The Gallon Challenge
Laurel Creek Shelter. A wooden rectangle with three walls, and a long wooden table right outside it was filled with hikers confabulating and cooking with Coleman fuel stoves. I stroll up unencumbered by the fog and dew that permeates the brush. Happy faces catch my eyes as I enter the campground. I see people I usually come across in passing, though I’m still struggling to remember their names. This is bad. I’m 672 miles deep and I still can’t remember everyone’s name. It’s been raining harder in my head than it has been in the forest. Muffin Man is there, as are Q tip and Sundance, and I feel the comfort of their presence like a warm blanket.
Earlier that day I met a section hiker, or someone who hikes a section of the trail. Their hike could last three days or three weeks depending on how they commit themselves to the portion of the trail they’ve chosen to travel. This man had finished his hike, he was sitting at a road crossing awaiting his ride, and he gave me all his leftover Gatorade bars and Ritz crackers. When someone wants to give you a gift, accept it, a voice inside my head said. If they’re willing to give it to you, it’s not hurting them to lose it. When you receive Trail Magic, you feel inclined to pay it back in full, in whatever form you can. Earlier that day Q tip met a southbound hiker who had run his food bag dry. What an idiot. Q tip harbored sympathy for the troubled man, and gave him several of his snacks, as well as freeze dried dinners. Far more than what I’d be willing to give.
When I arrived at the shelter I told everyone how I’d procured all these extra snacks before handing them out, refusing to view this food as something that belonged to me, but rather as something to be shared with everyone who wanted something. Knowing Q tip had given much of his food away earlier that day, I gave him extra. He looked at me with a Gatorade bar in his hands and nodded at me, “thanks man.” It didn’t hurt me to lose all those snacks, I was doing just fine before I received them.
Good Talk and Ken were there. Ken is his real name, and he was surprised no one had given him a trail name yet, since people usually get named within the first week of their hike. It had been nearly two months for most of us at this point. “I’m going by Clovis now,” he says at the table.
“Clovis. Nice, I like it man,” Q tip says nodding at him. We had seen Good Talk and Clovis quite a bit in the past few weeks, in passing while hiking, or sitting on the same logs that our group chose to stop at. They’re both in their early thirties, and they’re good company. The type of guys who talk to you as if they’ve known you for years. You don’t know much about them until you ask, since they’re not ones to brag about things they’ve done. But once you get them going, they’re full of hilarious stories. They’ll talk about ideas and crack jokes while passing a glass pipe around. My kind of guys.
The girl with the red hair is there, and it was her birthday yesterday so I give her my last granola bar. She smiles, “Want a sip of my birthday beer?” holding out a can that she’d been carrying in her pack all day for this moment.
“Sure!” I say, taking up her offer. I’m starting to like the taste of beer. Not exactly the spiritual growth I was looking for on the trail but whatever.
It’s supposed to rain all night again, so I set up my tent and rain cover for the bombardment of showers that’s starting to feel customary. It soothes me to sleep. I wake up parched and unzip my tent and brave the morning chill in my underwear. With my water bag in hand I mosey down the trail to the nearest stream. Clear spring water fills my bag and I filter it into my mouth, quenching my thirst. I turn and make my way back to the shelter where everyone’s still asleep, avoiding puddles of mud and stepping too close to the wet tents of other hikers, careful to not wake them against their will. My tent is set in plain view of the shelter, just a few yards from it, where Good Talk, Clovis, the girl with the red hair among others are still sleeping. I unzip the door of my nylon home and I hear her whistling at me. Is she flirting with me? The thought makes me smile and I turn to see her looking at me. I nod and wink at her and she giggles. She’s definitely flirting with me. Maybe I should walk around in my underwear more often. I get inside my tent and boil water for my morning oatmeal. Knowing I could burn the whole thing down if I somehow knock my stove over, I always boil water in my tent now. It’s simple, I don’t knock my stove over.
That morning at the shelter, we got on the topic of food challenges. Apparently it’s impossible for the human stomach to hold a gallon of milk. Bullshit.
