A mile into the wooded trail, I looked over at Clemente and thought, “I could really get used to walking a llama.”
I am a fairly serious person with a fairly serious job. I’m a mom to two small kids, so my free time is at a premium. But though I have long had a fascination with llamas — their soulful eyes, their perky ears, their soft and abundant fur — I had never actually touched one.
Vienckowski loved horses as a child, but growing up in a Jersey Shore town, she had boats instead.
“I knew from children’s books that there were llamas, but I had never petted one,” she said.
Life proceeded: a busy career as a graphic designer, a husband, two children. But when her twins graduated from college, she had a hankering for something different. After seeing a documentary on llamas, she was intrigued by their appearance and gentleness, and by the fact that they were easier and less expensive to keep than horses.
She called it her “Llamaquest,” and even though it wasn’t husband Eddie’s dream, he was supportive of the idea. Eleven years ago, the couple moved to a 3.5-acre farm in New Egypt, N.J, and she bought five llamas: Clemente, Eduardo, Carbon, Jim-E, and Gunner. She says she’s happier and healthier than she’s ever been.
“I’ve worked in a stressful occupation since I was 18,” said Vienckowski. “To be here in nature with these gentle souls — they just meet you where you are.”
Llamas are native to South America and were introduced to the United States in the 1920s. Now, there are nearly 200,000 in the country, and they’re having something of a popular culture moment — there are llama books, llama T-shirts, llama tchochkes.
Plenty of other llama owners breed the animals, but Vienckowski’s are geldings and were strictly pets at first. But four years ago, Vienckowski launched her llama adventure business, offering everything from meet-the-llama farm visits to hikes with the camelid gang.
Driving to the farm, past roadside stands selling fresh eggs, and a church whose sign beseeched passersby to “pray for the turtles,” I was eager to see up close the animal I had previously known best as a character in a Sesame Street segment where a girl walked her llama through the streets of New York on a trip to the dentist. (Maybe not the most realistic llama situation, but I was a city kid.)
I was excited to try something new, but I was also thinking about a million other things: story ideas I needed to check into, a project I am working on, errands I had to fit in somehow.
Then we were out of our cars, greeted by the warm and enthusiastic Vienckowski, 64. We met her chickens, then, one by one, the llama boys.
They are a handsome lot, with ears that perk up in the most captivating way, and luxurious fur that Vienckowski had spent an hour brushing before our arrival.
Vienckowski told us about the guys: Carbon and Gunner can count, and Eddie is a hugger. (Four-legged Eddie, the llama, not to be confused with two-legged Eddie, Vienckowski’s husband.) That is, if Eddie Four Legs is feeling so inclined and you lean into his side, he will provide you with the softest llama hug, allowing you to drape one arm around him.
Llamas don’t bite, and though they can spit (at one another; it’s a hierarchy thing), they were perfect gentlemen for us.
Vienckowski stressed the importance of approaching the llamas gently, showing us their trust was a reward we could earn. She said we would know which llama was right for us to walk.
My friend Barbara Laker and Carbon were destined for each other. They’re both sweethearts who have a way of putting people at ease. They bonded immediately, Barbara petting his fur and declaring, “You’re my boyfriend.” Carbon did not disagree, touching his nose to her face with a llama kiss.
Wendy Ruderman was matched up with Eddie, who was charming, generous with his affection, and who quickly established himself as the no-rules llama. Vienckowski urged us to keep the llamas from feeding during the walk, so, naturally, Eddie wanted to bend down to find all the tasty onion grass he could as soon as free-spirit Wendy took the lead attached to his halter.
Wendy was eager to help, leaning over to pluck some treats for Eddie herself.
“He likes the green ones,” she said.
I chose Clemente, proper, shy, and a natural-born leader. I wanted very much for him to like me, and I think he did. My friend Nicole Izanec paired up with Jim-E, tall and handsome, and Ellen Dunkel was matched with Gunner, who “told the psychic he likes people to take selfies with him,” Vienckowski said. “He knows he’s handsome.”
(About the psychic: in addition to massages and reiki treatments, the llamas have had a visit from an animal communicator. Vienckowski prides herself on taking good care of the llamas and said she gained valuable insights from the psychic.)
When I started walking Clemente through the Collier’s Mills Wildlife Management Area that’s basically Vienckowski’s backyard, my mind wasn’t wandering anymore. I noticed how blue the sky was, and how the air was cool but not cold. I took a lot of deep breaths and felt more relaxed than I had felt in months. It was not so much a vigorous hike as a dreamy amble. I held Clemente’s lead, but he set the tone and the pace.
Before our visit, I had read about the llamas and seen Vienckowski’s promise that “walking a llama is good for the soul.” Well, I’m a professional skeptic, born and raised in a city of skeptics, and I thought they would be cute but perhaps not balm for my spirit.
When our time with the llamas was over, we were gushing. Ellen likened it to walking a golden retriever. Nicole and Jim-E bonded over the llama’s comically loud sneeze. We understood why llamas are used in some settings as therapy animals.
“That was one of the most therapeutic experiences I’ve ever had,” Barbara said. “You’re out in the woods, it’s beautiful. I think it was better than a spa day.”
Where: Second Wind Llama Adventures, 256 E. Colliers Mill Rd., New Egypt, N.J. 08533. 609-286-2521.
What: Llama walks, farm visits, and more — proprietor Bev Vienckowski also offers parties, corporate retreats, llama photo opportunities, and “magical llama bean visits,” when you can scoop up llama manure, which is excellent for plant-growing. Llama visits must be scheduled, and the llamas walk Tuesday through Thursday and on Saturday and Sunday. There are no adventures during June, July, or August, when the weather is too hot for the llamas.
Who: You must be at least 8 to walk a llama during a llama visit, and 11 to walk a llama during a lake walk. All are welcome, and accommodations can be made for seniors, people with special needs, and groups of 15 or under.