What a Long Solo Hike Taught Me

NYU Abu Dhabi 2015 alumna Olivia Bergen shares her experience of hiking the 3,500 km Appalachian trail and what she discovered along the way.

Growing up in New Hampshire in the US, NYU Abu Dhabi alumna Olivia Bergen was introduced to hiking and camping by her father very early on. Over the years, Bergen had hiked all 48 mountains in the white mountains region. With a keen interest in nature and enjoying measurable goals like completing a hike, Bergen had her eyes set on the Appalachian trail. The trail is rich in history, wildlife. and plant life, and “it’s something I was interested to experience for myself,” Bergen said. 

It was some time after graduating from NYUAD before Bergen finally hiked the Appalachian trail. Bergen initially left for NYU Shanghai as a Global Academic Fellow before beginning her studies at the Yenching Academy of Peking University as a Yenching Scholar the following year. She then lived in Australia while finishing her Masters thesis before moving back to the US to begin her career in local political campaigning. 

Work Experience Came in Handy During the Hike

As a campaign manager, Bergen was in charge of making sure campaigns were running smoothly. It included fundraising, marketing, managing press coverage for political candidates, and speaking with voters to gain their support. “It’s (about) helping the candidate stay on track… to achieve their goals,” Bergen said. 

Olivia Bergen, NYUAD Class of 2015.

Bergen said that the intensity of working as a campaign manager had definitely helped her mentally prepare for the big hike. On a campaign, Bergen would be working tirelessly seven days a week for a few months at a time, always looking towards her final goal — election day. Hiking the Appalachian trail was a similar experience. Bergen would face challenging days with rough terrain coupled with bad weather — sometimes having to walk through waist deep bogs. It’s about continuously trying to move forward even if it’s just a few steps at a time or a few short miles that day, knowing that tomorrow will be another day, Bergen said.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail Solo

While it may sound daunting to some to hike over 2,000 miles (3,500 km) alone, Bergen appreciated being able to set her own agenda each day and move at her own pace. She carried her own tent and set up camp each night, and when in luck, got to stay for free in one of the simple wooden shelters that peppered the Appalachian trail.

Bergen would carry five days’worth of food at a time and resupply when she passed through a town. Occasionally, she would pick up packages she had prepared from the post office. Water is plentiful on the trail so a good filtration system allowed Bergen to hydrate easily during her long hike. 

While it didn’t get easier each day, small moments like a beautiful sunrise or interesting wildlife kept Bergen going. It was also a very social experience for Bergen as she got to meet many people during her hike everyday. Bergen also learned the importance of taking “zero days” — important rest days where she would book a stay in a hostel or stay put in a town for a day before continuing.

Wildlife found along the Appalachian trail. Photo provided by Olivia Bergen, NYUAD Class of 2015.

Months on the trail gave Bergen a lot of time to reflect and gain personal insights.

“It’s a cliché but chase your dreams,” Bergen said. Some people feel like they have to wait until a better time in their career or retirement to do something. But if there’s something you’ve always wanted to pursue outside of your education or career, don’t wait too long to do it, Bergen advised. “Make time and space for that because it will be worth it.”