On our recent family pack trip, I recorded this snippet of our youngest granddaughter, Eleanor, moseying up the trail behind her Dad. He had just set her on the ground freeing her from the constraints of her carrier and freeing him from the weight and gyrations of a two year old toddler.
I always travel at the back of the group, a position I increasingly enjoy. The llamas and family members filling their various roles and assignments are ahead of me. I know where everyone is and that as long as we are moving, there are no issues. I can relax and reflect. So as Eleanor walked between Nate and me I could spy on her carefree nonchalance and discovery while mentally revisiting the trips where our kids and now our grandkids have all experienced the same wilderness moment Eleanor was moving through.
Our kids have made it known that these trips were important in their lives and in growing to adulthood. They want the same experience for their children and it is gratifying for Dianne and me to have this validation of at least one of our parenting decisions. As long as we can walk, we will honor this request and serve this tradition.
For me, it goes beyond a parenting tool or tradition. It returns me to the perspective that life is cyclical and not linear. It’s not about arriving, accumulating, controlling, achieving, being all things avant-garde and always moving forward. It’s about being a part, responding, accepting, seeking, serving, leaving a worthy legacy and example, preserving through temperance and stewardship.
In our culture and society it’s easy to lose sight of this cyclical perspective with its unrelenting push to live in linear, even terminal fashion. But when you return to the wilderness from which life emanates, the cycle becomes crystal clear and calls you to serve the role you’ve been assigned in the cycle.
I’m most thankful for the wilderness and this moment following Eleanor.
Colorado State University is concluding its Protected Areas Management Course for Spanish-speaking land managers and technicians. This is the 26th year they have conducted the month long course which addresses all aspects of protected lands management. Buckhorn Llama Co., Inc. provides llamas and packing instruction for the week long backcountry recreation and management session. In working with this program we have been impressed with both the course’s mission and its effective accomplishment of that mission.
Participants are resource managers and students whose primary language is Spanish and are involved in some aspect of managing protected lands in their native country. Of the approximately two dozen students accepted, most are from Latin America, but all the countries represented have significant and unique public lands resources that need protection and preservation. At the same time these lands must generate revenue for the economy and recapture the cost of the management programs. Achieving a sustainable balance is the focus of this instruction.
CSU combines the resources and practices of research institutions, government agencies, private foundations, preservation groups, and private business to provide a collaborative, comprehensive course that presents a template for optimum management as well as addressing needs unique to specific countries and their individual lands.
Each course participant is given a toolbox of management techniques to help them implement a strategy and to set goals for the resources they oversee at home. The emphasis is always on sustainability, stewardship, and continuity. We appreciate the emphasis the course places on llamas and their low impacts when used in these protected areas. Llamas are featured as low impact support animals for both resource maintenance and ecotourism applications.
Sustainability is the philosophical basis of both our packing business and llama fiber clothing business. We are pleased to have llamas presented in their element and their ethic as part of this CSU program.
A garment’s wind resistance is a function of its composition fabric and design features rather than a function of the fiber composing the fabric.
Garments with the greatest wind resistance will be made from low-porosity fabrics that provide a physical barrier to the wind. Yarn gauge and tension, weave or knit architecture, and tightness/weight determine a fabric’s level of wind resistance. The garment design will include features that prevent air movement into or out of the garment interior. Storm collars or hoods, positive closure cuffs, bottom hem drawstrings, and plackets covering zipper closures are some basic design features.
Most wind proof or resistant garments are very effective at stopping air movement. However, they also prevent moisture movement and when wind subsides, over-heating and perspiration results. Though Altiplano garments are not focused on wind resistance, many clients prefer them for windy conditions. Because they manage moisture levels so well and maintain a comfortable temperature, they find wearing a tighter weave outer or inner layer (such as a cotton twill) with their llama fiber garment will give a very nice balance of wind protection and temperature regulation.
Outdoorsmen such as Brandon (video) will cite wind resistance as a property of our clothing and everyone wearing the Vaquero jacket will note its double layer construction as windproof when worn in subzero wind chills. When high wind conditions are encountered, there is often associated moisture. The llama garments are ideal to wear under shells that are both water and windproof. Typically a light llama fiber mid layer such as the half zip will maintain comfortable temps under A shell when worn in wind chills in the 10-20 degree F. range.
