Trip report: West Valley Alpacas

Dec. 2, 2006: Four knitters set out on a day trip to Esparto, Calif., in scenic Yolo County! Our destination: West Valley Alpacas, a working alpaca ranch, for their annual holiday sale.

Alpacas have goofy hair
Alpacas ho! Seriously, alpacas have the best hair you’ve ever seen.

I first found West Valley Alpacas through their booth at the giant mega fiber-arts convention Stitches West a couple years ago (next one’s in February at the Santa Clara Convention Center, yo!) and had wanted to engineer a field trip to the farm ever since. And this! This was the year! Many knitters and non-knitters alike expressed interest in the trip, but due to double-booking, lack of finances, apathy, disorganization or lack of publicity (I am not always the most organized trip planner), most folks backed out and only four of us made it. Sweet! This meant everyone could take one car and we could all head out together.

This is the alpaca version of a defensive huddle.

We met at Sarah’s, piled into the Mercedes I borrowed from my parents, armed ourselves with coffee and David Sedaris audiobooks, and hit the road. All did not go perfectly smoothly, though. Right around San Francisco, my buddy Sonya encountered the horrific stomach virus I brought back with me from my Thanksgiving vacation. As is typical of this particular plague, it struck with incredible speed: as she says it, just as she was thinking “Um, I think maybe I’m not gonna be OK,” the uncontrollable vomiting hit. We pulled over and cleaned up, and Sonya bravely insisted she wanted to stay with the road trip. “Alpacas or death,” we cried, and we chose alpacas!

The drive to Esparto takes about two hours. Once we turned off the freeway, we followed the directions from the West Valley Web site — all farm roads and directions like “Turn left on Road 25 (dark blue silos and a graveyard on the right-hand side)” and “Left up the driveway IMMEDIATELY before the little concrete bridge.” We bumped up a little unpaved driveway and saw fences, chickens, a gray barn and goofy, goat-sized animals with fluffy hair and sock-puppet necks! We’d found it!

Another alpaca
All I wanted to do was pat the alpacas’ fluffy heads. Seriously, look at this alpaca’s head: it’s like a fluffy sphere with ears and a nose poking out.

The place is like a pocket ranch. It’s tiny! The main building is amazing. The store part is a lean-to extension of an open-sided barn full of mysterious alpaca-ranching gear. The store itself is small, neat, and packed with alpaca yarn and spinning wheels. I definitely had a soft spot in my heart for the refreshments table that held little cookies and a Crock-Pot full of mulled apple juice. The cashier’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when we told her we’d driven up from Redwood City. I don’t know if alpaca ranches are used to the idea that fiber nerds with a love for goofy-looking animals will drive that far for a fluffy fix.

Sarah out-knit-nerded all of us at the spinnings wheels, trying out a sexy double-treadle wheel while I stared, fascinated. Watching a human being turn handfuls of fluffy animal hair into yarn is like watching a blacksmith at work: there’s this incredibly awareness that you are next to an ancient art that long ago helped people survive. Sarah must’ve been equally impressed: she got that same acquisitive glint in her eye that I’d see when she put away the new Jo Sharp yarns when we worked at the yarn store together. You guessed it: momma bought herself a spinning wheel.

Meet Coriander, the one on the leftShe also bought a bag of fiber from one of the alpacas! Just to make the whole experience even cuter, the bags aren’t labeled by color; they’re labeled with the name of the alpaca that provided the fiber. Sarah’s was from Coriander, which she thinks is the light gray one in this photo.

I opened one of the little bags of combed top (that’s washed, brushed fiber that’s ready for spinning) in a dark chocolate color and fell in love. Dude, patting combed alpaca top is like patting the fluffiest, most freshly washed and thoroughly brushed baby alpaca in the whole world. Amazing. I bought it, of course, and am already hitting up Sarah for my first spinning lessons.

After we poked around the store and stocked up on yarn, we got to take a tour of the alpaca pens. Ten or twelve of us were led into the alpaca pens and were given a quick rundown on alpaca etiquette. Even when alpacas are handled daily and relatively tame, like these were, they’re inconsistent and opinionated about how much they like people. You’re supposed to put your hands behind your back and move slowly to keep from freaking them out. I cruised up with Sarah’s Treo to take pictures (like an idiot, I’d forgotten a camera) and the alpacas decided they liked me. They also decided that they loved Tracy.

Tracy gets alpaca kisses
An alpaca sniffs Tracy, our alpaca charmer. Tracy got alpaca kisses; I got several alpacas nuzzling my armpits while I tried to take pictures.

The ranch staff told us that the female alpacas are the most chill. The castrated males were more stroppy, and were penned separately where they could rear up and spit at each other. We were told that alpacas hum when they’re stressed, and that alpaca humming can mean anything from “I’m unhappy” to “He has more food than I do” to “I don’t like this” to “He’s getting more attention than me.” When they’re really upset or mad, they huff air at each other as if they’re going to spit, and when they’re really upset, they eject chewed-up food from their stomachs and blow it at their opponents.

“Yup, they’ll vomit all over each other if they get really mad,” said one of the ranch staff as he showed off the breeding males.

Kneeling alpacaOne alpaca decided that today she liked people, so she flopped down in the middle of the little knot of visitors and let herself be petted. Her fur was plush and inches deep; pressing on her side felt like pressing down on a pillow. My whole hand could sink into her fur. Wow. I started to understand why alpaca yarn is so amazingly soft and lofty and squishy: it’s because alpacas themselves are soft and squishy!

By then, we were getting kinda crapped out. It had been a long day of driving, and Sonya was trying hard to be brave in the face of illness, but it was tough. She spent half the time lying in the car with the seat all the way back, feebly wishing aloud that she were dead. We took pity on her and headed back home, stopping for pasta on the way back and finally making it home a bit after dark.

I dropped Sonya off at her house, where she collapsed in bed. She told me later that when her manager wouldn’t cover for her at work the next day, she had to come in still seeping spores of the terrible death plague out her pores, so she carefully, deliberately licked all his office supplies. She made sure to lick both the caps and the barrels of the highlighters, since he’s the only one who uses them. My hero!

Conclusion: Alpacas are every bit as cute as you thought they were, and this spring, we’re going back for more! Sunday, May 6, 2007 is West Valley Alpaca’s next open house. They’ll have demonstrations of spinning and shearing, so if seeing a weird-looking animal strapped to a table and shaved is your kind of thing, make sure to save the date!