Part of the surefootedness of llamas comes from the fact that they have split hooves and small, pointed feet. The feet are lifted rather high, almost in a prancing step. Llamas pace rather than trot; that is, they move the front foot and hind foot on each side in unison. On a mountain trail the result is remarkably smooth progress, for the hind foot seems to come down exactly on the spot where the front foot had been just an instant before. McKay became interested in llamas as pack animals partly because of their feet. "They do not need shoes as a mule or a horse does," he says, "and one bale of second-cutting alfalfa hay will last one llama from 10 to 14 days."
His llama had never had a pack on its back when McKay bought it. He trained it by giving it a short daily walk, with a blanket and saddlebags, in the streets around his sister's house in Klamath Falls.
When Dick Patterson set out on a short pack trip along Squaw Creek last June, he also used a llama that had never packed before, pairing it, however, with an older and less excitable animal. Llamas like the Woods. Coming out of the valley into the heights, with the scent of pine and sage in the air, oxygen-laden and delicious, they stopped and poised on the edge of a low cliff with evident approval. On the trail they plodded along silently, a steady rhythm to their steps, heads high, ears erect, looking around with interest. At an opening in the woods, where one of the mountains stood out in sharp silvery outline against the blue sky, they looked up at it steadily. Where Squaw Creek poured out of the mountains in a series of chutes and falls, with a roar that made orders indistinguishable, they paced along a thin shelf with casual, untroubled footing and with a lightness that took away entirely the awkwardness they showed in the pastures. This is where they belong.
It may be that llamas should be extinct. An ice age destroyed many of their wild South American contemporaries. One theory is that llamas survived only because the primitive men of the mountains had already domesticated them. By the time the Spaniards conquered Peru there were no wild llamas left. But the Inca herds were enormous—all royal property—and segregated in flocks of the same sex, age and color. Llamas were used by the Incas in trains of 100 or more, each able to carry close to 100 pounds 20 miles a day at an elevation of 16,000 feet above sea level. The abundance of red corpuscles in their blood enables them to live at heights where the oxygen content of the air is low.
Llamas had a mysterious place in Inca religion. Innumerable golden llama figures were melted down by Spaniards. One of these, in Cuzco, weighed 58 pounds. When the lost city of Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911, a strange sacrificial table in the form of a llama was found in the ruins. According to reports of the Spaniards, llamas in Peru always faced the sun at sunset and always uttered loud groans when the sun went down, though nothing of the sort has been noted of the modern-day llamas in Oregon.
"In the whole appealing realm of animal infants there is nothing cuter, more capricious or more lovable," wrote a llama expert named W.H. Hodge in 1946, in one of the few studies of the animal in English. Hodge attributed the gentleness and good nature of llamas to their early training—young children watch the herds in their early years, and the Peruvian Indians never carry a stick or whip, directing the animals with a soft whistle, or by talking in a low voice, with "an understanding which exhibits the essence of gentleness."
"Llamas are very good-natured," Dick Patterson says. "One time we had 10 schoolteachers bring their classes here, grade school and kindergarten. There were 120 kids. There were almost as many kids as there were llamas in the pasture. They were running around and screaming, as kids will do. The teachers started after them. I said, 'Teachers, stay here with me. We scare the llamas, but the children don't.' We watched them. There was a wild llama in there that had never been broken or been around people, and the kids were petting it. We couldn't do that, but they could.
"After work Kay and I will sit down in the pasture and split a glass of beer with the llamas crawling all around us," Patterson says. "I've even fallen asleep in the middle of them. I envy that young fellow who took his llama over the Pacific Crest Trail. At night he could just lie down beside his llama and keep warm. You can't do that with a horse or a pack mule."
"Do llamas spit?" a visitor asks. "What about that old story?"
"They'll spit at each other to get a better place at the hayrack. They want a better place to eat. But they don't spit at me. The other day, though, some people were here buying llamas. I had some hay in my hand, holding it between two llamas. Somebody asked me, 'Do llamas spit?' 'No,' I said. Just then one llama spit at the other llama and I got it right in the face. I felt like a fool! I had a bit of a hard time explaining it wasn't intended for me."