As I jogged up the Vallombrosa trail from the One Mile parking lot in lower Bidwell Park, around this time last year, I was delighted to see the low white fencing that penned in a herd of goats. I had fallen in love with these underbrush devouring, tree climbing, peaceful creatures that have become an annual staple in our park. A recent phone call confirmed that they are returning soon. As I look forward to their residency, I cannot help but look back, knowing my love affair with goats began several years ago during a family vacation.
For most of us, if we imagine exploring the undiscovered back country with pack animals carrying the gear, we immediately conjure mules, horses, or maybe even llamas. Therefore, it was a real surprise to find out that some people backpack with goats. Once we discovered that this was an option during our exploration of glorious Utah, there was no turning back. The novelty of hiking with a posse of goats had an almost inexplicable allure. We packed up the kids, our guide packed up the goats, and we wandered into the Grand Staircase National Monument.
The outfitter, aptly named Escape Goats, was a small family operation. Shawn, the owner had a herd of goats at his house that served as pack animals for his clients. Giddy with goat fever, we booked a private overnight hike, so it was just our family, Shawn and our four goats, Elvis, Paisley, Lucky, and Willy.
We arrived at our starting point and the goats clearly knew it. They were clattering around in the truck bed, anxious to offload and move. In fact, as soon as Willy ambled down the ramp, he took off at full tilt through the scrub. None of us will forget Shawn dropping everything and running after spirited Willy, a true salute to the saying “shake your willies out”! The goats carried side panniers that held our camping gear, cookware, food, water and even our clothes and personal items. We helped Shawn strap the saddle bags on each of the goats and we began to get acquainted with them. They were docile and friendly. We found they liked attention and we could pet them just like our spaniel at home. They each had a unique personality, markings, and appearance. Our favorite ended up being Elvis, who had a remarkable and severe underbite which gave him a homely but irresistibly endearing look.
The skies were blue with puffy clouds dotting the horizon. We each carried a small daypack with a water bottle, and our four-legged crew managed the rest. We followed a meandering trail across a wide prairie and made our way down into a canyon. Even with their cargo, the goats proved to be amazingly nimble, navigating the rocky terrain with ease. Our campsite was situated on a bluff, high above a dry canyon (where we would later witness a flash flood from a safe distance) with views of a layer cake of sediment and red rock that made up the spectacular canyon wall across the valley.
We unloaded our gear and made our way to the slot canyon about a mile from our campsite. It was significantly cooler once we entered it, since the narrow rock walls held moisture and a lower temperature than the sun baked fields above us. The goats, unencumbered by the packs, moved with even more agility and speed. They were excellent hiking buddies. The slot canyon required us to climb up and over boulders, some the size of a small SUV, and squeeze through narrow passages. We would reach a point and look at one another, wondering how the goats would manage and before we could even pose the question, alley-oop, they were up and over, or under and through. It was truly astonishing.
The goats became our leaders and our teachers. Following Elvis’ path, “Oh…that’s the best route,” Tanner would remark. At one very narrow point, there was a boulder that had fallen and blocked the slim canyon. Shawn had to hoist each goat, helping them to pass. Elvis got stuck briefly, with his legs dangling on each side of the round boulder. He waited patiently for Shawn to give him the push he needed to continue. This was a good reminder to us all, that being nimble both in the slot canyon and in life is important in order to make our way through, and sometimes we all need a little push. It turned out the goats were way more than just pack animals.
During these current trying times, the Bidwell Park goat crew will provide us all with a welcome distraction, joy in simplicity, and easy entertainment. They will also give us a reminder to be nimble, to ask for help when we need it, and to give others a loving nudge to carry on.
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