“It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.” – Henry James
“Tradition does not mean that the living are dead, it means that the dead are living.” – Henry MacMilan
One of the neatest aspects of hiking the AT is taking part in longstanding trail traditions. Using a trail name, writing confessions at The Priest Shelter, hanging my feet off McAfee Knob and having my photo taken at ATC Headquarters are among the traditions I’ve participated in so far on my journey. By doing so, I connect myself in time with the hikers who have gone before me and those who will come later.
Day 98 was special for two reasons. First, I crossed the official AT midpoint at mile 1094.5. I stopped for a picture, said a prayer, and ate a candy bar. That’s how I roll.
The even bigger event, though, was strolling into Pine Grove Furnace State Park…home of The Half Gallon Challenge! This was perhaps the AT tradition I was most looking forward to. I have read many, many stories of past hikers who have taken the challenge and either passed or failed. I was incredibly hungry. I had spent my whole life eating ice cream to prepare for this moment. And if that weren’t motivation enough, those who conquer the challenge get a tiny wooden spoon with “Half Gallon Challenge” written on it. I wanted that little spoon very badly.
There was also the issue of a recent hot dog eating contest at a minor league baseball game. My youngest son, B.W Pot, represented Harding University against a contestant from another school. With a crowd of supporters cheering him on, he not only took second (aka last) place but managed to consume zero (0) hot dogs! Apparently he started laughing and choking and couldn’t get a single hot dog down in 30 seconds. Not one. For a family with a proud history of overeating, this was not acceptable. Tears were shed and we considered cutting off his share of the inheritance. He’s a good kid, though, and will probably bounce back from this and have a productive life.
So I arrived at the General Store focused on restoring the family honor and earning a tiny wooden spoon. Surprisingly, of the nine or ten other hikers there, only two others attempted the challenge with one (Hawaii) succeeding and one (Long Strider) failing. I selected my first flavor, 1.5 quarts of cookies and cream. There’s no official time limit, you just have to do it in “one sitting”. Still, I wanted to complete the challenge in under an hour. I worked methodically as various hikers and vacationers looked on. About half way through, I belched and took a short breather. I struck up a conversation with five Pennsylvania teens who come to the park with their dads every year to celebrate Fathers Day (another cool tradition). One of the teens told me that his dad comes up with a challenge for them each year, and they earn money if they complete the challenge. This year his dad brought live goldfish in a tub and later that night the boys would be bobbing for goldfish. If they get a live goldfish in their mouth, they get $20. If they swallow it, they get $50. I said, “Dude, sounds like you have a pretty cool dad.” He smiled and said, “Yeah I do.”
I finished off the 1.5 quarts of cookies and cream, belched loudly, and moved on to the .5 quart of raspberry ice cream. I was already beyond full and it had the look and consistency of Barney’s diarrhea. 35 minutes had elapsed and pressure was building on several levels. On my third bite of purple mush I cracked the little plastic spoon they give you and had to get a new one. With .2 quarts to go, I hit the 42 minute mark. I felt queasy and began to lactate from my armpits and brow. With just a few bites remaining, the teens and some of the hikers gathered around me shouting “Fob! Fob! Fob!” I dug deep. I put the team on my back. And I finished the ice cream! I conquered the half gallon challenge in 48 minutes! I restored the family’s overeating honor! Ten minutes later, I went back in and ordered a quesadilla and ate it with no problem. I probably could have eaten even more, but I wanted to save room for a goldfish.
As I sat there with my stomach tossing and turning, a young lady from Shippensburg University approached me and asked if she could interview me. She is working on her degree in Sociology and is doing a big research project on aspiring AT thru hikers. I agreed and she hit me with a wide variety of questions for about fifteen minutes. About every third question, I leaned forward in my chair and silently broke wind, without breaking my train of thought. As she recorded my answers, a faint whiff of rotting raspberries permeated the air around us. Thankfully, “Did you just Barney fart?” wasn’t on her list of questions.
In no condition to hike, I called it a 12.6 mile day and decided to stay at the nearby historic Ironmasters Mansion Hostel. $33 got me dinner and breakfast, laundry service, a hot shower and a bed to sleep on. The mansion was built in 1829 for Peter Ege, the longest serving ironmaster at Pine Grove Furnace. Later, they believe the mansion was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The caretaker even showed me the secret trapdoor that leads to a basement where there are tunnels exiting the property.
Later, some late arriving hikers told me that Sam Squanch, the U.K. hiker I rode out a storm with in a concession stand, had just conquered the One Gallon Challenge, which I didn’t even know existed. The record for consuming a full gallon of ice cream had been broken the previous Sunday after standing for 12 years. The old record was 48 minutes and a fellow hiker named Legs did it in 28 minutes. Sam Squanch, determined to outdo his friend Legs, broke it again with a time of 24 minutes! He basically ate twice as much ice cream as me in half the time. Afterward he went to the bathroom and vomited but they still gave him credit. He’s probably the most accomplished Brit since Austin Powers.
Later that evening, hikers were hanging out in the dining area, the parlor, and the bunk rooms. Mountain Goat, a 20-something Australian hiker, sat down at the piano and began to play. She was magnificent and the songs were mesmerizing. In fact, every hiker stopped what they were doing and listened. Some walked to the edge of the doorway to watch her play. It reminded me of the scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy finds a record of two Italian opera singers singing The Marriage of Figaro. He locks himself in the warden’s office and plays the beautiful song on the prison’s loud speaker. The prisoners and guards alike stop what they’re doing and listen in awe. My fellow hikers and I were in awe listening to Mountain Goat play the piano. After being in the uncultured wilderness for so long, it was quite the treat to hear her play and feel normal for a change.
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