Updated: Dec 8, 2018
The reason I remember so much from my first week of college is because of how exhilarating it was. While college itself was a trial, the best moments still remained in my memory for four years, inerasable by even the worst stress or most painful tears.
My freshman room was a single, room number 204, in a little brown building called Edwards Hall. Edwards looked like an ancient haunted house. It probably was one, at some point when horse-drawn carriages roamed the earth. It was awkwardly tiny and standalone compared to the other dorm complexes. Supposedly, it was the hall where all the artsy-intellectual people lived; they were a group of upperclassmen who called themselves “The Edwards Collective.” I didn’t have much time to settle into my new home, however, because extensive activities awaited us.
Outdoor Action was a camping event for freshmen, a start-of-the-year getting-to-know-new-people backpacking trip into the deep woods. Students were divided up into groups of eight to ten people, with two leaders per group who were trained upperclassmen. We would be living with the same people for six days with no technology, civilization, or outside-world contact. It was a good way of forcing ten strangers to become an instant family.
MA58 was the name of our group, led by two juniors, Nic and Leora. Nic was short but solidly built, with a round face and sandy hair— he reminded me of a battery pack because of his personality; he seemed like the kind of person who would pack infinite energy and keep it stored inside for all future occasions. I later learned that he was a member of the varsity squash team, which practiced in the same part of the gym as varsity fencing.
Leora, for lack of better words, was a true character (but in the best possible meaning of the phrase). She was a chemistry major with perhaps the bubbliest personality of anyone I’d ever met. As MA58 trekked through the woods, sweating and smelling atrocious from abandoned personal hygiene, we could always count on Leora to whip out an embarrassing story, sing Disney songs at the top of her lungs, and keep the goofy mood alive within the group. Once, she even taught us some Socialist campfire songs from the Jewish summer camp she’d been a counselor for.
The night before starting the trip, MA58 gathered in Leora’s dorm room to pack equipment and go over safety guidelines. The floor of her common room was littered with dozens of pounds in food, which would be our entire food supply for six days. In the mix were enough tortillas to cover a house, as well as several bags of apples and oranges. Leora and Nic sat on the floor in the middle of the group, reading procedures aloud from a paper checklist.
“First, and we are not kidding when we say this, NO ‘PLAY’ IS ALLOWED ON OA. Do you understand? No play on OA.”
“Ew, do people actually do that? Why would you want to?”
“That is a very good question. Also, if you’re planning on, you know, engaging in ‘play’ once you return to campus, I’d recommend waiting until after you get your meningitis vaccine. Trust me. Also, I know it sounds strange, but you need to let us know about the quality of your poops,” Leora added. “If you’re having trouble going, it means you’re not eating enough dietary fiber.” I glanced around at the food piles, noting the giant peanut butter jars, pounds of raw fruit, Cracklin’ Oat Brand cereal, bags of dried apricots, and nut assortments. Foods all loaded in fiber.
Everyone looked around awkwardly. It’s one thing to share your bowel movements privately with a physician; it’s another to announce them publicly to a group of eight strangers on an ice-breaking camping trip in the middle of the Appalachian Trail.
Later that night, we slept outside on a stretch of grass near the Spelman Hall dorms to practice sleeping outdoors. I was already wary of that field because I’d stepped on a nest of ants when we were eating dinner there earlier. We laid on a giant tarp making small talk until, one by one, everyone started to drift into unconsciousness. The last thing I remembered was the peaceful silence, the subtle hum of nature, and the starry sky high above me.
Around 1 am, I was woken by pounding feet across the grass behind me and fractured shouts from drunken students. Something cold and hard hit my arm, and I felt a sticky wetness penetrate the top of my sleeping bag. Disoriented, I sat up immediately and tried to remember where I was.
The air was thick with a pungent, sweet smell. Then I realized that the source of the smell was my soaked sleeping bag. There was a crushed beer can lying next to my arm.
