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Monthly Archives: July 2009

One Sunday morning not long ago I found myself in a situation rather uncommon for most people on a Sunday morning. I was sitting with spoon in hand, ready to eat a just opened carton of ice cream, peanut butter swirl. All of it. In one sitting. Years ago, some thru-hikers somehow decided it would be a good idea to eat a half gallon of ice cream to celebrate passing the halfway mark of the Appalachian Trail. To me, the reasoning seems pretty tenuous. It’s because they’re both halves? Why not eat half a pizza instead? Should we celebrate three quarters of the trail by building three sides of a house? After a few months on the trail, thru-hikers do tend to get some unusual ideas, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this one were the work of the guy who runs the Pine Grove Furnace State Park Camp Store. For several weeks a year, he does brisk business selling individual hikers $5.75 cartons of ice cream in flavors they don’t even like that much. It’s tradition. It’s a challenge.

And, at the time, it sounded like a great idea. I love ice cream. I don’t get to eat much of it on the trail. I’ve been craving sweet things. It’s hot out. And I’m pretty hungry. Thru-hikers are always hungry. We can’t carry enough calories to replace what we burn. Once the fat is burned off, and a lot of us didn’t start out with much to spare, the only way to avoid starvation is by gorging ourselves in town. At my first town stop I went to two all you can eat buffets in the same day–Chinese for lunch and the steakhouse for dinner. I’ve been to dinner with a hiker who had to convince the waitress he wasn’t joking when he ordered two full entrees. He had a late afternoon burger and a hot dog as well. One shelter in Virginia happens to be very close to a road, and happens to have a telephone available outside the nearby forest service office. It might not be immediately obvious to non-thru hikers, but thru-hikers know this means pizza delivery. One entire pizza per person is the norm. The shelter was spoken of with great anticipation for weeks. We’re very good at walking, but eating is where we really excel.

Besides being gluttons for punishment, it turns out we’re traditional gluttons as well. The combination of a constant calorie search, daily physical accomplishment, and living for days at a time in the wilderness means that indulgences are fair game at any opportunity. When you’ve hiked a hundred miles in the last five days with no shower, no climate control, one change of clothes, and a subsistence diet of peanuts and instant mashed potatoes, it’s tough to justify making yourself suffer any further at the dinner table. Whatever that thing is that you always want to eat but shouldn’t, or only allow yourself on special occasions, imagine never having to say no to it. You don’t have to decide between the fries and the milkshake. You don’t have to pass on the bacon. And if you’re still hungry for it, you don’t have to put the lid on the ice cream just yet.

In more ways than one, that Sunday morning  in front of the ice cream was a dream come true. Sitting across from me, also with a half gallon of peanut butter swirl, was August Rush. He was not content to merely complete the Half Gallon Challenge. He could have done that before the trail, he said. Instead, he wanted to set a speed record. 18 minutes was this year’s time to beat, according to the Pine Grove Furnace State Park Camp Store clerk. August Rush had skipped breakfast. He had pre-melted his ice cream by sitting it on top of the ice machine motor. He had his stop watch and his witness, me. He was ready to do the half gallon challenge and to do it better than anyone else.

It seems like once you’ve adjusted to walking 20 miles a day with all of your possessions on your back, you have to come up with new ways to push yourself. While eating dinner at a shelter one drizzly evening in Maryland, two hikers came in off the trail. The others began making some room for them to lie down for the night. “Oh we’re not staying here,” said Hardcore, one of the two new arrivals. “We’re just cooking dinner. We’re doing the Four State.”

The Four State Challenge is a hike that touches four states in a single day. To complete the challenge, camp in Virginia right next to the West Virginia border. In the morning, hike across this border and a few short miles to the Potomac River, the Maryland border. Cross into Maryland and hike until you cross the Mason Dixon line, then set up camp for the night in Pennsylvania. It’s about 44 trail miles to see four states. After spending a month and a half in Virginia, the temptation for some is great.