“I could do the gallon challenge. I don’t even think it’d be that difficult actually,” I pronounced confidently. Clovis took an interest in how confident I was, or maybe how naive I was being. At the time, drinking a gallon of milk in one hour didn’t seem that hard. I like milk. And you have a whole hour to get it down. Everyone was planning to go to Four Pines Hostel in two days, since it was roughly thirty miles away. Being as foolish and cocky as I am, I say, “Since we’re all going to Four Pines, and no one thinks I can do it, I’ll get a gallon of milk when we shuttle into town and do the gallon challenge for everyone to see.”
“Dude, if you do the gallon challenge I’ll buy the gallon for you,” Clovis says grinning through his teeth, “I just wanna see you do it.”
“Deal!” My confidence is soaring at this point.
“It’s gotta be whole milk though, none of that skim milk bullshit,” Muffin Man adds, taking an interest in seeing this debacle unfold.
“Fuck it, whatever you guys want, either way I’m gonna do it,” I laugh.
“I can’t wait to see this,” Good Talk adds laughing. Now I’m really excited at this point, having never attempted any food challenges in my life and unaware of the stomach pains that awaited me. Everyone suspected they’d be seeing me puke my guts out in two days.
I began the hike that day with no clear destination in mind, only knowing that I wanted to walk at least twenty miles so I could have a shorter hike going into the hostel when tomorrow came. Looking at our guide books we realized we’d be crossing paths with three reputable peaks all within a week’s time; Dragons Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs. All were peaks that harbored views that conjured up superlatives such as mystifying, majestic, and magnificent, or so we’d been told. I couldn’t wait to see for myself, it was exciting to know that in some forty odd miles I’d get to see what all the hype is about. Looking at the guide book that afternoon I also realized the peak of Dragons Tooth, the first of the three, lay 26.7 miles from Laurel Creek Shelter, where we all set out from that morning. Even better was that Newport Road, which led to Four Pines Hostel, lay only 2.5 miles north of Dragons Tooth. I’m going all the way to Dragons Tooth tonight, I’ll camp out and watch the sunrise, then cruise down to the hostel and relax, all damn day. My plan was perfect, and my heart was set on undertaking the longest hike I’d ever committed myself to. It was time for a little self discovery.
When I first agreed to hike the trail with Muffin Man, I wasn’t interested because I thought it’d be easy. The notion of physical and mental challenge, the daily struggle of overcoming mountains, compelled me to join him in traveling up the east coast. Recently on the trail I’ve found myself to be more and more comfortable. A contrast from my first few weeks out here, where the cold mountain air compounded with my heartbreak nearly sent me home with my tail between my legs. It was a rocky beginning, metaphorically and literally. I hated waking up in the morning knowing my relationship with Katie was falling apart, not knowing anyone but Muffin Man, and feeling isolated because while he was fitting in with the trail community, I was laying in my tent deliberating on my choices. Regret crept into my mind each day, but I stayed the course. I kept walking, and while the weather didn’t get warmer, my heart warmed to the hikers around me. I let my guard down, I opened up to the people I had been meeting, and the comfort I began to feel allowed me to catch my breath, even for just a moment.
Catching my breath, I needed that. I needed reassurance in my decisions. When I finally began to feel comfortable with the variables of my decision to hike the Appalachian Trail, I was happy. Sundance, Q tip, Tarzan, Scarecrow, and of course Muffin Man, they became my trail family. Embracing the struggle with them became a source of comfort, even when I hiked alone and met up with them at camp in the evening. I thought about Tarzan and Scarecrow, and wondered how long it’d be before they caught up. Maybe we should slow down. Using the word we as opposed to I convinced me I was thinking of the group first. Not sure if I like that. Though I love my trail family, and I want to continue to hike with them, this is my hike first. I think we all thought like that. The group was devoid of cult like thinking, we never argued about where we’d camp that night, we all considered a destination and agreed on it. We naturally hiked at a similar pace and all harbored a desire to push ourselves, plus when we all got together at camp, we truly valued each other’s company. Becoming great friends is what makes you a trail family.
