Leaving Behind the Sharks of Seattle, Two Legal Eagles Find Happiness Hiking with Llamas

updated 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

The scene might have been conjured up by a Lewis and Clark expedition journal: a great Northwestern wilderness glade of 200-year-old cedars, thick as silos, soaring from the mountains into the starry night sky. But the bone-weary hikers gathered around a crackling campfire deep in the North Cascades National Park are roughing it in a way that would leave the 19th-century explorers bug-eyed above their buckskins. Chow time brings forth a nouvelle serving of filet of sole, with shrimp and asparagus en brochette. There are bedrolls, but they are spread on air mattresses inside plush domed tents. All this and additional pampering is provided by Linda Walton, 36, and Mary Kay Barbieri, 45, two lady lawyers who, fed up with the big city, became trail guides. And the transportation is what really makes this mountain foray seem different: It is provided by a team of queer-looking pack animals neither Lewis nor Clark would have recognized. "I'm a real llamaphile," says Walton. "I just adore them. And I love watching people fall in love with the llamas."

Two years after packing it in and riding away from their high-paying careers in Seattle, the two lawyers and their llamas are winning a new sort of client in Washington's rugged backcountry. "Being out with them is a delight," says Candy Stewart, who, with her husband, Rich, is enjoying a second five-day wilderness trek with the team. "I'm sure they were very good in the courtroom, but they just blossom on the mountain. I don't think they've cast a backward glance." The rejuvenated career women agree that happy trails have it all over trials. "When I practiced law, then were few mornings I didn't wake up dreading what was going to happen that day," says Walton. "I wasted up with arguing. When you're a lawyer, everything is an argument. Everything is win or lose. Now the dread is gone. I love being in the backcountry and I love these animals."

"Lawyers are trained to separate their feelings from the position the client wants them to take," Barbieri says "That serves you well as a lawyer, but it is lousy for you as a human being."

By material standards, the attorneys lost big when they headed for the hills. A divorced mother of two college-age children, Spokane-born Barbieri was chief criminal deputy of the King County prosecutor's office in Seattle, earning $50,000 a year and directing a staff of 60. In 1983 she made her first tentative stab at a career change by taking a $55,000 teaching job at the University of Puget Sound Law School. Walton, a West Virginia native who graduated from UPS Law School in 1979, walked out on the $50,000 salary she earned as assistant chief of the Juvenile Division in the same prosecutor's office in 1986. Soon afterward, the two decided to bolt both the legal field and Seattle, and today they are lucky to make $18,000 between them. "We climbed down the ladder of success," as Barbieri puts it. Confesses Walton: "Everybody wanted to know, 'How could you stop being a lawyer?' "

The two friends had just begun searching for an escape route in 1984 when their regular weekend hiking trips were interrupted by an auto accident in which Barbieri injured her neck. No longer able to lug a backpack up steep mountain trails, she investigated pack animals. A book titled Living with Llamas led her to a "Llamarama," an Olympia, Wash., market where breeders sell the exotic animals native to the Andes mountains of South America. At least for the lawyers, it was love at first sight. "We decided right away we were going to find a way to run a business with llamas," Walton says.

The pair bought their first llama in July 1986 for $750. The following September Barbieri sold her Seattle home, and in October they purchased the 11-acre ranch they now share in Marble-mount, Wash. They celebrated their early retirements with a "Goodbyes to Silk Ties" party. Barbieri and Walton dressed in three-piece suits, put Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job & Shove It" on the turntable and did a slow striptease down to gym shorts and T-shirts before their former Seattle coworkers. "We took off our silk bow ties—the kind women lawyers wear all the time—and burned them," Barbieri reports.

To gear up for their new careers, the women borrowed a trick from their old trade. In the manner of mock trials, they staged test hikes on which their friends became adversaries, trying to make trail life miserable by whining and asking dumb questions. "By the time we did it for real," Walton says, "we were ready."

So far, they insist, none of their new clientele has tested their good humor. "People get into the backcountry and relax," says Barbieri. "They open up about how they feel."

"You share something you love with people," Walton says contentedly, "and you see them getting the same kind of rewards you get."

Veterans of 15 summer hikes since their first outing with guests last June, the guides now have a stable of 10 llamas, and they have lost none of their fondness for either the funny-looking beasts or their new lives. Unlike burros, mules or even horses, llamas are known for "intelligence and gentleness," according to Walton, although they do express their emotions by spitting. Their good natures and sturdiness have simplified the opening up of the North Cascades for the new expedition leaders—and on some hikes, the sights are so breathtaking that even the llamas stop grazing to gape. Standing on an outcropping of rock overlooking the spectacular Thunder Creek gorge in the North Cascades National Park recently, Barbieri shook her head in wonder, then said something she never once uttered in a courtroom: "I can't believe people pay us to do this."

Steve Dougherty, and Jack Kelley in Seattle

From Our Partners