Stuart Wilde, 44, smiles with delight as he pats Diego’s neck, fastens the llama’s saddlebag and explains why the animal is an ideal hiking companion when exploring the rugged mountains of northern New Mexico.
“Llamas are one of the oldest domesticated animals on the planet and, for thousands of years, have served as pack animals in the Andes Mountains of South America,” Wilde tells a dozen hikers, each holding a rope attached to a haltered llama that will serve as his “hiking buddy” for a daylong trek into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
A wilderness guide for 20 years, Wilde praises the llamas’ sure-footed agility and good-natured spirit as the hikers prepare to ascend a rocky trail alongside the animals carrying their food and gear.
Wilde’s demeanor turns reverent, however, when explaining why the creatures, some weighing up to 400 pounds, are a friend and ally when exploring pristine wilderness areas.
“Despite their size and all they’re packing, these llamas leave minimal impact on the land,” explains Wilde, pointing to the animals’ leather-padded, two-toed feet. “They’re very eco-friendly. They leave behind little droppings that we call llama beans. Like deer, they browse and forage rather than graze.”
As the owner and operator of Wild Earth Llama Adventures, Wilde shares his love for America’s ancient forests, mountains and canyons with as many people as possible, and the novelty of hiking with llamas instead of lugging heavy backpacks attracts about a thousand guests each year to his treks. First and foremost, however, Wilde is a conservationist who practices what he preaches about leave-no-trace, low-impact hiking and camping.
“We’re just visitors in the wilderness. We want to leave these places cleaner and better and more beautiful than when we showed up,” says the soft-spoken guide, who asks guests to pick up and pack out any trash that they find.
Wilde grew up in a starkly different environment. Born in Queens, N.Y., and raised in nearby Long Island, Wilde lived in an apartment and relished weekend hikes in upstate New York with his Boy Scout troop. “I’ve always been the one who wanted to go for a walk in the woods,” he says.
He studied environmental science at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and helped establish one of nation’s first curbside recycling programs in Long Island before deciding to return to the Pacific Northwest. His plan was to “buy a piece of land, grow some food and put up a few solar panels” while raising his toddler son, Zack, as a single dad.
When his Volkswagen broke down in Taos, N.M. (pop. 32,937), Wilde fell in love with the beauty of the land and the environmental consciousness of its people. He stayed and began hiking the nearby mountains, becoming an authority on the region’s cultural history, forest ecology and natural resources.
“I realized that all the things I was teaching myself about the environment, I could teach other people those things, too,” he recalls. “But with a child strapped to my back, there was only so much I could carry. I needed help.”
He bought his first two llamas, Antonio and Azul, on a payment plan, opened his llama trek business in 1992, and “people began calling almost immediately wanting me to take their family or class or camp group on guided hikes.”
Soon after, the phone began ringing for another reason. “People were asking if we could care for their unwanted llamas,” Wilde says. “Now we have 32 llamas, all rescued from across the Southwest.”
About half of his llamas are trained as pack animals; the others, he cares for altruistically. “This is a way to give back to this breed that has helped me feed my family and keep the lights on in my house,” says Wilde, who runs his trekking business with his wife, Leah.
Wilde is highly regarded by the federal agency that issues his business permits. “For Stuart, it’s not just about making a living. He’s passionate about teaching people the wilderness ethic and to leave no trace,” says Mary Ann Elder, 68, a resource manager for the U.S. Forest Service.
His caretaker philosophy made an impression on Sarah Thomas, 30, and Mike Carter, 37, of London, England, who trekked with Wilde during their honeymoon last fall. “I’ve felt encouraged to explore the outdoors more and become a better environmental steward,” says Thomas, a schoolteacher.
Such testimonies reinforce why Wilde and his llamas lead people “off the sidewalk and into the wilderness” to reconnect with the rhythms of nature.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Wilde says.