“Nic! Leora!” I heard someone yell.
“Guys, what’s going on?”
“Did you hear those guys run past?”
“Nic! Leora!” I repeated.
“What happened, Taylor?”
“Those people threw beer at me, and my sleeping bag is completely drenched in beer now.” I passed the crushed aluminum can to Nic.
Suddenly, everyone was up and moving around. Leora ran off to alert the authorities, who arrived several minutes later with flashlights. My sleeping bag was taken back to Leora’s room to dry off while I borrowed her friend’s for the rest of that night. Nobody wanted to go back to sleep.
In the morning, my dry sleeping bag was returned to me, and I packed it into my backpack with zero complaints before boarding the bus to the trailhead drop-off. That’s the full story of how I ended up with a beer-scented sleeping bag for my entire week on the Appalachian Trail.
On the first day the bus dropped MA58 off in front of a small church on the edge of the trail. Nic and Leora led the group uphill. That first uphill section felt overly strenuous, probably because we were all still getting used to carrying our heavy backpacks. Once we’d conquered the hill, we entered a meadow full of wildflowers. The skies were partially cloudy but the view was breathtaking, like a countryside landscape from an Antebellum-era painting.
After stopping for lunch, we entered the woods. At this point, the group had been hiking for about an hour, maybe an hour and a half. It was hard to say since none of us had cell phones to tell us the time. We stopped in the middle of the trail to take a water break.
“Leora, come here a second,” Nic said with a hint of concern. He was gazing at a map of the trail.
Nic and Leora stood at the front of the line, speaking in hushed tones. Not many people seemed to notice the discussion taking place between them, and if anyone did notice, they didn’t appear to think twice about it.
Finally, the conversation halted and Nic adjusted his pack with a small grimace etched into his face. Our co-leaders wore matching expressions of embarrassment as they turned to face us. In her purple Outdoor Action leader’s shirt, Leora looked like a true authority. In his neon yellow t-shirt, Nic looked like an Expo-brand highlighter.
“MA58, listen up! We are going to turn around and go back the way we came.”
“What’s going on?” someone asked.
“We’ve been hiking in the wrong direction this entire time.”
Our hiking group was a radically weird bunch of people. We thrived on each other’s weirdness... for some bizarre reason. Each member of the group had a fantastic story associated with them over the course of the trip, the most infamous being Jeff’s midnight-pee-bear-scare.
Jeff looked and acted like he’d been raised by the ocean. He came from Ocean Township in New Jersey, which was located right on the state coast with plenty of beach space. His sun-bleached blond hair and tall, skinny frame were enough to support his claims that he lived and breathed the beach. Jeff was probably best remembered for collecting large sticks that he sharpened into spears in the forest.
On the second night of hiking, MA58 set up camp at an empty campsite on the Appalachian Trail. It had a fair amount of roaming space, as well as a wooden shelter to sleep in. The shelter, which had a roof and three walls, opened out into the trees with a splendid view of the forest.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Jeff crept into the woods to pee. When he returned to the shelter, it was pitch-black and hard to make out the shapes of sleeping figures on the ground. Leora stirred in her sleeping bag and peered at Jeff’s looming shadow. “Who’s there? Is somebody there?”
Allegedly, Jeff stepped on someone by accident, although the full details from that night are still uncertain. Either way, it was enough to trigger an ear-splitting shriek from Leora, who thought a bear had invaded the shelter… and thus began the unforgettable “Screaming Incident.”
Leora’s shout set off seven subsequent screams, one from each inhabitant of that tiny wooden shelter. Every single person was screaming in pure terror, with nothing but black and maybe a few scattered shadows to fill their vision. Nobody knew why they were shouting, what was going on, or where they were. Only one thing was for certain: everyone, guys and girls, was full-out screaming.
