20.3 miles, 1106.4 overall (Mt Holly Springs, PA)
My alarm wakes me up early and I get my stuff packed up. Today I have two things to look forward to: the official halfway point and the associated half gallon challenge. It is tradition for thru-hikers to attempt to eat a full half gallon of ice cream (flavor of their choosing from what is available) at Pine Grove Furnace State Park which is just beyond the trail’s halfway point. But first I must cross that midpoint.
The plan is for everyone at the shelter to get to the park somewhat early so we can all attempt the challenge as a group. I leave just a bit after 6, hot on Mouse’s trail. Some of the other hikers seem to be stirring when I leave, but some have yet to get up. As is becoming routine I catch Mouse pretty quickly but neither of us are in a terrible hurry to get to the park and wait. Also the halfway point is only 3 miles away and I want someone to take my picture with the sign. We hike what for a thru-hiker is a leisurely pace of around 2.5 mph.
When we get to the trail crossing that marks the halfway point I am disappointed. There is no sign here. I thought this was one of the few signs that gets moved every year to make sure the location is accurate. Apparently I was wrong. We hike on but I am perturbed and the further we go the worse it gets. Eventually we get to the next shelter and take a break. It isn’t needed, but since we’re not in a hurry it doesn’t hurt to get a snack and sign the shelter register. We get to meet Junker, the maintainer of the section who is out doing some work this morning. I inform him of the jungle just north of Front Royal in case there’s anything he can do about it.
As we leave the shelter we are delighted to finally find the midpoint sign. It is a full 3 miles from where it should be, but I’m not nearly as bothered now that I have found it. We take the requisite photos with it and sign the register. Then we complete the final few miles to the park.
The Pine Grove Furnace State Park General Store is the site of the gluttony that is the half gallon challenge. Who knows how the tradition started, but everyone knows about it. Mouse and I arrive as Badger, Kitfox and Mancub are finishing their half gallons. We get our bearings and wait a few minutes but then Mouse wants to start on hers. She is worried about being too competitive if she starts with everyone else. She times her start well though (she chose chocolate) because just after she begins Gato (peanut butter cup) arrives, closely followed by Dora (mint chocolate chip), Wonder (mint chocolate chip), Fresh (neopolitan), and Squidword (peanut butter cup). I purchase my half gallon (vanilla) and begin as they all arrive.
The first half or so goes well, but then things take a turn for the worse. Everyone else is able to push on by burping to make space, but I have never been able to burp. It appears I am at a tactical disadvantage! My stomach is full and I’m having trouble eating more. Mouse finishes hers in 32 minutes and proceeds to talk trash to the other hikers, taunting them as they eat. She and Gato especially go at it now that they have realized that they are natural-born enemies (cat and mouse). Squidword is next to finish but since he started after Mouse he actually finishes with a much faster time of 19 minutes. Gato and Dora are neck and neck and both finish just ahead of Mouse’s 32. Even Wonder, who didn’t really want to participate, is able to finish his before me.
Around 45 minutes in I think I am done but the others won’t let me quit. They are all ordering more food – hamburgers, fries, grilled cheese sandwiches – which all look so much better than my ice cream. I’m finally able to catch a second wind and, just as an hour passes, I’m able to take the last bite of my half gallon. As a reward I get a little wooden ice cream spoon that officially states “Member of half gallon club.” I celebrate by laying down for a bit to digest before ordering a basket of fries. The salt tastes wonderful after the sugar from the ice cream. While I finish my fries Bottomless Pit arrives and, true to his name, he demolishes his half gallon in a time of 6:02. That’s minutes and seconds. A tenth of the time it took me, not that anyone is keeping track or anything.
Eventually we start to move on. Mouse is trying to talk me into going 10 more miles to stay in Mount Holly Springs. I’m not sure I can go that far with so much ice cream in me, but I head out with her to see where I’ll end up. I do like the idea of a town stay only a few days from getting picked up by Christy. This would give her only a few day’s funk to deal with rather than a week-old funk on the drive home for the wedding.
Hiking after so much ice cream is hard. My stomach isn’t quite doing somersaults but I can tell it isn’t happy. We pass the lake in the park and for a moment I’m sad that I’m pushing for miles. I’d like to just hang out by the lake for a while, perhaps head back to the store for some snacks later. I promise myself that I’ll go a bit slower once I get back from the wedding. For now I want to bank some miles before I leave.
The trail heads uphill out of the park, back onto the ridge line. The trail alternates today between tunnels of mountain laurel with their blooms still present or sparse forests in which I picture movies with barbarian hordes rushing through the trees.
As we hike I start to feel better and the 10 miles feels realistic. I hike ahead of Mouse and stop at the shelter for a few minutes. When I leave I figure she is ahead of me but that she should know to wait for me at the road crossing. However when I get there she is not there. I wait for 30 minutes and even Gato passes me saying he hasn’t seen her. There is no cell service and the inn picks up at the next road crossing so eventually I figure I’ll hike ahead the 2 miles to the next road. Perhaps there I can call the inn and get the advertised free ride and either wait for or find Mouse there. When I do get to the road I call and get a ride, learning that they’ve already picked up Mouse. Once I get to the inn we have a nice game of “wait, then where were you?” before town routines commence.
Showers are first, followed closely by laundry. While the laundry runs at the laundromat I go next door to the Family Dollar and buy a few snacks to supplement my food supply for the next few days. Then we head back to the inn and eat dinner in the restaurant. The food isn’t very good and Mouse, who plans to zero here tomorrow, notes that she will need to find somewhere else to eat.
So it came to be that after 20 miles and a half gallon of ice cream I am able to sleep in a comfy bed with a full stomach and clean clothes. It really is amazing how much can get done in one day on the Appalachian Trail!