Day 83: The Half Gallon Challenge

Caledonia State Park

Instead of boondocking for free, I booked a $30 campsite at Caledonia State Park because it’s located right on the AT, has clean bathrooms, showers, and dispersed sites spread out through the woods. All of that is true, but our part of the campground was a packed gravel parking lot 1.5 miles down the highway from the AT, had intermittent cell coverage, and a fully functional barking network.

But it did have showers, flush toilets, and an electrical hookup so we could run the AC all night. Having AC on a freakin’ stuffy, humid night was worth having to wake up Northstar at 5:45 am to drive back to the trail. But she managed to get back to sleep and woke to find herself in the middle of a local craft fair.

I Should Tie a String Around My Finger

As I drove out of the campground, I bumped my ring finger against the van window and it didn’t clink the way it usually does. Oh no! I’d taken my ring off in the shower last night and left it there. So, I sprinted (in my mind anyway, actual land speed may have been what most people consider slowly jogging) back up to the bathrooms and found it right where I’d left it.

Last time I left it in a shower, at the Black Bear Hostel near Laurel Falls, Northstar had used the outdoor shower stall after me. She found the ring on the floor, pocketed it, and waited for me to realize I’d lost it. I think she was hoping it’d be days before I figured out, but I noticed it before bedtime. Married people games.

Hike On

Today’s hike promised to be another hot, humid, slog through the long green tunnel, and it delivered. The woods were lovely, quiet, and had minimal ground cover and nice filtered light. At one point, I walked through a patch of blooming Mountain Laurel, something I hadn’t done in a month.

The trails were well groomed and not too steep, with still no sign of Pennsylvania’s famous rocks. The 1,000-foot climb at the start left me dripping with greasy sweat that hung on me all day. I don’t mind being sweaty, but once my clothes and hands are soaked, I can’t dry off my reading glasses or use my phone’s touchscreen. First world problems.

Close Encounters of a Karmic Kind

Last week, I posted about my new game of loudly sneaking up on hikers. This morning, the trail got its Karmic revenge. A runner slipped up behind me and I nearly jumped out of my skin when he asked to pass.

I had that encounter in mind as I closed the gap on the skinny old guy who’d called me a cheater yesterday. But he heard me coming and pulled over to let me pass. He was friendly enough to make me think he might have been just joking about the “cheater” thing. We chatted about yesterday’s rain deluge, which he and the Aussie just missed by sitting under a pavilion at the State Park.

As I started to pull away, I asked his trail name and he answered, “Hoodie. With an H.” I started wondering how else Hoodie might be spelled when he asked my name. I told him, and he said, “I think I’ll call you Cheater, because your wife helps you so much.” I laughed and replied, “Ok. You can call me Cheater, but I’m going to call you Zebra.”

He looked a little confused, so I continued, “Because you’re like a referee, calling out fouls and rule violations.” (Referees wear black and white “zebra” shirts.) He didn’t much like that idea, but we were both smiling. I think.

What Do You Call a Man in a Dress?

Later, I saw a group of backpackers heading up the trail towards me. The three guys, all built like offensive lineman, wore tartan kilts. The one woman with them wore pants. As they approached, I called out in my best Scottish accent (which is pretty good, if I say so myself, and doesn’t sound at all like an Irish accent), “A wee bit o’ Scotland today, aye?” The lead guy smiled and without missing a beat replied, “Aye, laddie, aye.”

The Half Gallon Challenge

The big question of the day was, “Are you going to do the Half Gallon Challenge?” The Half Gallon Challenge, invented to celebrate passing the AT’s halfway point located near Pine Grove Furnace State Park, requires participants to eat an entire half gallon of ice cream in a half hour.

Winners earn a small wooden spoon with the words “Half Gallon Challenge” on it. Some winners also earn a quick trip to the bushes to unload their half gallon. The rest of the winners get to carry five pounds of partially digested ice cream up the next climb.