“MA58. Stop yelling. Calm down.” Nic’s voice, slow and even, managed to miraculously cut through the chaos. Nic had been sleeping outside the shelter, on a tarp. The next day, everyone blamed Jeff for the Screaming Incident, and he was unable to live it down for the rest of the year.
We could all just imagine the OA (Outdoor Action) post-trip evaluation forms asking something like, “What is the most memorable event from your OA experience?”
Waking up screaming in the middle of the night.
While there were no doubts that everyone in our group was extremely smart, Jae Won sort of took smart to a whole new level. I would like to say that Jae Won was best known for his loud snoring, but that would be disrespectful. Jae was from Korea, where he’d probably been the equivalent of a rock star in math and physics. “Back in Korea,” he told us, “I was part of a team that took first place in the International Physics Olympics.” He spoke with an unusual accent, because the school where he’d learned English taught the students to speak British-English instead of American-English, so his words came out as a distinctive hybrid of Korean and British accents.
Jae had a lot of wildly spontaneous moments. Sometimes when he talked, Jae would drop an F-bomb out of nowhere and blow the hats off everyone in MA58. We laughed so hard that we confused him, and he seemed to think nothing was unusual about what he’d said. “Did I say something bad?” he would ask, sending everyone into hysterical laughter once again.
“Hey Tayyyloorr,” Jeff drawled, later that night after dinner. He held an enormous silver pot in his arms, which he had just cleaned from dinner. “Where did you disappear off to? You alwaaaayyyys disappear.”
“Uh, just throwing up in the outhouse, no big deal. Probably food poisoning or something.” My tone was so nonchalant it took Jeff several seconds to register what I said.
“Wait, you what?”
“Did you tell Nic and Leora?!”
One slightly awkward conversation, several satellite phone calls, and a painful physical inspection later, I was hiking up the trail to the main road with Nic and Jeff. It was just after 11 pm, and the forest was pitch-black.
A minivan sat waiting at the top of the trail, parked just off the main road. Its headlights blinded us as we approached. The drivers were two Princeton seniors, Jennifer and Brandon.
“So the plan is that we will drive her to the hospital, and then she’ll spend the night at our motel so we can monitor her health, and hopefully she can return to the group tomorrow afternoon,” we heard Jennifer tell Nic.
Jeff turned to me with wide eyes and mouthed oh sh**.
I spent the next three hours sitting in a hospital room that was too white to be true. An ivy needle was jammed into my left hand, slowly draining a bag of cold saline that hung above my head.
“Hi, hon,” Jennifer’s head poked through the closed curtain. She shuffled into the room and flopped down into the chair next to me. “How are you feeling?”
“I am absolutely exhausted,” Brandon whined, dragging himself in behind Jennifer and cutting me off before I could speak. “It’s almost four in the morning. Four in the morning.”
“I’m sorry about all of this,” I said. “I feel really bad that you both are missing sleep because of me.”
“Oh no… Honey. Sweetie. Don’t feel bad; it totally wasn’t your fault. The most important thing is that you feel better by tomorrow, okay?” Brandon sounded enthusiastically sympathetic, but then he turned to Jennifer and muttered, “This is so not our week.”
“Rick Curtis,” she growled in reply.
“We’re his slaves. You and I are Rick Curtis’s freaking slaves,” Brandon agreed.
I was lost. “Rick Curtis?”
“The OA program director; the one you spoke to on the phone before we drove you to the hospital.” Brandon’s voice grew even more high-pitched as he mocked, “Jennifer, Brandon, make sure you check in every two hours. Make sure you report directly to me. Be my slaves; do everything I say.”
After I was discharged from the hospital, we all climbed back into the van that had been loaned to Jennifer and Brandon from the university. In the trunk were my backpack and a few tanks that held enough water to resupply all of the camping groups in the Massachusetts area.
The van looked rather obnoxious compared to the other cars in the Berkshire Medical Group’s parking garage. Jennifer and Brandon had taken neon pink and green window paint and written: We love our frosh! Jay-Z and Queen Bae 4-Evah across the tinted windows. The back window read, Go Princeton.