But something about being too comfortable bothers me deeply. Something about being at ease for too long brings about lingering feelings of listlessness. When there’s no problem to solve, I need to push myself to places of discomfort, or I’ll slip into the meek disposition of someone who lost the meaning and value in pain. I long to always challenge myself. It’s a matter of learning something about who I am, a means of self discovery. When I’m comfortable, I’m unchallenged, and when I’m unchallenged I’m not learning anything valuable about myself. Attempting this 26.7 mile hike would take me somewhere inside myself I’ve potentially never been, and it’s worth whatever pain that comes as a byproduct of this learning experience.
So I walked. Up hills and down them, under a white, clouded sky that sprinkles rain on me, and over the mud and roots that attempt to trip my every step. I cross two shelters, Sarver Hollow Shelter and Niday Shelter, over many footbridges made up of dilapidated planks that are slowly sinking further into mud below me. I pass by creeks and streams leading up to Brush Mountain. It’s late afternoon. Dripping with sweat and shaking legs I sit down when I reach the top and pull out my guidebook. I have about 10 miles to go. The guidebook also lists that I should be crossing the Audie Murphy Monument shortly. Who’s Audie Murphy anyways? Only the most decorated American soldier in history. He served in World War 2 from 1942 to 1945 and garnered every military combat award available while in the army. Talk about a successful career. This is someone who single handedly held off an entire company of German soldiers, even after running out of ammunition. I hiked a little further to observe his monument. Audie Murphy died in a plane crash in 1971 near the site of the monument, which is why it was erected here three years after his passing. The stone slab had words etched into it, briefly identifying who he was, when he was born and when he died, and his myriad accomplishments while serving. Stones forming cairns shrouded around the monument, and an American flag was hung proudly behind the stone slab. I stopped there for a moment considering the proposition of enlisting in the military, and thought about how I might act when confronted with the horrors of war. Could I watch my friends die and continue fighting in the same breath? Just then Q tip came walking up to the monument, and my face lit up, happy to see him.
“Audie Murphy was a badass motherfucker,” I say.
“Yeah, a war hero,” he says walking over to read the stone slab.
The sun was beginning to come out in the late afternoon sky. As we walked down Brush Mountain together, our eyes were delighted with a rainbow that manifested itself through the trees as the fog cleared, allowing the stream of colors to reveal themselves to us. It was another testament to the serenity that the mountains provide, a picturesque moment that I captured in my mind. Mental images go a long ways, especially when the camera on your phone could never do justice for the scenes we witness.
When we reached the bottom of Brush Mountain we came to a footbridge over Trout Creek. We saw Muffin Man and Sundance on the other side of the bridge, both sitting on the ground, leaning against their heavy packs like the back of a chair. We walked up on them mid conversation.
“We could stay here tonight, it’d be over twenty miles,” Muffin Man said looking through his guidebook, “twenty one actually.”
I looked over at Sundance who was rubbing his forehead, his eyes widened and he wore his annoyance with the situation on his sleeve, “I’m glad ya’ll are here, I’m about to give Muffin Man a knuckle sandwich,” he said holding up a fist.
This was surely tongue in cheek. I laughed, “What happened?”
“Muffin Man’s being a fuckin’… ” Sundance shook his head, not finishing his thought. I looked at Muffin Man who was skimming through the guidebook, looking at mileage.
“Is he planning too much for you?” I asked Sundance.
“Trying to get me to stay, I wanna keep going.”
I looked at Muffin Man, “We’ve gone twenty one miles today, there’s a campsite here and we have the creek for water, this is a good place to camp,” he said gesturing to our surroundings.
“I think so too,” Q tip said nodding, then having a seat in the grass below him he continued, “this is a good place to camp, Dragon’s Tooth is still another five miles away, I say we just get up early and catch a sunrise from it.”
“And the Sun’s about to go down, I’m gonna set up camp,” Muffin Man added as he stood up and looked through his pack.
I looked back to Sundance, saying, “I’m trying to hike all the way to Dragon’s Tooth tonight, you wanna come with me?”
“Yeah I’m down.”
“How’s the terrain?”
“It’s pretty much all uphill, man.”
