Face to Face With Rappahannock's Rural Charms

Clyde Humphrey, co-owner of West Wind Farm in Castleton, Va., communes with one of his 23 llamas.
Clyde Humphrey, co-owner of West Wind Farm in Castleton, Va., communes with one of his 23 llamas. (West Wind Farm)
Rappahannock County
By Walter Nicholls
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 27, 2008

As my lips move close to the llama's, I give the curious animal his necessary meet-and-greet moment, an opportunity for him to smell me and size me up. I want to be friends, run my fingers through his deep brown fleece, grab the reins and lead him through an obstacle course, then, perhaps, down a forested slope to the winding Thornton River. At West Wind Farm in Rappahannock County, anyone with a positive aroma and a taste for adventure can get to know the Incas' beast of burden.

Rappahannock, best known as the home of the sumptuous Inn at Little Washington and as a gateway to Shenandoah National Park, can easily fill a weekend with far more than a fancy meal after a strenuous hike. There is bounty, in summer and fall, at vegetable farms and fruit orchards that can fill baskets and then the back seat. At any time of year, with six wineries, a tasting room is never far away.

Despite its proximity to the nation's capital, about 75 miles away, the county has maintained an off-the-beaten-track aura of rural pride through strict laws controlling development and a populace that appreciates tourism. The rugged beauty of the place and its laid-back lifestyle also attract residents who have established niche businesses you won't find just anywhere.

That's how I meet Silver, a well-mannered, 8-year-old llama. Then comes the kiss.

Will he spit, I am wondering, as llamas are said to do? For that matter, will he bite?

"Don't worry," says farm co-owner Gwen Hays, 65, a retired aircraft radar engineer, who stands nearby stroking the white rooster cradled in her arms. "They only have teeth on the bottom."

Somehow, I don't find Hays's words reassuring, although Silver looks sweet-tempered -- angelic, even -- because of his beautiful, long eyelashes. But seconds later, having made a positive chemical connection, off Silver and I go. Only twice in her six years of llama work, Hays says, has an animal refused to be near a guest. "And they didn't smell bad," she says. So, go figure.

Hays and her husband, Clyde Humphrey, breed, train and show llamas. (Virginia is home to 3,656 llamas, according to the International Lama Registry.) The couple has 23 of the rather regal animals.

On some farms, llamas are used to guard sheep and chickens. But lots of owners just like them as eye candy out in the field. From the hundreds of show ribbons covering the walls of their double garage, it's easy to see that showing their llamas is what Hays and Humphrey like to do.

At the 43-acre West Wind in Castleton, the obstacle course is a series of old truck tires, wooden walkways and waist-high jumps that put llamas through their paces. The whole business takes maybe 15 minutes. But some people stay for hours, learning the proper way to hold the lead rope and get the llama to accomplish simple tricks, such as stepping smartly through a hula hoop.

Many of the farm's guests have disabilities or are home-schoolers out for an animal class. "Llamas love to interface with kids and the handicapped," Hays says. There is no fee. "By letting people come here, we get the animals trained," she says. The couple sell their llamas for between $500 and $6,000 apiece.

Additional income comes from selling the animals' wool, at $4 an ounce; it can be made first into a dense, soft felt and then further fashioned into clothing, perhaps a vest. (The owners can explain the simple process, which requires soapy water and elbow grease.) A $5 bill will get you a five-pound bag of llama droppings, which Hays and Humphrey say is an excellent fertilizer for home gardens.

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