“Sweetie, you have nothing to be sorry about,” Brandon repeated once he’d started the van and exited the parking garage.
“We get twenty five dollars added to our budget since she’s staying with us,” Jennifer said slowly, watching to see if her remark would fuel an energetic response from Brandon.
“Oh. My. God. We can eat real food! Do you know what this means, Jennifer? We can go out and eat lobster! Fine dining! We can use up Rick Curtis’s money at the bar, sipping margaritas and cocktails! This means… this means we can totally go out for ice cream tomorrow.”
“You got that straight… I’m just gonna order up a nice, fancy bottle of champagne tomorrow evening. Rick Curtis owes us that much for making us stay up this late. We are going to live so well.”
I wasn’t sure if all of those things could be covered by just twenty five dollars, but I didn’t say this out loud.
“Ahhhh, thank you, Taylor,” Brandon sighed, already lost in his fantasy land of wine glasses and lobster bibs.
“They’re making us stay in this tiny little motel,” Jennifer said as we pulled into the parking lot of a Days Inn. “It’s like, so ratchet, I swear. Do you want to shower? I bet you do, after all that time in the woods…”
“I don’t care what you want. We are making you take a shower,” Brandon snorted.
It was five in the morning. By that time, I’d finished showering and was passed out on one bed wearing Jennifer’s old t-shirt and Brandon’s boxers. Jennifer and Brandon shared the other bed. The last thing I remembered was Brandon’s hand slamming down to turn off the lights. He didn’t even lift his head to do it; all of us were dead with exhaustion.
The next day, I was declared healthy enough to return to the hiking group. They were all sitting on the side of the road, eating lunch in a small clearing just off the trailhead. The sun shone high in the sky, and little rays of light broke through the trees to create the perfect picnic setting. A few tufts of wild, long grass lined the border between the road and the woods. With Jennifer dancing maniacally on the side in her Birkenstocks, Brandon opened the trunk of the van and blasted more Beyonce through the speakers as he refilled everyone’s water bottles. It was good to see everyone again. MA58 wasn’t simply a large group of dysfunctional strangers; it was a large, dysfunctional family.
Sure, I was miles away from the nearest shower now, but there was something refreshing about returning to the woods. Maybe I’d missed the crazy antics and group dynamic of MA58. As we ended the lunch break and set off into the forest once more, I couldn’t help but savor everything around me: the splash of a creek against the rocks as it flowed between trees, the thud of our hiking boots against raw earth, even the mosquitoes that we were constantly swatting away.
Later that afternoon, we stopped for a water break in the middle of the path. I was the second-to-last person in line, and Nic, being a group leader, stood behind us at the very end. Leora was at the front of the line, telling stories to anyone who could hear her, and Jeff was somewhere in the middle, holding a sharpened tree branch.
The area was starting to smell kind of gassy, but I politely didn’t bring it up. Leora was still telling stories at the front of the line.
“Leora, are we ready to go?” asked Nic.
“Because I just farted, and it’s starting to smell over here.”
In the evening, we sat in a circle to eat that night’s dinner, macaroni and cheese. One of the girls, Allie, moved over to sit on one of the camping chairs we’d brought with us. Of everyone in MA58, I knew the least about Allie, just that she had a larger physical frame and rowed for the varsity crew team.
“Don’t break the chair, Allie,” said Jae in his perfectly British-Korean hybrid accent. MA58 stopped dead in its tracks; everyone froze. Then, we all started laughing.
“Jae, that is so rude, why would you say that?”
Jae turned bright red. “Oh, f***. I’m so sorry, Allie. I didn’t mean to say something offensive.” His accent, of course, made it totally hilarious.
