How does one go about eating a half-gallon of ice cream? A better question might be why one would even try, but in this context—1092.8 miles through a 2179.1 mile hike—why becomes irrelevant. Why not?
Actually, I'll tell you why.
The average thru-hiker burns about 4,000 calories a day, and needs to consume just about as many if not more in order to not suffer from famen stomachus, a horrible syndrome in which the body—already stripped of excess body fat—begins to break down muscle mass and leach urea, causing the victim to smell overwhelmingly of urine. Symptoms include grogginess, exhaustion, muscle cramps, disorientation, and nausea. If untreated, it can lead to myriad complications, including kidney failure and even death.1
Meanwhile, a half-gallon of ice cream contains 3102 calories, 439 grams of carbohydrates, 129 grams of fat—76 of which are of the delicious and highly-desirable saturated variety—and 69 grams of protein. In addition to all that tasty nutritional goodness, the half-gallon contains over 30% of your RDA of iron and Vitamins C and D, over 100% of your Vitamins A and B12, 176% of your phosphorus, and over 200% of your RDA of riboflavin and bone-strengthening calcium! Plus it's ice cream. What's not to love?
Basically, we were in the position where if we didn't eat the half-gallon, we were gonna die. And I really didn't want to die. Not then, not ever. I had come too far already. I was going to do it.
My strategy was simple: skip breakfast, hike the ten miles to Pine Grove Furnace at a brisk pace to build up my appetite, then eat the ice cream as fast as I could, so my stomach wouldn't have time to tell my brain it was full. Piece of cake, right? No, not really.
My first mistake came some 6.2 miles in, when I stopped briefly at the Toms Run Shelters. Why did I stop? Was it to leave my signature obnoxious, inflamatory note in the hiker register? Was I expecting to find a note from Caboose and Spark, whom I knew to be only a day or two ahead of me? Was I looking for news of Bandito and Caveman, Redwing and Lil Dipper, all of whom had been so nicely remembering me2 in their entries since I'd left? Or did I stop because there was a crowd of about thirty day hikers there, eating breakfast, who had too much food?
Unsurprisingly, the group—which was on its way to the opening of the Appalachian Trail Museum, same as me—was naturally curious about their disheveled, smelly newcomer. There they were, coming out to honor hikers, to honor the trail and its history, and here I was, the one person in their midst who was actually doing it. It was like they were on a safari, and I was the only lion for miles. And of course they were having a problem with their food. They had too much of it. And they knew that hikers were always hungry, and the risks of famen stomachus. So they offered me their leftovers.
And it wasn't inconsiderable. And, conditioned as I was to never turn down trail magic—nor pass up anything free, ever—I was forced to accept. And I couldn't just hoard it all, either. They expected me to be hungry, and watched and waited with eager eyes until I pried open a granola bar and devoured it. My plan for the half-gallon challenge was evaporating.
That little one taste of food was enough to stir my raging metabolism. Suddenly all I could think about was food, specifically all the food that had just been plied on me. I barely made it another mile before I broke down and ate every last single thing they'd given me. My hunger sated, I continued on with a heavy heart, knowing that my best laid plans had already gone horribly awry.
I wouldn't describe the atmosphere inside Pine Grove Furnace State Park as bedlam, if only because it's entirely unclear the residents of southern Pennsylvania have ever experienced something something so worthwhile to get excited about. There were certainly enough people there, however, although none of them came bearing extravagant gifts to give to us wayward hikers. I was actually sort of disappointed with the festivities, uninterested as I was with the actual museum itself. Most of the vendors and exhibits only had a tenuous relationship with the trail, if they had any at all.
But I didn't really care. I was there for the ice cream. The only question remaining was what flavor? Chocolate, my favorite? Or would that get boring? Certainly not vanilla. Or strawberry, which I think usually tastes too artificial to be truly palatable. But what of Neapolitan? Chocolate, strawberry and vanilla all in one! That way, I'd at least be unlikely to get bored. And so what if I didn't actually like strawberry or vanilla ice cream on their own?
The Neapolitan ice cream purchased, I sat down for my attempt. I could only watch in wonder and envy as Cornpatch demolished his own half-gallon seemingly before I had even started. Trying to glean some wisdom from his victory, I settled on a new strategy. I would eat the vanilla portion first, then the strawberry, saving my favorite, the chocolate, for last.
Ice cream—or anything, really—tends to lose its charm if not all its flavor after the third or fourth serving. After my sixth or seventh "serving," I started wondering if I was going to finish at all. After my tenth, I was no longer worried about whether I'd finish, or even really whether my digestive track would revolt against me; I was more worried about what form that uprising would take. I made quick work of the vanilla, slogged through the strawberry with some discomfort, and then hit a wall. I'd already eaten more than two pints of ice cream. Six cups worth. Two to go. I didn't feel nauseous, but I anticipated it.
Was it worth it? I was going to make myself violently ill, possibly in a deeply embarrassing way. And for what? A sense of pride and a commemorative wooden spoon that I would probably lose shortly after anyway? I didn't want to get sick. I was terrified of getting sick. So I quit.
I gave the rest of my ice cream to a section hiker, told Merf and Ridley and Panther I would see them later, and left, hanging my head in shame.
Of course, a vendor would recognize me as a thru-hiker on my way out, and would insist on giving me a box of glazed donuts before I left. Somehow—and this truly boggles my mind—I managed to eat three or four of them before I reached the trail head. Disgusted by the donuts—they were stale and well past their Sell By date, which is probably how the vendor had come by them in the first place—but more with myself, I left the rest beside the trail, hoping that someone else would find and enjoy them, or at least throw out the box.
I at least consider myself lucky that I didn't throw up or soil my pants in a sudden and debilitating bout of diarrhea. Like some other people I know.
But that's another story.
1. Schweiger, L., Scully, D., Young, A., Erving, J., & House, G. (2009) The continuing epidemic of starvation in the U.S. JAMA, 286, 1195-1200.
2. And unintentionally taunting me with their tales of receiving trail magic. Like when Nature's friend Bronco brought them sodas at the Ensign Cowall Shelter. See? I never forget. Those bastards.