Chris Best promised that llamas don't spit, at least well-behaved llamas like his. So what was that snort, pfft and poof of cud ejected from Chaos's mouth?
"That was a spit," admitted the Virginia innkeeper and llama guide. "Definitely spit.'"
You don't ride a llama during a llama trek. Instead you lead it, as Applewood Inn owner Linda Best does during a recent hike through Virginia's Rockbridge County.
(Seth M. Gitner For The Washington Post)
Gross-out adventure? Hardly. A two-hour llama trek through Rockbridge County, about a three-hour drive from Washington in west-central Virginia, is more like a lordly perambulation through well-kept fields and Sherwood forests, but with cantering llamas instead of yapping hunting dogs at your heels. However, unlike other active outings in this horsy country marked by Civil War sites and good manners, you don't saddle up and ride these pack animals.
Instead, you do all the work.
"We had a man from New York staying here, and he said, 'Okay, so let me get this straight. Basically, I am paying you to take your llamas for a walk?' " Chris recalled during a pre-trek breakfast at his Applewood Inn, a four-bedroom property that sits on 36 acres of prime llama land. "I said, 'Yes, that's exactly it.' "
But walking a llama isn't as easy as walking a dog, the 300-pound difference notwithstanding. "Llamas have a strong sense of personal space," the chipper 64-year-old explained during the llamas' evening feeding. "And they are prey, so they are always leery of being invited to a dinner where they're served as the first course."
Chris and his wife, Linda, have owned llamas since their days in the Massachusetts Berkshires, where they ran an inn before moving to the Shenandoah Valley area about eight years ago. They once had a horse and never really imagined raising the bushy, taciturn creatures until their vet offered them a two-for-one deal on his llamas. Since then, their menagerie has grown to seven (plus two dogs and a cat): Ethan Allen, Jack Frost, Pepe Le Pew, Chaos, Happy, McNally and Jonas. "They are like the most aloof cat you'll ever meet," Chris told me shortly before our trek. That means that they don't like to be petted, cuddled or fed treats, nor do they care to have their ears scratched or their feet touched. And don't even think about giving them an Eskimo kiss. Indeed, for the most part, llamas would rather be elsewhere -- elsewhere being anywhere you're not. And if you happen to get in their way of being elsewhere, then take cover.
So why bother? Well, there is the quirky factor (a llama on a leash!), and the desire to commune with all of Mother Earth's creatures, sweet and sour alike, and because, well, sometimes yellow Labradors are so unchallenging. They love everyone; not so the llama.
"The worst thing that has ever happened to one of our guests was when a woman put her face in Chaos's food dish and he went to sniff her hair. He has a very sensitive nose and I guess she was wearing hairspray, and he didn't like her smell, so he kinda went 'blech,' " Chris said. "It was more of a snort, though, than a spit."
But on the eve of the trek, the llamas looked positively noble standing atop the hill, their sturdy forms cutting dashing figures against the blue-black sky, as if they were Aztec gods commanding the moon and stars. I was tempted to run up to them and hug and pet them and tell them it was okay to be cute and cuddly. But, then, as I scrambled down from my picnic-table perch and headed back to the inn, I glanced again at the llamas. Their heads looked slightly devilish, with ears for horns, and bodies resembling lumpy Loch Ness monsters.