June 20, 2017
Hikers enter Pine Grove Furnace State Park just a few miles past the halfway point on the Appalachian Trail. This beautiful setting is home to the Appalachian Trail Museum (a museum dedicated solely to hiking!), a self-guided historical trail (Pine Grove Iron Furnace built in 1764!), Fuller Lake (swimming and showers!), and incredible bird habitat (160 species of birds!).
But the one feature of the park that occupies the thoughts of many AT hikers is the Pine Grove Furnace General Store, home of the half-gallon challenge. Here, time honored tradition compels scores of hikers to gladly pay $10 for the privilege of making themselves half sick from eating a half-gallon of ice cream. If successful, the sugar-bloated hiker wins a tiny wooden spoon with the half-gallon challenge logo stamped upon it.
I must admit, Jay and I talked and dreamed of this indulgence for many miles. On those hot, humid days, I was convinced I could demolish a half-gallon of ice cream with ease. Fortunately for my blood sugar, the thunderstorm the previous day had broken the heat, and drowned my dreams of sweet indulgence. By the time we arrived at Pine Grove Furnace General Store, the hiker burger held more attraction than two quarts of frozen confection. (The hiker burger consists of a quarter pound beef topped with double cheese, egg, avocado, mushroom, grilled onion, tomato, and lettuce. Yum!)
Another hiker, Dundee, had dreams made of sterner fiber. Jay and I enjoyed watching him attack the half-gallon challenge.
Dundee chose vanilla for the first quart and a half. He told us it was easier to eat ice cream without extra fillers such as nuts or fruit. The first quart went down pretty fast, but his rate of consumption slowed during the next pint. “This is beginning to affect my brain,” he told us.
“Oh boy,” we teased. “The moment of truth has arrived. We could ask you anything, and you’d reply. You’re ready to reveal your deepest, darkest fear!”
“Ice cream,” Dundee mumbled. “I’m scared of ice cream. I can see it now, the torturer bringing me a pint. I’d be moaning, ‘No, no! I’ll tell all! Just don’t make me eat that!’ Anything but this stuff!” He dug out another reluctant spoonful and looked at it mournfully.
Dundee got to choose different flavors for the last pint. By now, thoroughly sick of vanilla, he choose chocolate, topped with a dollop of moose tracks. The first few spoonfuls were obviously delicious, then the tempo of ingestion slowed to a snail’s pace. “Oh man,” Dundee whimpered, “chocolate was a mistake.”
“What’s wrong?” we asked. “Don’t you like the taste?”
“Oh yeah, it’s good and all. Just rich. Way. Too. Rich.” Dundee grimly scooped another blob of the umber confection.
With a great deal of determination, the cup of chocolate was finally emptied. Dundee threw it away, then waddled off to claim his tiny wooden spoon. He returned to proudly show us his trophy, then collapsed into a chair as sugar took free rein over his body.
Another hiker, Blue Deer, arrived with ice cream on his mind. He paid his $10, and brought the first quart and a half outside on the front porch. “Hey, Dundee, I’ve got Neapolitan! I won’t get sick of the vanilla taste this way,” Blue Deer gloated.
“Take my recommendation. Eat the chocolate first,” Dundee groaned.
“I’ve hiked one thousand one hundred miles without your counsel. What makes you think I need your advice now?” Blue Deer teased.
“Experience,” Dundee sighed as his head went down to the table.