My spirits sank a little, I was dog tired at this point, I wanted to stop right there at the creek and set up my tent with Muffin Man and Q tip, but I had promises to keep. Five more miles and I’ll have hiked a marathon. This is what I was looking for. That inner battle was just beginning. I never want to lose a battle between challenge and comfort. Stop being a fucking pussy and hike. Practicing reverse psychology fuels my fire, especially when the thought of resting starts looking more appealing.
“I’m gonna cook my dinner here, then I’m gonna start heading up,” I said taking off my pack.
“Alright,” Sundance stood up, adjusting the straps of his pack, “I’m gonna start hiking. Sun’s about to go down, I don’t want to get there too late.”
I looked up, “See you up there,” I said nodding at him.
He turned and started walking, taking long, tired strides up the mountain. I pulled out my stove and food bag and weighed my options. Clovis was coming down Brush Mountain beyond the footbridge, and Muffin Man and Q tip were scouting out an ideal spot to set up their sleeping quarters.
“You guys camping here tonight?” Clovis asked us in the fading daylight.
“Oh yeah,” Q tip said cheerily.
“Ya mind if I join you?” He asked wearily.
“Sure brotha!” Q tip welcomed him to find his own spot on the flat terrain.
I watched them from the other side of the footbridge, cooking instant mashed potatoes, thinking about how much easier it would be to simply join them. Why not rest now and hike more tomorrow? I’m only seven miles from Four Pines Hostel. Seven miles isn’t a long day. Schizophrenic conversations are coming. Keep taking the easy way out and that’s all you’ll ever do. Be bold.
I ate my potatoes, burning my tongue in a futile attempt to start my ascent up the mountain before the darkness manifested. I pulled my headlamp from my pack, the battery was dying, but it should be able to get me through the night. I can buy more batteries tomorrow. It’s time to go. Fuck comfort. I placed everything meticulously inside my pack, and slung all forty pounds of it over my shoulders, hoisting it onto my back.
“See you guys in the morning!” I called from across the Creek.
“See ya Romeo!” Muffin Man and Q tip called.
“Hey Romeo!” Clovis called, “You still doing the gallon challenge at the hostel?”
“Of course!” I called back, smiling.
So I hiked. I felt a wave of excitement hit me, knowing when I reached the end of this climb, it would be my longest day yet. I was pushing the boundaries with the decision to continue, despite the desire to stop for the night. My legs were aching, and with each step, it felt more difficult to keep pace. I slowed slightly as the gradient became steeper. I caught a second wind and increased my pace again. Sweat began to drip, I was taking long strides and moving around rocks and roots with as much grace as I could muster. I glanced at the moon when it showed itself through the trees, it was bright in the clear night sky. I moved past the tent sights of the next shelter, still riding the adrenaline of my second wind. My body became hotter to accompany my deep breaths. The gradient became more gradual again, but boulders stood before me. Holding both trekking poles in my right hand, I used my left to grab the roots that were level with my head, squeezing tightly I pulled myself up, taking a one large step with my right leg onto the face of the boulder and another step bringing me to the top. Taking leaping steps from one boulder to the next, I slowly made my way up the mountain. Rock crevices forced me to put my trekking poles aside to use my hands to pull and maneuver my way upward. When I was back on the dirt, more roots encumbered the path, but I began moving around them more easily as I continued upward. Despite my thirst, I didn’t stop to drink because I would break the pace. I took lunging strides and wondered if I was moving at three or four miles per hour. But even though I was moving faster and faster, the climb seemed to last forever.
