We took our eighth zero day today so that I could find a wedding dress. And I did! My mother and sister whisked me away to a David’s Bridal and, knowing exactly what style of dress I wanted, we had one purchased in under two hours.
After the dress shopping, we contacted the men we had left behind at “The Shack,” Nate, my brother-in-law Kyle, and my nephew Jackson. We invited them to come to the Apple Blossom Festival with us, but they were not interested. We offered to bring them food, but they said they had enough already. We wondered if they had any special dinner request, and they claimed that whatever we brought them, they would enjoy. We asked if they had everything under control and they said they did. So we went shopping.
Six hours later, we were rushing to get back to the men. Jackson had been running around the house, screaming with joy as he threw his trucks across the floor. They wanted more beer. Our plans to go back to them with ingredients for a baked ziti and a salad disappeared. We ordered pizza.
When we walked through the door, the relief on the men’s faces could not have been easier to see. They helped us unload our purchases, but the whole time it was obvious that they were in it for the pizza. Later we found out that they had been eating cookies and brownies all day, while alternating between beer and coffee. Kyle did try to feed Jackson a peanut butter sandwich, but neither he nor Nate found the energy to make the adults anything to eat. It wasn’t our fault, though, we offered to come back sooner!
After dinner, I satisfied my baking fix by making M&M cookies and chocolate chip cookies. Jackson fell asleep, allowing the adults to play a game of Phase 10 while brainstorming a wedding guest list. It was well past hiker bedtime when we were forced to stop playing cards due to the delirium that everyone was experiencing. It had been a long, fun-filled day for all!
Today I was struck with the realization that hiking this trail is a choice and that Nate and I automatically choose to hike. We have no commitments up the trail. We could go home today with our family, and life would go on. Even though I discovered this opportunity today, I did not for one second consider it. Nate and I are here to hike the whole thing.
It was hard to say goodbye to our family, though I was so grateful to have been able to spend time with them. Eighty-three days was the longest I had ever gone without seeing my mother or my sister, and we were only half-way along the trail, and only walking further away from home the rest of the way. It just provided more motivation for Nate and I to complete the second half of the trail quicker than the first half.
About ten miles after we got back on the trail, we passed the official halfway marker for the Appalachian Trail. This being the only time since we met Tweet and Yoyo that we knew for a fact that we were ahead of them, we took the opportunity to taunt them using the trail registry: “Leave room for ice cream after eating our dust, Tweet & Yoyo!”
We knew it wouldn’t take long for them to catch up.
Shortly after passing the half-way pillar we came upon the only reason I agreed to thru-hike the AT: the half-gallon challenge (it’s really not the only reason, but it definitely helped convince me!). Located in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, the Pine Grove General Store provides thru-hikers the chance to become legends by consuming an entire half-gallon of ice cream in one sitting. There is no time limit and no prize, except for the unique feeling one has after eating so much ice cream.
Nate and I walked into the store full of confidence. I grabbed the registry and signed our names. We chose our ice cream flavors. I went with Red Velvet and Nate picked Strawberry Cheesecake. As we approached the counter, the store’s owner commented on our certainty that we would finish. “You’ve already signed the book!” he exclaimed. We didn’t realize that the log inside the store was for finishers only. No wonder there were only two signatures above ours.
With the added pressure of already having our success recorded in the official half-gallon registry, we carried our first round of ice cream out to the picnic table and set up the video camera. Smiles spread across our face as we spooned in the first bite.
Nate was first to doubt himself. The sun beating down on our tubs of ice cream turned it into a sugary syrup, which made it unpalatable after having already consumed most of a half-gallon. There were times that I wasn’t sure if I would fulfill my dream of completing the half-gallon challenge, but after taking a short break, I slurped down the last spoonful of sticky, red velvet soup. I was nearly finished.
Because ice cream companies no longer sell full half-gallons, the half-gallon challenge can only be completed by eating an entire tub (1.5 quarts) and an entire pint (0.5 quarts), for a total of 2 quarts, or a half-gallon. This gives current-day thru-hikers an advantage over those who completed the challenge when ice cream was sold in half-gallons. I waited over two hours between my 1.5-quart tub and my pint. I also changed flavors.
Just as I was finishing my big tub of ice cream, Mother Nature and Between appeared. As an ever-hungry thru-hiking teenage male, Between was ready to gulp down a half-gallon of ice cream, not even considering it a challenge. He finished the whole thing before Nate finished his big tub. And we had an hour head start.
