We woke up at 6 AM, painfully early for the start of Spring Break, and filed down to the well-loved minivan that would carry us on our fourteen hour journey to Georgia.
A green glass mineral water bottle filled with black coffee lay next to the driver’s seat during the entire drive. Almost all six of us enjoyed the taste, and every one of us was feeling drowsy.
We coasted down I-95, falling towards the South with unstoppable momentum. For some, this was a trip home. For others, it was one of our first forays into the land of Waffle House, cheap cigarettes, and hospitality.
Although we were headed to Georgia for the break, our destination was a part of the state with an identity that stretched beyond Georgia’s borders. We were going to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail, the Long Path that runs from Springer Mountain, a few miles south of our starting point, all the way to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
The stretch of the trail we hiked runs through heavily logged country, climbing hills and descending through gaps that are covered in uniformly spaced trees, all of the same type and roughly the same age. Punctuating long stretches of trail are shelter sites equipped with water, a building to house ultra-light tentless and tarpless hikers, and usually a large firepit.
As we hiked, it became clear that there is a distinct culture of the trail, especially in the back woods of Georgia. The brands that dominate clothing outside the woods disappear and are replaced by new names. Wholesale brands like REI or EMS are common, the Kirkland’s of outdoors gear. Higher quality gear like Marmot and Mountain Hardwear is often seen on the wide shoulders and narrow hips of experienced hikers. A few people on the trail sport premium brands like Patagonia or North Face, the Gucci and Prada of the outdoors.
Hikers on the trail are a diverse bunch. We found that there were a large number of other students on the trail. A pair of track athletes from a small southern university whizzed past our group at the start of our second day of hiking. A slower hiker from another school chatted with us at a shelter one night, leaving the next morning to inch along the trail at his pace. A large group crawled past, taking a break every few minutes.
We also encountered older people who hike on the trail every year. Their strong community of trail names, cases of cheap beer, and running jokes stand out against the backdrop of empty forests and miles of separation. When a rainstorm drove our group to the roaring fire at a nearby shelter we were greeted warmly by a crowd of these semiprofessional trail bums, gently ribbed for going to Princeton, and included in the margins of a conversation about the trail gossip of the day.
These hikers, despite their devotion to the trail, do not seem to be particularly focused on making time. Ourselves moving slowly, we easily left our fireside companions in the dust. An REI employee who was sitting by the fire may have summed up the priorities of this segment of the trail population perfectly when he noted that a sufficiently dedicated hiker could make it to a bar every night on the AT in Pennsylvania.
A final group of people that can be seen on the trail are amateur day hikers who park their cars and walk for a day. This group brings more of Georgia to the trail, including both Southern Proper men with khakis and tucked in polo’s and younger tattooed men decked out in military garb with handguns strapped to their hips.
The AT is a strange place to plunge into following one of the most intense weeks of the Princeton academic year. The drive that pushes Princeton students forwards is seen on the trail in a different form. Some of the trail regulars are amazing hikers who wake before dawn, cook a simple meal (if they eat anything at all), and cover more miles in a day or two than a group of amateurs like us could do in a week. One such hiker asked our group for an apple as he passed and talked with us for a few minutes while he carefully ate it. He was set to reach our final destination that night, two days before we would arrive. As he headed off, his narrow calves rapidly propelled him forwards, his dark veins bulging through his pale skin.
Others on the trail seem to have caught the burnt-out malaise that can occasionally strike a Princeton student overburdened with one too many a midterm. These hikers spend days at a shelter basking in the heat of a smoky fire rather than face the thought of hiking another mile.
Coming back to Princeton from the South and specifically from the trail makes our Ivy-League world seem both more bizarre and more intelligible. We are bizarre in our dedication to arcane academic subjects and our obsession with a social system more artificial and exclusive than it needs to be. But we are universal in our drive to excel at what we do and our sincere desire to find companionship in the process. Thousands of miles separate us from the Blood Mountain Wilderness, but as a van full of Princeton students can discover, the world of the Appalachian Trail is less foreign than we might expect.