When you begin to feel exhausted, all you can think about is how much longer the climb will go on before you reach the top. You begin telling yourself things like all things that go up must eventually come down, and I’m closer to the top with each step. Painful sensations permeated my legs and feet. I rolled my ankle, almost falling, but I caught myself against a tree. I stopped for a moment there, against the tree, noticing the pain in my ankle. For the first time I could hear myself breathing heavily. My breathing was the only thing I could hear actually. I could feel my heart beating in my chest, blood pulsating through my ankle, and I could only see where my headlamp shined on the dirt path below me. Everything else was covered in darkness. It can’t be that much further now. I hiked on, limping at first, then using the endorphin rush to ride out the pain as I increased my tempo. Then at full stride I thought, if I can get through fight class I can get through anything. I had a flashback to life at home, training out of Ground Control MMA gym. My first time in fight class nearly killed me, but at the end of it, the relief I felt made me feel like I could get through any pain imaginable. I had fight class every Tuesday night. I would walk through the doors anxious for what miseries I knew I’d have to endure to survive. Trading blows and wrestling around while being punched and kicked and kneed. After an hour you want to let your arms hang, but if you do you’ll get clocked. Keep pushing. You can make it up this mountain. Our coach and my teammates yelling, galvanizing me to push past pain, exhaustion, and misery. For what? To learn what you can take. To prove something to yourself. To walk the walk. For self discovery. I kept climbing even after I rolled my ankle a second time that night. I hoped I’d roll it a third time just to laugh in the face of pain.
Then at my most masochistic, I saw the sign for Dragons Tooth. Where is it? Where’s Sundance? I looked around the darkness, trying to pinpoint a white blaze on one of the trees to get an idea of where the trail goes north. It’s much harder to navigate in darkness, but not impossible. Sundance is probably down the side trail to Dragons Tooth peak. I called out his name. I heard no response, only the sound of my heavy breathing. I walked down the side trail. I called out his name again to no answer. Then again, and I heard his voice speaking quietly, “Romeo. Over here.”
I looked up and saw him, his tent already set up, looking through his pack for his stove.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“Fuckin’ tired man,” he said softly.
I laughed and sighed, catching my breath I said, “Yeah me too, but, we made it.”
I didn’t have the energy to cook that night, but I mixed powdered pedialyte in my water, chugged it all and passed out in my tent. I woke up at 2AM, naked and cold on top my sleeping bag, and I crawled inside it for warmth. I woke up again three hours later and I began playing music on my phone. The song Release by Pearl Jam had been playing in my mind on and off the past week so I put it on repeat as I cooked my morning oatmeal. I got out of my tent to stretch my bones, it was dark still.
Sundance was rustling around in his tent, I probably woke him with the music. “What’re you doing up so early, dawg?” He asked.
I felt surprisingly energetic this morning, like I was still riding the endorphins from the night hike up here. I felt awake, maybe even restless. I awaited the sunrise in my underwear. Packing down our camp into our packs, we heard footsteps in the distance. It was Muffin Man and Q tip. They kept their word; waking up early to catch a sunrise.
“Q tip! Muffin Man!” I called out with open arms. I was clothed at this point, and Q tip embraced me with a hug. I knew the hellish climb they just went through to get here. They must’ve felt excited to finally reach the summit of Dragons Tooth. They turned off their headlamps to meet the Sun’s gleaming light. We saw the stone monolith on the mountain which we were standing on. That stone monolith is called Dragons Tooth, and we climbed it to see the Sun rising over distant mountains. Sitting on this giant stone slab, watching the rolling mountains go on for what seemed like forever, brought serenity to us all. The rising sun illuminated everything our eyes could see, and I was beginning to feel spoiled by all the stellar landscape views I’ve been treated with. It was magnificent, boundless, and free. It was there for everyone to see, everyone who chose to climb up here and witness the beauty of earth.
“Let’s get to that hostel,” Q tip said after the Sun had risen high enough to bring about the full light of day.
The climb down was treacherously steep, Sundance and I walked together when Q tip and Muffin Man bolted ahead. Women came up in our conversation.
“My longest relationship was about two years, and I was crazy about her. But all that burning desire does fade with time, and things get harder as time goes on. You begin to argue more, and you start taking things for granted,” I said thinking back.
“Yeah you definitely do. But I hate that, that’s the downfall of all relationships. We get lazy.”
“We get comfortable. We stop trying.”
A metal ladder was drilled into a boulder, and we climbed down after stopping for a moment to observe how dangerously steep, and fun, this climb down was.
“What about soul mates?” Sundance asked.
“Nah, it’s bullshit. I mean, it’s romantic and all, and charming to think about. Especially when you’re madly in love. But, it’s just people, ya know?”
“I think so.”