The following night was the final night of the trip. We all gathered onto one of the wooden sleeping platforms to engage in end-of-trip rituals, express declarations of love for each other (not an exaggeration), and play games. Then, we went to sleep. The last thing I remember before passing out was a swarm of mosquitoes attacking our faces as we gazed up at the stars.
At some point in the middle of the night, Jeff shot out of his sleeping bag, looked around surreptitiously, and sprayed our entire group with mosquito repellant. Every last one of us. I wasn’t actually awake for this, but I do remember waking up just before sunrise and realizing that mosquitoes were no longer eating us alive. For this, I salute Jeff.
On the bus ride home, things got wild.
“I wonder if we could identify everyone by their body odor.”
“I totally could.”
The debate started by Jeff and Leora soon turned into the most disgusting game MA58 had played all week. Leora blindfolded Jeff and made him sit alone at the back of the bus. He looked like a hostage, sitting there in his bright blue fleece pullover, all tied up and extremely dirty from not showering for a week. Then, we lined up and approached him one at a time.
Nic was the first to stick his armpit in Jeff’s face. Jeff cringed involuntarily and shouted, “Nic! It’s Nic, for sure.” Nic still wore the same neon yellow t-shirt he’d had on the very first day of OA (in other words, he’d completed the one-shirt challenge). It was both awesome and disgusting.
Leora went next. Jeff took one whiff, wrinkled his nose, and declared, “LEORA.” Then it was Jae’s turn. “Jae!” Jeff had a good nose.
A leader from one of the other hiking groups watched us like we were a high-definition horror film. “You guys are so gross,” she said. And just like that, OA ended and school started.
I reread the email that the fencing team captains had sent out. They really liked to use GIFs. Something about a party to welcome our freshmen… attendance is mandatory… meet in Gracie’s room at 9pm… do not be late.
I arrived half an hour late. Gracie, several-time World Cup finalist, hosted the party in the room she shared with Anna, who was planning to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics. I am not lying when I say that the most of the people on the fencing team are beasts.
Gracie and Anna’s common room was small, dimly lit, and packed with people. Offensive dance music blared through the speakers and blended with stuffy air that reeked of beer. Everyone was talking loudly over the music, and it was hard to identify people’s faces in the dark.
“Hi, I’m Anna,” Anna introduced herself, smiling. “What would you like? We have lots of beer, and if you look around, I think there’s hard liquor somewhere… Not sure where it is right now.”
“I don’t drink.”
“Oh, okay that’s fine. No pressure. I know Thomas, one of the other freshmen, hasn’t had much drinking experience either, but he’s just going slowly with the alcohol right now.”
By the end of the year, Thomas was a regular alcoholic.
“No, thanks, I still don’t want anything to drink.”
“No worries! Just enjoy yourself and get to know everyone on the team!”
I sat down on the couch and watched one (extremely drunk) girl dance in the center of the room. She was a senior— short and Indian, with sleek black hair. She wore a backwards baseball cap on her head, but it slipped and hung slightly crooked as she flailed wildly. “OH MY GOD, I’M TURNING TWENTY-THREE SOON!” she yelled. “EVERYONE DO WHAT I SAY. YOU HEAR ME, B****ES?”
This was Ambika, who took her freshman year off to train for the 2012 Olympics. Who, four years ago, was one of the greatest fencers in the nation. Who was one of our three team captains this year. The captain who used the most GIFs in emails.
“Hey, hon, how’re you doing?” Ashley sat down next to me. I knew Ashley pretty well; we’d competed in World Cups together, and I’d stayed with her when I came to visit Princeton in my senior year of high school.
“I’m okay, thanks.”
“You enjoying the party?”
Not really... “Yeah, totally!”
“Here, have some beer.”
“What do you want then?”
“Water? Just water? Okay then.” Ashley stared at me with a bewildered look and handed me a red Solo cup with water. By now, the rest of the party was catching up to Ambika and getting extremely drunk.