Shortly after Mother Nature and Between joined us, Tweet and Yoyo arrived. They shared how much they liked our entry in the registry at the half-way point and headed inside to buy their own ice cream. They both came back with Strawberry Cheesecake. Nate warned them that they needed to exchange their tubs if they wanted to have any chance of enjoying their ice cream. They didn’t. And they didn’t come close to finishing the 1.5-quart container.
As Nate and I were preparing to head back inside for our final pint of ice cream, Lucky showed up! He had already hiked seventeen miles for the day, and he was hungry for ice cream. Boasting that he’s eaten a half-gallon of ice cream several times before, he went inside to get a tub of chocolate ice cream. His white beard had turned brown before Nate and I finished our pints. In the end, the three of us each completed the challenge. Some more easily than others!
Today we discovered the Elevation Sensation and we fell in love. We collapsed on a bridge in the middle of a cow pasture and threw our legs into the air against the hand railing while our backs lay flat against the floor boards. We waited until the blood drained from our legs then dropped our feet to the ground and sat up. That’s when we felt the Elevation Sensation, as the blood rushed back into our feet. It was miraculous.
Though the terrain looked easy and the trail was well-maintained, the heat zapped us of our energy, and we found it difficult to hike twenty-five miles across fields and pastures and through the town of Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. It was suppose to be an easy day. Fifteen miles in, I didn’t think I could hike any further. We stopped to rest at a small patch of dirt along the trail and the road, used as a parking lot for those desiring to take a hike. There was one car there and I vowed to try to get the owner to take us home for the night. When the owner, a trail runner who had passed us along the AT, arrived, we dropped some hints. “It’s so hot today.” “There isn’t any shade.” “The water sources are so scarce.” It didn’t work. He was friendly and talked to us for quite a while. Jealous of the opportunity we had, he didn’t understand that what we most wanted was to be off the trail for the rest of the day. We waved as he pulled out of the parking lot.
We pushed on, even though we both wanted to stop and pitch our tent at any flat piece of land we saw. By the time we reached the water source for the shelter we had aimed to get to that night, I had decided that I was just going to do it. I would walk the 26.5 miles that day, and suffer through it. My feet screamed at me and my body was exhausted. But I was going to do it. Then Nate made a great point. Why carry water from the spring a mile uphill to the shelter? Why get to the shelter after 8:00 at night, when we knew Tweet and Yoyo would be asleep and our arrival would probably wake them up? Why not just do what seemed to be the smart and kind thing and camp at the bottom of the hill, a mile short of the shelter, across the trail from a perfectly cold spring? That’s what we did.
We woke up at six. We didn’t start hiking until nine. The mornings were our favorite part of the day. Having started our trek in February, we got in the habit of waking up, scarfing down a warm breakfast and packing up as fast as we could. Otherwise, we’d freeze! These days the morning was the perfect temperature. Not too hot, like the afternoons, and not too cold, like the beginning of our trip. It felt nice just to lay in a cool tent and rest.
At midday we were walking through a field of grasses when my eyes spotted something unique. It was a four-leaf clover! “Wait,” I called ahead to Nate. He stopped, amazed that what I had been telling him for years was actually true. I can see four leaf clovers among their three-leafed companions without even looking. They just jump out at me. Nate complained when I asked him to reach into my pack to pull out our guidebook so that I could preserve the clover in it’s pages. As he was doing so, I looked to the ground and my eyes went directly to another four-leaf clover. I’m just lucky!
We passed through Duncannon, Pennsylvania with time to hike up to the grocery store before heading to The Doyle for dinner. The Doyle is a large part of the Appalachian Trail community. Though it is known more for it’s less-than-desirable rooms than it’s food, Nate and I couldn’t just walk by. We stepped inside and enjoyed a nice meal with a few hikers we had met five days before at Quarry Gap Shelter. Though the owner warned us not to get the largest offering of French fries because “we wouldn’t be able to finish them,” our stomachs still had room after our sandwiches and medium fries.
Duncannon was a fun place for us to walk through, as it is the only part of the AT that we had actually seen before. When I make trips between home in Western PA and school in Philadelphia, I sometimes travel through the small town, on a road that parallels the trail for about a half mile. We walked along a four-lane road that I had often driven along and wondered just how the trail crossed the river and where it disappeared into the woods. Now I know!