I just received a call that took me back almost 20 years. A Special Forces Operator that recently retired called to thank me for conducting a llama packing instruction (10th Special Forces Group, Airborne- Mountaineering/Tactical Pack Animal Operations) that he attended here at the ranch in 1997. He told me that he deployed to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. They were in rough terrain and needed to do a lot of freighting, supplying remote positions. Equine stock was readily available, but it needed more support than could be supplied. He determined that llamas were the answer and asked about the possibility of getting animals. Four animals showed up from somewhere; untrained, but for sure llamas. After 3 weeks of training work, the llamas were put into service and were being parachuted in crates from C130s and Hueys into remote regions. He and three other operators followed them out of the hold, and once on the ground, would uncrate the boys and go to work distributing the supplies dropped ahead of them. He said the llamas were perfect for the assignment as they were calm travelers, steady packers, totally self-sufficient, and the sparse water sources were adequate for their maintenance.
The conversation really caused me to pause. I wasn’t surprised the llamas could do it, but I was amazed that men with 4 days of instruction could assimilate, and four years later, apply every aspect of our instruction. That they could assess that llamas were the solution to a problem on the ground, and then move decisively to quickly to procure and train animals to a high level of performance, and ultimately employ them in the most demanding of conditions is remarkable. But I think it’s just another “git ‘er done” day in their lives.
During the instruction, I was impressed the 44 men were paying attention as if the instruction would one day help them on a mission. After two days in the classroom and close work handling untouched animals and rigging and loading trained llamas, we graduated to off trail transport of various weapons systems, simulated fire fights, and culminated with an 8 hour night op. Each man got a taste of everything, but not much chance to swallow. It is testimony to the intelligence, focus, and work ethic these men have and I assume the same qualities mark the men serving today. I am truly thankful for what they do and how they do it.
I found it remarkably considerate for that soldier to call after such a long time and express his thanks for the instruction and to want me to know those 4 days of instruction made a difference for him and his unit. As I process our conversation, I’m left with one thought; my life was never on the line, his was.
I’m an outdoor person who’s philosophically agrarian. Sweat, dirty hands, long days, wet feet, working before sunup and after dark, perpetually expanding to do lists; they all make sense to me. So why am I in the clothing business?
When we started raising llamas, my vision was to use them as pack animals for wilderness packing. As I set about this process I had no interest in their fiber and did not see any connection. Twenty years later when I had the opportunity to wear a llama vest, it occurred to me that the fiber was every bit as relevant to my lifestyle and business plan as were our strong, correct llamas carrying loads in the backcountry.
The product’s superior performance was instantly obvious to me just as it was to family, friends, and clients who wore it and helped compile the list of advantages. Just as obvious was the fact that if this product was going to come to market, I was going to have to do it. My knowledge of llamas, my daily need for versatile protection, and my agrarian background combined to give the beginning platform of perspective necessary to see both the potential of the clothing and the pitfalls of starting such a business. Beginning production gave me an expanded view that amplified both the potential and the pitfalls:
-Our initial sales directly to the public were very encouraging and established there was a sector of the population that was looking for better performance, better quality, better philosophy. They were looking for our product.
-Retailers were disconnected from this market segment and focused on the mainstream customer cultured by corporate marketing. The certainty of brand recognition, corporate promotion, low cost, and short garment life were more important than the quality, performance, and longevity our product offered in direct contrast to their inventories.
-Corporate manufacturers were not interested in the llama fiber market. It simply is not scalable; not enough llamas, hence not enough fiber, only small batch processing and manufacturing is available, production costs are too high, the product challenges what they currently offer, etc.
Lacking the capital necessary to properly promote the clothing, it looked like Altiplano would be a marginal hobby pursuit that would at best idle along. Then two significant players entered the clothing industry: “Sustainability” and “Fair Trade”. These are naturally strong aspects of Altiplano’s products and philosophy. They combine with product performance to provide a very compelling profile for today’s clothing buyer. Consumers have recognized the need to limit consumption and discourage exploitation of people and resources. Additionally, their strong move to online buying gives us a detour around the brick and mortar retailers’ reluctance to embrace our product and tell its story.
We have launched this new website that tells the Altiplano story regarding performance, sustainability, fair trade, and accountability. Ours is a complex story with many facets and its telling takes time. For our visitors and customers we hope the story is compelling enough to keep you coming back for further exploration of our website, interaction on social media, personally spreading the story, and ultimately using our products. We look forward to developing this type of relationship.