I’d talked about the Challenge with Zebra, who like me had his heart set on a burger and fries, rather than a mountain of sugary ice cream. When I mentioned that my 700-mile Pie Challenge hadn’t gone well, he looked distraught. Apparently, he’d been craving cherry pie for the last three days. I may not be destined to be friends with Zebra after all.

But the Half Gallon Challenge doesn’t happen until I reach Pine Grove Furnace State Park. I still had ten miles of trail and two significant milestones to cross.

Halfway to Katahdin

This year, the AT is 2,198.4 miles long. The mileage can vary from year to year due to trail reroutes, detours, maintenance, or improvements such as adding switchbacks. PhD told me that in the 70’s the trail was 400 miles shorter before the ATC started improving it. Regardless, half of this year’s 2,198.4 miles is 1099.2, so as I neared that mile point, I kept my eyes open for the marker.

At mile 1097.15, I passed a wooden post with a framed, glass-enclosed certificate that supposedly marked the 2022 halfway point. Then, at mile 1099.2, someone had built a “1/2 WAY” sign out of rocks. I stopped and sat down to ponder its significance.

Halfway is a big deal. 1099.2 miles is a long hike. The folks at the ATC told me that more than half of the people who started at Amicolola Falls State Park in Georgia didn’t make it to Harpers Ferry, let alone another 70 miles up the trail to the halfway marker.

But for me, half done is not done. My job isn’t finished. Plus, my feet and legs were tired today, I was hot and dripping with sweat, and thoughts of that burger had put me in the food mood. I hiked on.

Less than a mile later I passed the 1,100-mile marker, snapping a quick picture and some video as I went by. A few miles after that, I saw yet another halfway marker, this time indicating that Springer and Katahdin were each 1090.5 miles in opposite directions. The trail was once 17 miles shorter, but the halfway point was further north. Go figure.


I’d hardly seen any thru hikers on the trail today, so I walked into the Pine Grove Furnace General Store expecting to not see any hikers facing down their ice cream dreams and nightmares. Instead, three different groups sat around three different tables, watching a few brave/unlucky souls try to earn their wooden spoons.

I barely recognized two of the groups, but one group included the Aussie, the unfriendly 20-something from two days ago, a bearded bald guy who’d given me the death stare as I’d passed his camp yesterday, a young woman who sat in the Caledonia State Park conference room for two hours with Northstar yesterday afternoon, Nearly Naked Nurse, a hiker I hadn’t seen since Erwin (my name for him since I couldn’t remember his trail name – he always hiked shirtless with tiny shorts and works as a travel nurse), and a few others from their demographic.

I waved as I walked in, but got no response from anyone, so I continued on to where Northstar was waiting in the van. Apparently, she’d gotten ghosted as well. I’ve gotten used to that treatment from that crowd, but it still bothers her, so she’d retreated to the van. We leashed up Gus, grabbed our laptops, and claimed a table to watch the celebrations and make use of the free Wi-Fi.


All told, about a dozen thru hikers sat down, but only a handful took the challenge. None of them looked particularly celebratory as they either quit or triumphed. After all but the last stragglers left, a woman walked in, dropped her pack at the table next to us, pulled out a very wet tent, and spread it out on the grass to dry. Then she quietly walked into the store and came out with a half-gallon of ice cream.

Without a word, she peeled off the lid, pulled out her titanium camp spoon and went to work. Northstar gave her a smile and asked if she was thru hiking. The woman smiled back and soon they were trading stories and grandkid pics in between ice cream bites.

And what a story we heard. Forget-Me-Not, a grandma-aged thru hiker, walking mostly by herself, will be 10 years sober when she summits Katahdin this fall. She’d never backpacked before this trip, and except for a story from her sponsor, had never even heard of the Appalachian Trail before this year. Remarkable.

By the time she finished the challenge, as unassumingly as she’d walked in and sat down, she had a crowd of supporters cheering her on and peppering her with questions about thru hiking.

What a contrast with the louder crowd who’d announced themselves, met no one they didn’t already know, and left only to the relief of those who’d endured their visit. A lesson for all thru hikers.

