres. As well as two retired couples from Texas, and a younger pair from South Carolina, accompanying our group, are four silent and very steadfast valets.

Stuart gives us a personal snippet about each llama. "Raja prefers to be the caboose, Zephyr is the teenage troublemaker, Rusty likes to sniff your face, and Azul, who will be your four-legged friend, takes the lead." He understands these animals as well as he knows the surrounding terrain, and it's clear that he's passionate about both. "As an outfitter, I get to spend 200 glorious days a year exploring New Mexico's 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."

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 always tags along. "I love this job," he says, while producing another ear to ear smile. "I'm sure I'll be doing it for another 20 years!"

Before trekking the return route, we retrace some of the area's history by checking out nearby artifacts and 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 indigenous drawings represented community, abundance, beauty, birth and renewal.

Still today, it's an area of ageless splendour boasting expansive views, flora and fauna. "There's everything from mountain lion and elk to lizards and rattlesnakes," our guide explains, while leading us back onto the trail. 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.

My heart rate accelerates once again during the uphill grunt, but this time it's for different reasons. No longer is there any tension, timelines or stress. In this place of ageless beauty boasting expansive views, there is only the present.

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

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

Wild Earth Llama Adventures

Where to stay
he Taos Inn: Once over this hotel's threshold, you'll feel like you've stepped back to 1890 when it was home to Doc Martin and his wife Helen. Margaritas and nightly live music flow freely from the Adobe Bar. Award-winning American fare is served up at the adjacent Doc Martin's Restaurant. And cozy fireplace-lit adobe-style abodes that fan out from this central hub will satisfy any Southwestern historian.


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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

Taos Is one of the nicest places on earth. Everyone should go to see the beautiful mountains and glorious landscape. Good story!

Posted by Sammy Hill | July 8, 2009 Report Violation

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