“All you’re gonna find are different people. Some you’re compatible with, some you’re not. Others you might be crazy over, so crazy that you start making up words like ‘soulmate’ to describe your infatuation. But all you’re doing is romanticizing them. Which is dangerous. They’re a person, flawed and all too human, just like you and me.”
“Yeah, and when you start seeing things you don’t like about them, you start to question everything. Second guessing, wondering if you’re wasting your time.”
“You just gotta find someone who’s smart enough to know that you’ll fuck up sometimes. And you have to be able to understand when they fuck up, and you have to forgive. Because we’re all human, we all fuck up sometimes.”
“It’s tough, man.”
“Takes a lot of time and patience to make it work.”
“How’s your relationship going?”
“Fuck you!” I said flipping him off, tongue in cheek.
We could see the road all the way down the mountain, and when we reached it I felt a mix between relief and excitement. It was still the morning and I had the rest of the day to relax. Four Pines Hostel laid a quarter mile up Newport Road, and we walked up the driveway to take in our surroundings. It was a homely looking farm, with the owner’s house front and center, which appeared to be off limits for hikers. Walking further up the gravel driveway you see a little shack to the left filled with hay, timber, and rusty tools. There was a barn and a garage at the end of the driveway, where chickens and roosters were roaming freely, bobbing their heads and aimlessly going to and fro. There were several bicycles propped against the side of the garage, as well was many backpacks laying against it too, a sure sign of hikers. People ambled out the garage door, some were cyclists, some hikers, and two of them were Muffin Man and Q tip. Everyone exchanged nods and greetings.
“What’s the deal with this place?” I ask.
“We can sleep anywhere in the garage, or there’s the barn if this place fills up,” one of the cyclists informed me as he walked over to his bike.
I nodded and walked in. There was a long table with books and board games laid out across it. Old couches were set up in a semi circle around a small coffee table at the room’s center, old dusty beds laying at the back of the room harbored people rummaging through their packs, looking like they were packing up to travel on. There was a small kitchen area to the right side of the room, complete with a stove, refrigerator, and coffee pot. The wall nearest to the long table was a chalk board with a plethora of trail names etched in, and I wanted to temporarily add mine to the series. The place was a hiker paradise. Most of the people who stayed the night before were packing up to go, leaving many sleeping quarters available for those first in line, and we were there early.
Then we met Eddie. The disgruntled, fat bastard. He didn’t run the place, but he desperately wanted you to know that he was in charge. He was sort of like Joe’s assistant, and Joe ran the place. Joe wasn’t always around though, so he hired Eddie to look after the place and shuttle hikers to and from town, specifically shuttling them to and from The Homeplace, the only restaurant in town, or the convenient store, the only place to get trail food. There wasn’t much else to look after, hikers know the deal. But Eddie stood there anyways, arms folded, watching you like a hawk with an angry countenance.
“What’re you looking through those cabinets for? There’s nothing in there for you!” He yelled from across the room.
The hiker he was referring to looked over his shoulder, perplexed, and said softly, “I was just looking for the coffee beans, I was gonna make some for everyone.”
“Ask me next time. They’re over there,” Eddie said, pointing at another cabinet.
“I wonder if we have to ask him when we want to use the shitter?” Sundance whispered to me. I laughed.
“Now I know everyone is looking for a place to charge their phones, you can use the outlets, just not this one here,” he was walking over to an outlet in the wall, “this one’s Joe’s.”
“Oh, you mean that one there?” I said smiling, pointing to the outlet he was referring to.
“That one right there?” I said again, walking over towards him, pointing to the outlet, grinning wide.
“Yes. This one.”
I walked closer till I was right next to him, “right here?” I said pointing. He wasn’t amused, not in the slightest. “Hey man, I was just kidding,” I said laughing. He gave a half grin and walked away, continuing his sermon.
“Now shuttles to The Homeplace will be starting in about an hour, so be ready then. Who all wants to go to The Homeplace?”
Several hikers raised their hands, including me. We had all been talking about it the past week, hearing great things, how it ‘was not to be missed’ and it’s ‘the best meal on trail’. I was excited for some traditional southern cooking.