After our meal we had a few miles to go to the next shelter. We underestimated the time and energy it would take and found ourselves wondering why the shelter wasn’t appearing as we turned every corner. By the time we reached the blue-blazed side trail, we were ready to plop down in a shelter and sleep. A tent along the side trail annoyed us. We wondered if it meant that the shelter was full. We carefully approached the back of the shelter and crept around to the front. We couldn’t have been more happy with who we saw. It was Lucky!
Lucky started the day in an exciting way. Last night he vowed that he would wake us up and encourage us to be on the trail nice and early, in an effort to break us of our recent morning habits. We agreed. He set the alarm on his phone for five o’clock and crawled into bed. Lucky slept on a bunk that night, about waist-high and off to one side of the shelter. Nate and I slept in the middle of the shelter floor.
When Lucky’s alarm started ringing we all woke up. He reached to turn it off, but couldn’t quite get it. He stretched out his arm and wiggled his fingertips, but his phone remained just beyond his grasp. On the floor. “Just hold on Lucky, wait a minute,” Nate warned him, and by the time I rolled over to look, more of Lucky was hanging over the edge of his bunk than was still in his sleeping bag. It was as though he was trying to do a handstand but hadn’t yet kicked his legs above his head. I turned back over. The guys would figure it out.
My body jolted to the right. Nate had lunged toward Lucky, aiming to support his weight that was hanging over the edge of the bunk, and because we share the same double sleeping bag, I went along for the ride. “Don’t you fall out of bed, Lucky,” Nate warned him again. But he didn’t listen. Lucky’s body made a mighty thud when it dropped onto the unpadded, wooden floor of the shelter from the bunk three feet up. Lucky grabbed his phone and silenced the alarm. Then he stood up and started getting ready for the day.
Nate and I started walking just two hours after waking up, an improvement that we were happy with. But we had waited too long. We barely made it two miles down the trail when it started to rain. Nate didn’t have his rain jacket on, claiming that the rain would feel like a refreshing shower, but when the skies didn’t let up, we scurried under the cover of a shelter so that he could retrieve his jacket and put it on. We stood around for a few minutes to allow Nate to dry out. By the time we hit the trail again, the rain had stopped and we took another break so that he could take his rain jacket back off.
We were nearly to the night’s chosen shelter when we heard what sounded like a jetplane using the trail as a runway and taking off right behind us. We looked up to see three military planes circling the air above us, all flying the same pattern but at different heights. We were surrounded by these planes for nearly an hour, unsure of what was going on. It was days later that we were told by a local that there is an airforce base nearby.
After the morning showers, the rest of the day had favorable weather, the rain having cooled the air down just enough to relieve us of the walking-through-a-steamy-locker room feel. But our feet hurt the whole day. We were worried since we hadn’t even hit what we were told was the worst of the Pennsylvania rocks and our feet were already revolting.
Today was a lovely day. We weren’t too discouraged by the rocks, the sun was shining, we arranged to stay indoors at a friend’s house the next night. All was going well until we came upon it. Directly in the middle of the trail, with a soiled toilet paper dressing, was a pile of human feces. It was disgusting to think that someone would do that. This section of the trail was littered with all types of trash. We picked up a few pieces and carried them away in our garbage satchel, a mesh bag Nate attached to his hip belt for easy garbage storage during the day.
We finished our day at the 501 shelter, which is better described as a garage converted into a bunkhouse. It was fully enclosed, it had windows, it had actual chairs, there were bunks built around the perimeter and a picnic table in the middle. This place even had a shower! Nate and I chose to set up our tent because it promised to be a beautiful night. We left the bunkhouse for the old guys who were with us: Lucky, Twisted and Umbrella Man. Crocman, he who saved our SPOT, Temper, a girl we had met briefly the night before, and Snafu, a guy we had met along the trail today, were each tenting at the shelter as well. It was enough of a crowd to have had a party, and we did just that. The 501 shelter is close enough to civilization that a few local restaurants will deliver food to the roadside tenths of a mile away. We ordered pizza and pop and it was delicious.
After dinner Nate and I returned to our tent and chose pictures from the trail to include on our wedding invitation. We were full, we were resting after a great day of hiking and we were getting married! Life could not be better.
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