New Mexico Fiber Arts Trail
Deep in a wide valley encircled by snow-capped mountains, dozens of pairs of soft brown eyes gazed at me with intense curiosity. A few of the creatures surrounding me gave me gentle nudges, while others spit noisily on the ground. As they inched closer, I couldn’t contain the primal urge any longer. Right in the face of my hosts, I let out a peal of laughter.
The residents of Victory Ranch reacted with nonchalance, clearly accustomed such a response, and continued to snuffle into my hands for the oats I had been given to feed them.
The 300 alpacas that call this 1,100-acre ranch home are actually on the low end of the proverbial food chain that I was exploring. While New Mexico has long been renowned as the terminus of the fabled Santa Fe Trail, I was moseying along a much more recently-blazed route, the state’s rural Fiber Arts Trail.
The Fiber Arts Trail was envisioned in 2005 at a gathering of New Mexico’s rural cultural tourism advocates, who listened as Becky Anderson talked about founding the North Carolina Craft Heritage Trails. Out of that meeting, the New Mexico Fiber Artisans coalition was forged. Soon, the state’s legislature funded New Mexico Arts, creating what is now an 1,800-mile circuit of more than 200 artisans at 71 destinations.
Departing downtown Santa Fe on a clear March morning, I headed east on Interstate 25 to Las Vegas. Not be confused with its bigger Nevada namesake, this railroad town featured Victorian-style houses decidedly uncharacteristic of an area home to 19 Native American pueblos. I then veered north on Route 518, a country road that took me higher and higher into the southern Rockies. The vegetation changed with the altitude—I passed Cottonwood bosques, or patches; through terrain forested with pinion pine and juniper trees; and then into high country of towering Douglas fir, spruce and groves of Aspen.
Early Spanish settlers introduced sheep to this region in the late 16th century, when herders would take their flock into the mountains for a month or two to plumpen them on the summer grass. During these times apart from home and family, often pining for a loved one, the lonely shepherds created what is known as “Aspen art,” graffiti carved into the trees.
With multiple stops for photography lengthening my journey, two-and-a-half hours later I reached Victory Ranch. The spectacular expanse upon which it sits made me feel I had gone as far as Patagonia—an illusion enhanced by the herd of alpaca grazing.
I was greeted by Marc Bunting, who co-manages the enterprise. Marc told me that owners Ken and Carol Weisner had run the place as a cattle ranch until Ken read an article saying “any idiot can raise alpacas.” In 1991, the Weisners bought ten of the animals, and began phasing out the cattle.
“Alpacas require much less space than cattle–seven alpacas can happily graze on one acre,” elaborated ranch manager Darcy Weisner. “Alpacas do not challenge fences, or climb onto cars and walls like goats. Alpacas are small–between 100-200 pounds is a big one–so they are easy for me to handle. I can care for our whole herd by myself–no need for big cowboys. They are gentle, intelligent, and respond to TLC.”
Alpacas are members of the camel family, now completely domesticated for their soft wool. The animals do well in the 7,000-foot-plus elevation of Northern New Mexico because they are native to the Andes, built for high elevation living, with enlarged hearts and lungs.
The alpaca’s fleece is harvested in June because the animals are clipped down to their skin and the temperature can go below freezing through May. Shearing is a four-person production, with someone holding the front legs, another the hind quarters, and a third person the head, while a fourth wields the electric razor. Each alpaca yields between two to ten pounds of fleece.
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