“Whoooooo! Dance with me, motherf*****s!” yelled a guy in the middle of the room. Like Ambika, he was also short, with spiky brown hair and enormous eyes, like a cartoon character. The whole night, he’d been putting his hands on anything that was female. In other words, a total frat boy.
I watched him take off his Aloha shirt, wave it over his head a little, and then tie it around his head. He was a shirtless, drunk nun. Ashley started to engage in a drunken dance with him. “You look like the freaking Prince of Egypt!” she yelled.
This was Mikey, who was a senior and the second of our three team captains. Apparently, he went nuts at all parties and even acted drunk when he was sober. But he was one of the top students in his mathematics and computer science classes. By “top student,” I actually mean top student.
“All freshmen, we need you to line up against that wall,” said Mikey, “and we’re going to make you...” (censored for content).
I left the party because, as I knew and as everyone at that party probably knew, I wasn’t much of a party person. Ashley ran out after me.
“Hon, what’s wrong? Are you feeling okay?”
“What? No, I’m totally fine! Don’t even worry.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m just not into drinking, or partying. But don’t let me stop you, okay? Go back and have fun!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’ll see you at practice. Bye, Ashley!”
I watched her walk back to Foulke Hall, where Gracie’s room was. She was still slightly tipsy, and stumbled in little zig-zags across the grass.
My teammate Jeffrey (different person from Jeff, my friend from OA) started a group chat on Facebook that included me and Thomas. Hey guys, he’d said, I’d like to officially welcome you to the team. I would also like to invite you to have a meal sometime in the dining halls.
Wow, Jeffrey is so nice, right? Hahaha.
The three of us arranged a lunch together for Wednesday, at noon in Whitman Dining Hall. Thomas cancelled, which meant it was just me and Jeffrey eating lunch together.
“Hello, Taylor,” Jeffrey greeted me in his usual formal-talk.
“How are you enjoying Princeton so far?”
The conversation plunged into a discussion about how to survive freshman year, stories from my OA trip, and anecdotes about getting accustomed to college life. “When you arrive, they try to tell you that you’re sheltered at Princeton; they call it ‘the Orange Bubble.’ Have you heard of it?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve heard of it.” The Orange Bubble was supposedly a very supportive “bubble” that all students at Princeton lived in.
“Well, it’s all lies. You have to fight for survival and fend for yourself over here.” Jeffrey gave me a scathing look, and I wasn’t sure if it was in regards to my presence or the lack of an ‘Orange Bubble’ in his college experience.
“Anyway,” he continued, “what have you been up to this summer?”
“I started writing a book.”
“What is it about?”
“Uh, just life experiences before college. My goal is to reach 220 pages by the end of the month. Last night, I just finished the 58th page.”
Jeffrey paused for a second, and I stared at him expectantly. Finally he said, “You’re never going to finish that book.” He was quite the optimist.
Lunch went on a little awkwardly for a few more minutes, and then we both stood to leave. “See you at practice,” I said.
I saw one of the sophomores, Alex, the following night in the Rocky-Mathey Dining Hall. Also a varsity fencer, he was basketball-level tall, with blond hair and fair skin.
“So,” Alex laughed, “every time we (Princeton Fencing team) go out and vandalize property, we write CHESS with cans of shaving cream. And totally get away with it. The Chess Team gets in soooo much trouble, it’s hilarious!”
Alex raved about the “Orange Bubble,” how Princeton provides a truly nurturing environment for its students and offers plenty of resources to succeed in whatever area you choose to pursue. I told him what Jeffrey said to me.
“Oh my god, don’t listen to Jeffrey.”
We both erupted into laughter.
The laughter from the beginning of the semester quickly faded into a serious tone as classwork increased and we learned what it truly meant to be a Princeton student. Lazy meetings on the grass were traded in for silent huddles in a library. Silly group texts turned into collaborative work discussions. Through this transition period, one thing remained the same: we all stuck together and braved the challenge side-by-side.