The Appalachian Trail, better known as the AT, is a hiking trail that stretches 2190 miles in the Eastern US. Olivia Plumb, first-year ME, spent 140 days hiking the AT, starting on Feb. 14, 2017 at Springer Mountain, Ga. and ended on July 4 at Mount Katahdin, Maine.
Plumb started hiking at a young age and had an outdoors-y family. “My dad has always been into outdoor stuff, we used to mountain bike when I was little. My sister was in Girl
Scouts,” Plumb said.
Plumb hated Girl Scouts and only managed to stay in it for two weeks. She wished that she could join Boy Scouts and ended up in Venture Crew, a co-ed program that is part of Boy Scouts of America. Venture Crew is for ages 14-21 but Plumb started attending meetings when she was 12.
“There were like five or six girls and we started going backpacking and doing trips like rafting. That was the first time that I ever started doing hiking or anything outdoors that was overnight.
It was with a lot of people I already knew from high school and so not only was the outdoors part of it fun, but it was good to hang out with everyone,” Plumb said.
Plumb hiked Philmont in New Mexico with Venture Crew in the summer after her first year of high school, which took around 70 miles and two weeks.
“Everyone was excited to be back but I was like, I’d like to keep hiking. So that made me think, maybe I could just keep hiking,” Plumb said.
It was after hiking Philmont that Plumb decided she was going to hike the AT at some
point in her life.
Aside from outdoor recreation, Plumb was exceedingly involved in academics at her high school in Dunwoody, Georgia.
“I was the person who tried to do everything all the time. So I took a ton of AP classes in high school and did all of the national honor society things and I think it just made me very tired and sad. I think that was part of the reason I thought I’d like to do something non-academic-related so I can take a break… Near the end of senior year I was like I really need a break,” Plumb said.
When she first told her family and friends her plan to take a gap year to hike the AT, they thought she was crazy.
“At first when I told them ‘Hey I want to hike the AT,’ it was very soon to when I had already committed to going to Tech, and it was very soon to the deposit becoming non-refundable. My mom was like, ‘No, you’re not going to do that. Usually my mom will say that, but my dad will be fine. But he was also like, ‘No, absolutely not.’ My mom, I think, was worried that I was going to go hike a trail and then not want to go to college afterwards,” Plumb said.
At that point Plumb started more seriously doing research and talking to people in addition to getting a GPS.
“At the end of the day, I think they realized that no matter what they said I was probably going to do it anyway and that it would be a lot better if they supported it,” she said. Plumb had applied to Tech and committed to going but then had to submit an essay to a committee to request a gap year.
“Basically I e-mailed some people with an application for a gap year, telling them why I thought that the gap year was necessary and then pretty quickly they got back and said, ‘Okay great, we’ll reserve a spot for you for the next year,’” Plumb said.
Before hiking the AT, Plumb also worked at REI for a while to save money and do more research.
“Like most people at Tech, I’m a very numbers oriented person,” Plumb said. “I think I was most afraid of what if I hate it. What if I start it and I’m like this is terrible — I’ve told everyone this is what I’m doing. I would have been scared about bears but I was starting early enough that bears weren’t really a problem.”
However, Plumb was not prepared for the isolation she faced on the first part of the trail.
“Most people don’t start until mid-March so I was way ahead of most people. I’m a very introverted person so at first I thought it was great, I don’t have to talk to anyone ever. And then a month went by and I was like wow. I haven’t talked to anyone,”
In the end, Plumb had an unforgettable experience, whether it was doing something stupid or being helped by a “trail angel.” She kept a daily journal and ended up mailing home six full journals. She went through five pairs of tennis shoes and her pack weight ranged from 20 to 35 pounds.
As for what is next, Plumb said, “I’d like to do the PCT when I graduate as kind of a graduation present because I’ve heard so much about it. It’s a long-distance trail, so that makes it similar to the AT, but it’s an entirely different environment and culture so I’d be very interested to do that.”