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North Hills Monthly

Hiker and 14-pound Pup Take on the Appalachian Trail

Sep 01, 2017 08:29AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Each year, thousands of people attempt to thru-hike the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, which runs from Springer Mountain, GA, to Mt. Katahdin, ME, with only about one hiker in four completing the journey. While many of these adventurers travel as couples or in groups, 54-year-old Marc Conrad chose a more unique traveling companion; a 14-pound mixed-breed terrier named Ute.

Conrad, a 1981 North Allegheny graduate who has lived in Colorado for the past 27 years, decided to hike the trail after taking an 8,000-mile ‘car camping’ trip throughout the western U.S. “I started really getting into hiking long distances, and Ute and I went on a magnificent trip to California, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico,” he explained. “Car camping is easy because you can take as much stuff with you as you can fit in your car; you don’t have to worry about food or what gear you can carry.”

While his plan was to then hike—sans car—across Wyoming and back, an acquaintance mentioned the Appalachian Trail, and after doing a little research, he was hooked. “I looked it up, and it didn’t say that it was super difficult,” said Conrad, who has always been athletic. “But nothing prepared me for what it was like—we made it about 500 miles before my knees gave out, and it turned out to be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And that’s counting a three-week, 1,500-mile bike ride.”

While Conrad hiked from Georgia through Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia, Ute kept him company, though not exactly traveling at the same pace. “It was a challenge for her, seeing as how taking two steps was only traveling about three inches at a time,” he said, laughing. “She’s tiny, but she’s tough.”

Ute hiked 170 miles of the trip, or about four miles of the 10 to 12 miles that the pair covered each day. The rest of the time she rode in Conrad’s backpack, where he also carried her food and lots of water. “I was always concerned about her health and well-being,” he said of the almost 2-year-old puppy that he adopted off a New Mexico Indian reservation. “She was more adamant about getting up the hill than I was—she was always pulling.

“Of course, she loved the tent, too,” he added. “As soon as I put it up, she’d jump in and lie down, even if we weren’t finished with dinner.” 

As much as his experience on the trail was a physical challenge, including climbing the 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome in Tennessee, Conrad had to develop mental toughness as well. “I had to learn to be really patient, and to really pay attention,” he said. “I spent time trying to figure out how to be a better person.

“I made mistakes, too,” he added. “The first time I sent food ahead to a mail drop, I sent it to the wrong state—Hampton, VA instead of Hampton, TN. Food on the trail is really important because you expend so much energy; you need 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day. You just burn it off.”

Conrad was able to buy food from other hikers, as well as take advantage of ‘hiker boxes’ in hostels, where other travelers leave behind what they don’t need. When not staying in his tent, he spent time at hostels or shelters along the trail, which are roughly 30 to 60 miles apart, or three to six days between stops.

“What’s really fascinating about the trail is that you meet people from all over the world,” he said. “Everyone is really nice, especially down south. 

“It’s also cool to see how things change as you travel across America,” he added. “I don’t think people realize just what an amazing place it is. Ute was really good at finding the most beautiful places and just stopping.”

Conrad’s trip came to an end with a knee injury; something that he didn’t expect as much of his life has been spent working physical jobs. “There are 20-year-olds whose knees blow out when they’re hiking the trail; it’s something you can’t really avoid,” he said. “I have to remember that I’m in an old man’s body now.”

And though he didn’t complete the trail, Conrad said that he—and Ute—gained a lot of from the experience. “I feel like I’m often lost, except when I’m on a trail,” he said of challenges like this. “The beauty of it is so overwhelming; I think it changed the dog and it definitely changed me.”