At Smoky Mountain farm, visitors can pet, hug llamas

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COSBY, Tenn. (AP) — How do you win over a llama?

You might begin with graham crackers.

I brought an entire box on my recent visit to a llama farm tucked away in the Smoky Mountains. Removed from all the noise and hustle of cities like Knoxville and tourist hotspots like Gatlinburg, the farm is something of a middle-of-nowhere oasis, particularly for two women who have spent a good part of life against an urban backdrop.

My older sister, Andrea, had come down from Chicago to spend a long weekend with me. We're not exactly seasoned travelers of winding mountain roads — our roots are in the Midwest — but with some help from smartphone maps, we managed to find our way to the farm at the end of a long string of gravel lanes in Cosby.

We had checked some of your more obvious East Tennessee tourist experiences off the to-do list earlier that day, like a hike in the mountains and a ride up the Gatlinburg Sky Lift.

But what could be better than petting and hugging a fuzzy llama? At least that's what a Groupon to Smoky Mountain Llama Treks had promised me I could do.

Along with dishing out graham crackers.

The farm, owned by Steve and Johnna Garrett, is a dream they live out each day, though one they stumbled upon rather than had their eye on.

It almost seems like a dream for the llamas, too, as they rest in a pasture together, gladly take handouts from visitors and parade up into the mountains on organized treks.

Steve, the ringleader of the operations, has come to know his llamas as his own children — all 11 of them plus an alpaca.

But he never set out to shepherd a herd of animals. A man of deep faith, he sees it as a divine plan that unfolded whether he was onboard or not.

Long before his days of living in a rustic mountainside cabin and devoting hours upon hours to shearing llamas — what he deems the most challenging part of life with llamas — Steve had lost his job in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as the recession took hold.

It wasn't a downfall that completely blindsided him. He had applied for a leave of absence in pursuit of a longtime ambition to take a long-winded walk along the Appalachian Trail and was let go as his company needed to downsize by 300 employees.

With a six-month severance package in his pocket, Steve launched into a training regimen from October 2007 to February. Up to that point, he hadn't hiked more than two days back to back.

His 14-state hike, starting in March, spanned two-and-a-half months and 1,500 miles of the trail.

When he returned, he ran up against a slew of jobs that didn't work out until eventually Johnna nudged him into owning his own business.

He came across the llamas for sale online again and again, interpreting it as a push from God.

Steve also took cues from the Bible, using it as a compass that pointed him toward purchasing the business and the llamas.

In January 2012, the couple and their two children drove down to Tennessee to take a look at the llamas, never before having seriously contemplated adding a pasture's worth of animals to their family.

On the 11-hour return home, their decision was made.

Johnna's willingness to uproot their family was partly fueled by a mission trip she embarked on in Guatemala at the start of 2012. The trip flung her outside the country for the first time and opened her up to an environment of no running water and scarcities, a stark contrast to her comfortable life in Michigan.

She got to see both extremes of life, she said, and knew she could adjust to a new rhythm in Tennessee.

"At least I know we have indoor plumbing," Johnna said, adding that the mountains surrounding her home aren't as bad as they are in Guatemala.

The family also turned to prayer, before making the cross-country leap in April.

"We just did a lot of praying about it, and I really left the ultimate decision to Steve because he was the head of the family and he's the one that is providing for us and he was just frustrated with everything happening in Michigan," Johnna said.

Now firmly settled as a Tennessee transplant, Steve runs his business more like a serious hobby.

He's an "odd businessman," he said, in that he doesn't worry about statistics.

His job revolves around ensuring that every last one of his thousands of visitors each year has a good time, whether they're stopping by the farm to see the llamas and alpaca up close, venturing out on a day trek or chasing something more ambitious like an overnight trek to Max Patch just over the border in North Carolina.

It's all about "making Smoky Mountain memories," he said.

It's been a learning process for the family, who picked up a lot of knowledge from the animals' last owner and who also relies on help for minor medical procedures from the University of Tennessee.

Besides Steve's love for his llamas, he's electrified by getting to meet people from "all walks of life," many of whom he tries to send home with motivational messages so that their experience at the farm is one they can carry forward.

And he's determined. His greater vision centers on opening a nationwide camp for boys with single parents in line with Truth and Nature, a religious nonprofit organization that aims to build up boys and help "break the fatherless cycle in society today."

He continues to follow a plan he believes God is charting for him.

As for my sister and I, we made plenty of our own Smoky Mountain memories on the farm that day.

Though I didn't get to hug a llama like I had hoped. With Steve delayed on a mountain trek, we hung out on the farm ourselves, cautiously approaching some of the llamas and reeling in their affection with food.

They were gentle and curious and didn't seem to mind how much we laughed as they chewed and chewed.

I left knowing I'd be back. I still want my hug.

I just better make sure to bring what's left of my graham crackers.

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Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, <a target="&mdash;blank" href="http://www.knoxnews.com">http://www.knoxnews.com</a>