At the shelter, Hardcore and her co-challenger Zen were ten miles from their fourth state. The rest of us had been in Maryland for at least a day or two and treated our visitors like celebrities by barraging them with questions. Where did you tent? Did you stop at Harpers Ferry? How much are you eating? One of the hikers, Traveler, was going southbound. To a northbounder, southbounders are like fortune tellers. The know everything about the trail ahead of us. So Hardcore and Zen had a question for Traveller. When you came down from Pennsylvania, did you notice any good tent sites close to the border?

The isn’t any good camping, Traveler said in his heavy Scottish accent. Instead, he recommended crossing the Pennsylvania border, then returning to a picnic pavilion back in Maryland to spend the night. Harcore and Zen considered this advice, clearly uncertain if returning to Maryland would invalidate their accomplishment. “And in fact,” Traveller went on, sensing their discomfort, “in 1987 when the four state challenge was first invented, that’s exactly what the hikers did. It was a man named Buffalo and myself.”

With that, the tone of the conversation suddenly shifted. We were in the presence of the guy who invented the four state challenge. A true trail legend. It started as a joke, he later explained. They never though it would stick around. In 1987 he and Buffalo had been slow through Virginia and needed to make up some time. They looked at the map and though that if they got up at midnight, they could get to Pennsylvania in one day. Why not? When they did, word got around, and the challenge was born. “Did you invent the half gallon challenge too?” Hardcore asked. “No,” said Traveller, “but I was the first person to eat three half gallons.”

Halfway through my own half gallon, the enormity of Travellers accomplishment was quite apparent. Overindulgence was beginning to turn a treat into a trial. I began having flashbacks to the unfortunate ending of my last binge. The Homeplace, a family style all you can eat Southern food restaurant with a khaki-clad clientele, is just off the trail in Catawba, Virginia. After polishing off entire serving bowls of fried chicken, roast beef, barbecue pork, mashed potatoes and gravy, re-fried beans, fried apples, green beans, and biscuits with tow other hikers, the waitress asked if there was anything we’d like some more of. We glanced at each other across the table and said, “All of it. Bring it all out again, please.” The second round turned painful. By the time cherry cobbler a la mode came out, I was sadly uninterested. After dutifully spooning through half of it, I excused myself to take a walk, then went outside and threw up behind the gazebo.

It was the ice cream that pushed me over the edge last time, my stomach reminded me as I struggled through my peanut butter swirl. I could no longer stand the sweetness, the coldness, the heaviness. August Rush was approaching the end on pace for the record. The hiker register at the camp store is filled with stories of failed attempts. In on unusual display of sanity, a hiker bragged that she “took the Resist Peer Pressure to Gorge Myself Challenge and won!” I envied her. I envied anyone who wasn’t eating ice cream.

August Rush finished in 16 minutes and 18 seconds, the new record. Green Light later sat down with the intention to beat this, but didn’t even finish. I finished my half gallon in under a half hour. That’s 3200 calories in one sitting. Over three days’ allowance of fat in less than 30 minutes. I thought of Traveller, who said after his third half gallon he was shaking and sweating uncontrollably all afternoon and into the night.

Why Traveller, August Rush, Hardcore, Zen or I took on the senseless challenges we did is anyone’s guess. But remember, walking from Georgia to Maine isn’t the most sensible thing to be doing in the first place. Other hikers have invented the One Night in Jersey Challenge (two consecutive 35 mile days) and the Connecticut in a Day Challenge (a 56 mile day). In the end it’s hard to disagree with the words of one hiker when asked if she would be doing the Four State Challenge. “I’m walking 2200 miles,” she said. “I think that’s a challenge enough.”

I can’t say I felt proud upon finishing that carton of ice cream, only relieved. To celebrate I bought the only thing that seemed remotely appetizing, a cup of hot, bitter coffee. “Cream and sugar?” the clerk asked. “No. Please, no.”

          -July 1, Deleware Water Gap, Penn.