I set my pack on one of the couches in the middle of the room, claiming a spot for the night. Clovis, Good Talk, and several other hikers all poured in within the next hour, all with the same intentions as us, go to The Homeplace and stay at the hostel for the night. We all loaded up in the shuttle with Eddie at the wheel.
“Are you Cuban?” Was the first thing he said to Good Talk.
“No, I’m Mexican.”
“Good. I fuckin’ hate Cubans.”
Everyone fell silent.
We reached The Homeplace and it looked more like a mansion than a restaurant. That was because the owners lived there and did their business out of home. It was Sunday and the parking lot was packed with older folks who were dressed nicely. Nicely combed hair and smelling like perfume, just getting out of church. Then there was us, dirty, smelly, hiker trash. We shared the front porch for ten minutes, waiting in anticipation for the place to open. I was ravenous, per usual. They called us inside and sat us down at a table by the window, and a waitress came by asking us what we wanted to drink. Everyone ordered water, sweet tea, and lemonade, and she brought all three over in pitchers. The Homeplace is like a buffet, only you never have to leave your seat to get the food yourself. Your waitress or waiter brings you plates of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls, collard greens, and ham. The works. It was incredible, I predictably stuffed myself to maximum capacity, almost to the point of sickness. My friends did the same, it was all so delicious. I was sort of thankful they were closed on Monday’s, because had they been open, I would’ve came back to spend more money I needed to save. We ordered coffee after the meal, but it couldn’t save us from the impending food coma.
We waited outside for Eddie to return, as he said he would, to shuttle us back to the hostel. We saw church goers heading out in their cars and got the notion we may be able to catch a ride from someone. Why wait?
We strolled down the driveway of The Homeplace, raising a thumb in hopes that someone might stop. We reached the road and continued towards the hostel, Muffin Man, Q tip, Sundance, and I all attempting to hitch together. We made it about a quarter mile with no luck, then we saw Eddie in the shuttle speeding up the road towards The Homeplace. He saw us, then did a sharp 180 degree turn and came back to pick us up. That was nice of him.
“I told you all to wait at The Homeplace! Now I gotta drive you back and then turn back around to pick the rest of em’ up!”
His anger was shocking. We later found out that he’ll sometimes arbitrarily ask hikers for money when he picks them up, naming whatever price comes to mind. “It’s ten bucks for a ride.” He’ll do that when other hikers are already in the shuttle, whom he never asked for money from when he picked them up. He’ll pick and choose who he feels like screwing that day, then he’ll pocket the money. He’s not supposed to charge anything, Four Pines is a donation based hostel. He’s a slimy fuck.
He tried that game with Hot Toddy when he picked her up from the convenience store, and everyone thought he was joking. Hot Toddy laughed, to which he asked again. “Don’t worry, he’s joking,” someone assured her, but he asked her again in a stark tone. “Are you serious?” She asked, lowing her eyebrows.
“Just drop me off here then.”
Hot Toddy never came to Four Pines, she continued northbound. That night everyone did their best to either ignore or placate Eddie, everyone was drinking, playing darts or board games, conversing and hanging out idly. Meanwhile Eddie was trying to get everyone to clean up the place, or Joe would “be pissed.” We all had met Joe at this point, and he didn’t look like one you could easily piss off. On the contrary, he was one of the nicest people I’ve met. He loved the hikers, and trusted them to do the right thing. He didn’t mind if we smoked and drank and carried on through the night, as long as we didn’t trash the place. He loved that hikers came to Four Pines knowing they’re allowed to have a good time. And despite Eddie being there, always looking for someone to yell at, we still had a blast.
The next morning I woke up on the couch with no desire to hike out. I wanted a day off. Sundance and Q tip wanted to leave, and Muffin Man was weighing his options, teetering back and forth.
“I gotta get out of here, man,” Sundance said to me, slinging on his pack.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Eddie,” he shook his head, “I can’t stand the guy.”
“I feel you. But, you can’t let him stop you from enjoying yourself. Just ignore his bullshit.”
“I tried, but I gotta go, or I’m gonna flip out on him.”