Post-Scripts & Questions Answered

  • I finished Project Hail Mary yesterday, an excellent listen. I started Will Wight’s Unsouled, Book one of the Cradle Series. I’m not as excited about this one yet, but we’ll see. It is a very long green tunnel.
  • Northstar’s antibiotics (doxycycline) seem to be working. No other symptoms so far. Thanks for all the prayers and good wishes.
  • Gus takes tick medication and gets Permethrin treatments. The ticks that bite him die, but he seems to bring home live ones in his hair which fall out in the van. Hence, his banishment from the trail. He’s definitely pouting.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: Caledonia State Park (Mile 1085.6)
  • End: Pine Grove Furnace State Park (Mile 1105.1)
  • Weather: Partly sunny early, then gray, humid, and hot.
  • Earworm: Baby We Were Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen)
  • Meditation: Ro. 12:12
  • Plant of the Day: Shelf fungus
  • Best Thing: ½ way point
  • Worst Thing (besides the humidity): Getting ghosted

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Comments 10

  • thetentman : Jul 11th

    Southern PA is a lovely place. Northern PA is where the rocks are waiting. Not so nice. And it will be hot, humid, and buggy. Oh, and water will be at the last spring way, way down the hill. Sounds like fun. Enjoy it.

    It will make Van-life seem awesome.


    • Jon : Jul 13th

      Still waiting on those rocks. Kitteny Ridge is what the locals tell me, but I think you’ve told me not to listen to the locals.

  • Chris K : Jul 11th

    Like you, I was captivated by “Project Hail Mary.” It’s funny to think that Andy Weir started his initial book, “The Martian” as a short story which he tested on the social media site Reddit, and then developed as he was cheered on by an enthusiastic group of critics. Reddit was a better place in those days and I fear the golden days of the supportive and welcoming community based internet crowd may have left us for good. Perhaps like the unfriendly group of thru hikers described in today’s blog entry. Their loss.

    Coincidentally I finished the Unsouled series just a couple of weeks ago. 12 books that legitimately left me feeling bereft at the end, not necessarily because of any plot aspects (no spoilers here), but because it was a fun and unconflicted ride for me. Pure escapism and Will Wight is great at this sort of fiction. Enjoy the series.

    I am going to pick something up next of a more serious nature next – Barbara Kingsolver, well known for “The Poisonwood Bible” and others.

    Thanks for continuing to produce such a wholly entertaining blog. I realize it’s your life right now and it must feel a bit strange for someone to tell you your daily experience as penned is entertaining, because perhaps it’s better if the plot twists are kept to a minimum; nonetheless, the fact remains that you write well and you don’t filter your experience to the point of blandness as some writers do. Thanks for that.

    Happy trails.

    • Jon : Jul 13th

      Thx, Chris. I’m also a Kingsolver fan. Poisonwood was a brilliant work, though I liked her earlier stuff better as it had more warmth. Have you read any of Leif Engel’s books? Peace Like a River is amazing.

      • Chris K : Jul 13th

        No, I haven’t… thanks for the recommendation; I’m going to add Peace Like a River to my List right now.

        In return, since I’m in Colorado let me recommend an author who sets his plot in my state… Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars” is good escapism with some difficult bits and it features a guy and his dog. Also, the people therein are none too friendly, so it might go well with your experience of the crowd that has been haunting you on the trail lately.

  • Flash : Jul 11th

    I think that the way that you are hiking the AT makes a huge amount of sense in that you will most likely not be permanently injured when you have finished the trail. Good on you for hiking your own hike.

    • Jon : Jul 13th

      Thanks, Flash

  • Mcb : Jul 11th

    I’ve enjoyed following your adventure, your writings always crack me up. I think it’s pretty cool the way you and Northstar ( and Gus) are taking on this journey together, and will have shared memories from it to enjoy in years to come.

    Very cool indeed..

  • Chris : Jul 15th

    Keep on keeping on Jon. I have enjoyed your blog from the beginning and will be cheering you, Northstar and Gus on to Maine. I look forward to reading the full book version one day. All the best from Hoboken, New Jersey.

    • Jon : Jul 19th

      A book, huh? Hmmm….


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