“Eating is an agricultural act,” Wendell Berry famously wrote, meaning that even diners who’ve never wielded a sickle or taken out a farm loan are part of the food system. For many city dwellers, though, the mere act of making choices at the grocery store doesn’t have much pastoral oomph, so they grow heirloom tomatoes and raise chickens.
Yet for a true taste of the agrarian experience, they might be better off borrowing llamas. Standing at the foot of Mt. Antero with my accomplice Bunbun, a white-haired ccara llama carrying 80 pounds of camping supplies on his back, I felt a kinship with generations of fruit sellers who walk along with donkeys and milkmen who travel with yaks. The feeling only deepened when Bun refused to move forward and lashed out at a wooly llama making the trip with us.
I hadn’t come to Colorado to gain empathy for pack animal owners: That was a livestock lagniappe. My plan was to spend two nights in the Rocky Mountain backcountry with my dad, and to see if we could eat well along the way.
Neither of us are hikers by nature — my dad had never camped before we went on a canoeing weekend last year — so we figured llamas would at least provide comic relief. (We got hours of laughs out of the rental contract alone, which offered helpful guidelines such as “if your llama hurts his leg, please don’t shoot him.”)
Llamas aren’t designed to be ridden, another point made forcefully by the contract, which gave us temporary title to the llamas for 90 bucks a day. In the realm of outdoor activities, llama trekking is most like taking your dog for an uphill walk — especially if your dog is stubborn, skittish and occasionally lazy.
In other words, you can quickly build up an appetite for whatever gourmet meal makings you’ve stashed in your llama’s spacious panniers. For that reason, a llama outing provides an ideal opportunity to try out the latest camp cookware.
With the help of Outside Magazine buyer’s guide editor Wil Egensteiner, I came up with an equipment list featuring the items that savvy camp cooks are using now. There were a few hitches, which tends to be the rule whenever llamas are involved: A Muncher multitool didn’t make it from the U.K. to Salida, Colorado, in time for our trip (although the owner of the Circle R Motel is now presumably opening cans and buttering toast with a shiny new titanium spork) and I didn’t realize until too late that a small stove I’d lugged across the country was missing a fuel component.
But we didn’t starve. Neither did the llamas, since they’re radically omnivorous: Bunbun in particular has a reputation as an adventurous eater, which he upheld by sampling seeds and tree bark until he made himself sick. Llamas don’t often spit, contrary to popular belief, but they are sadly prone to digestive distress.
And we were won over by some very cool food-and-beverage devices that made the prospect of another hiking trip seem somewhat palatable. Next time, though, we might leave behind those sweet-looking llamas.
Hydro Flask 25-ounce Wine Bottle, $44.95; Hydro Flask 10-ounce Wine Tumbler, $29.95
After talking up independent llama trekking for months, I hadn’t come across a single person on the East Coast who was familiar with the concept. But in Colorado, the practice is surging: In fact, our llama dealer told us that existing llama outfits can’t keep up with demand.
That’s because thirsty hikers have figured out that a llama can function as a liquor cabinet. According to our llama guy, it’s not the least bit unusual for a backpacking party to hire a llama just to carry its wine.
So that’s one option for drinking with llamas. An alternative is Hydro Flask’s wine bottle, added just this month to the insulated beverage container company’s catalog. Obviously, a wide-mouthed water bottle from the insanely popular line would work just as well for vinho verde, but the bottle’s design is charming. And although the 50-degree weather didn’t fully test its capabilities, everything that went into the bottle cold came out the same way.
Lodge 10.25-inch cast iron skillet with assist handles, $19.99
“You lost your frying pan,” a disembodied voice announced.
A cast-iron skillet is perfect for morning bacon and evening cobblers, but it’s not made for tucking into a camelid’s pack. Lodge, the estimable Tennessee producer, recently improved its skillets by adding a set of “love handles” that makes them lighter. But when a llama’s in the picture, shape is more significant than heft. We ended up strapping our skillet around the middle of Kilo’s spine, but it kept slipping off, which is why another hiker came upon our pan in the middle of the trail.
Pannier balance is the core skill required for travelling with llamas: If one side weighs even a few ounces more than the other, the entire load is apt to fall, spooking the llama and scattering provisions. My dad and I spent much of our first llama day slipping rocks into panniers. We were more than ready for skillet cornbread when we reached the campsite.
Sea to Summit X-Brew Coffee Dripper, $17.95
But first, we needed coffee. Sea to Summit’s pour-over contraption is so ingenious that there’s no need to wait for the company of llamas to deploy it.
The 4-inch-tall cylinder collapses flat, and is sized to fit directly over a standard coffee cup. It comes with a superfine, easy-to-clean filter, so now all that great backcountry coffee requires are high-quality grounds and the ability to boil water.
Sea to Summit X-Bowl, $15.95
As much as I loved the X-Brew, all I got from the similarly fashioned X-Bowl was aggravation. The first entry in Sea to Summit’s X-Series, the bowl makes sense in theory: Its base is nylon, so it doesn’t get overly hot, and it’s more compact than a Frisbee when fully collapsed. But just holding the bowl was enough to cause it to collapse, so I ended up with chicken chile verde in my lap.
"Coleman’s The Outdoor Adventure Cookbook: The Official Cookbook from America's Camping Authority," $22.99
Our llamas lugged a pair of Walmart fishing poles to our lakeside camp, because I had a wild idea about catching breakfast. Fortunately, I brought Bisquick and bananas for back-up.
Coleman’s “Elvis Goes Camping” recipe, featuring deliciously sticky peanut butter syrup, produced the trip’s culinary high point: The new cookbook is chock-full of dishes that are more complex than the tuna sandwiches and gorp that dominate online collections of camping food ideas, but straightforward enough to pull off in the wilderness. I think Bunbun and Kilo looked a bit jealous.