My interest in making clothing from llama fiber was based on its high level of performance and how it could protect a person for extended periods in variable high mountain conditions. So it was a bit of a surprise when office workers, golfers, retirees, and other seemingly casual, low-demand users began purchasing and praising the clothing. Hearing customers tell me all the advantages they were experiencing wearing our clothing in a variety of environments made it apparent the fiber’s potential was limited only by the designs we produced and the awareness we could create.
We have both embraced and struggled with this reality. We didn’t know what market to focus on and try to penetrate first. The clothing industry is very competitive and marked by sophisticated and extensive marketing programs that heavily influence consumers. It’s very hard for a small company like ours to compete in that environment and we needed to approach marketing from a different perspective. We came to realize that it would be ineffective to focus on specific specialty markets.
We have recognized each specialty clothing market has a segment of buyers looking for comprehensive value, measured not only in performance, but also in ethics. These buyers are composed of people looking at the world around them and recognizing the need to think more critically and make more conscientious decisions. They want high performance, but don’t want their personal choices in clothing to leave an enduring footprint on the environment, be it local or global. They are looking to simplify their daily lives. Buying less clothing of higher quality, simplifying and lowering its maintenance costs, being more comfortable, saving energy in their homes and workplaces, and operating outside the narratives created by aggressive corporate marketing motivate their purchases.
We now understand that what defines our market is as much about philosophy as it is about specific use. We are encouraged to know our clothing makes sense to discerning people for outdoor recreation and casual wear and that it is providing daily comfort in a variety of work environments. But we are most pleased that our customers feel good not only about the comfort and performance they experience wearing our clothing, but the value it gives them, and the values it serves.
Dianne and I are products of the land. We grew up on farms in Nebraska. Dianne’s family farm was roughly on the 100th meridian, the line of demarcation between the moist and temperate eastern U.S. and the “high and dry” western U.S. Sometimes the eastern influence would dominate and it would be a good year. Other years the western influence dominated, reminding one, life gives no guarantees.
I grew up 250 miles west on the high plains of the SW Nebraska panhandle, solidly in the high and dry steppes of the Rockies. Geographically, the area was naturally more akin to the plains of eastern Colorado and Wyoming that border the panhandle. Farming and ranching are tough anywhere, but the altitude and aridity of the panhandle made a profitable year on the farm an anomaly and I recall my family spending a lot of time getting by while “waiting for next year”.
In spite of the reluctance of this land to yield an easy living, the high plains became a part of me. There was something life giving about persevering, in asking the land to give enough and watching it oblige in surprising ways. I learned a lot as I watched my father and mother recover from the various gut punches delivered them over the years as I grew up. Hail storms in July that left a winter scape smelling of green chop, early and late freezes that turned harvest prospects to salvage operations, and blinding blizzards that buried roads, buildings, and livestock that took a week to find again were part of the experience. But they always had the courage to mourn and fret through a long night(s), then come out to discover what was left and decide how to use it to “get by until next year”.
Returning to the farm in 1977 put this laboratory of life education to the test. A broken farm economy led us to alternative agriculture raising llamas. New primary insults displaced the weather and market based calamities we were familiar with. Government bureaucracy and regulation regularly interfered with markets, conduct of business, and caused delays that forced us to find work arounds while we “waited until next year”. Our clothing business began as a work around and has now become both a passion and mission. It has deepened our appreciation of llamas and has taken us to their place of origin, the South American altiplano.
A special connection has developed with the Aymara herdsmen that tend the Andean llamas. It becomes apparent when I walk on the sparse landscape of the Andean plateau to help Felipe gather the herd. There is the familiar feeling of freedom and oneness with the land that I have when I gather the pack geldings on our foothill pastures of Colorado. It’s the same feeling I had gathering the feeder calves into the lot at night when I was growing up in Nebraska. The familiarity goes beyond that feeling.
I am acutely aware that Felipe fights the same battles we have encountered in today’s world only in a more primitive and wild environment. The battle to stay connected to the land; to preserve the land; to maintain the stability of a traditional culture tied to an agrarian economy; to create, maintain, and pass on a stable environment for his family; these are common to both of us. These values and resources feel quite vulnerable against the forces of nature amplified by the advance of unflinching modernity that assigns no value to these dearest assets.
Felipe speaks no English; I speak little Spanish. We understand each other perfectly.