I laughed when a mental image appeared of Sundance flipping out on Eddie. “What’s the worst he’s gonna do? He’s not gonna try to fight you.”
“I just always feel tense when he walks in the room. He’s just watching us. I feel like he’s watching everything I do.”
Q tip was already walking out the door, then he stopped and came back, “We’ll wait for you in Daleville. We’ll probably get a room and take a day off there. You coming Muffin Man?” He asked.
“I think I’m gonna stay,” Muffin Man said, biting his nails, one of his persistent habits he was consciously trying to break.
“Fuck yeah!” I said, delighted that I wasn’t the only one taking the day off. I’d have one of my best friends here with me. Clovis and Good Talk also decided to stay another day. They were reluctant at first, but I did my best to galvanize them.
“We forgot about the gallon challenge yesterday! So now you’ll have all day to watch me chug milk. Come on, it’ll be great, hang out with us.”
I gave Sundance and Q tip hugs and waved goodbye, hoping to see them sooner rather than later. We procured a shuttle to the convenience store from Eddie, who told us he had some errands to run, but he’d be back to pick us up in an hour or so. Muffin Man, Good Talk, Clovis and I walked into the convenience store to resupply on groceries.
“I’m thinking about buying some stuff to cook everyone a big breakfast tomorrow,” Good Talk said while looking at bacon and sausage through a transparent refrigerator door.
“That’s awesome! I’ll pitch in,” I added, “What do ya think, bacon or ham?”
“Up to you man,” he replied.
“I’ll get both,” I said, thinking why not make this an epic breakfast.
“I’ll get the bread, and I think they sell fresh eggs at Four Pines, I’ll ask Joe when we get back,” he said.
Muffin Man and Clovis had full baskets of groceries and they met us by the refrigerators. “Whole milk right?” Clovis asked, looking at all the various milk options.
I laughed, “Oh yeah.”
“You’re really gonna do this?” Good Talk asked, shaking his head.
Clovis and Muffin Man laughed all the way to the register, convinced this disaster would be pure entertainment at my expense. We waited outside the convenience store for Eddie. Muffin Man ordered a whole pizza from the register and offered me a slice. I should’ve saved my appetite for what was coming, but I couldn’t refuse his offer.
“Hey Romeo, want some of my chips?” Clovis said holding out his bag of kettle cooked potato chips.
“Sure, man,” I said reaching in the bag. Maybe they’re trying to set me up, but I’m never gonna turn down free food.
We get back to the hostel and everyone’s talking about how I’m attempting to do the gallon challenge, it’s been talked up all day and now everyone’s looking at me with a gallon of milk in my hand like I’m some crazy person. Maybe they’re right.
“You know who you look like?” Some older gentleman whom I’ve yet to meet asked me.
“Who’s that?” I asked, thinking I already knew the answer.
“That guy from that show Friends. Uh, what’s his name?” He squinted and looked at me harder, hoping that would help him remember.
“Joey,” I said, and his eyes lit up.
“Yeah! Joey from Friends! I’m gonna call you that! Joey!” He was so delighted at his keen observation, “Do you have a trail name?”
“Yeah, I’m Romeo. But I mean, you can call me Joey if you want.”
“Okay, Joey, so you’re the one who’s gonna drink a whole gallon of milk?”
“Yeah,” I said smiling.
“What makes you think you can do that?” he asked, squinting at me again.
“I don’t know, I like milk. Why not try it?”
He just nodded, probably thinking I’m a moron.
Everyone gathered around in the gravel parking lot between the barn and the garage, setting up collapsible chairs in a circle. We all sat, eyes on me, camera phones at the ready. This is fucking weird.
“Alright Romeo, you ready?” Clovis said, taking a picture of me.
“Jesus, man, I guess so.”
“Starting the clock now,” Muffin Man said, “you got one hour.”
I twisted the red cap off the gallon of whole milk and started drinking. Not chugging, but drinking it in gulps, steadily. Fifteen minutes went by. About a third of the gallon was gone. Everyone was watching me intently.
“You guys like watching me drink this milk?” I asked plainly, feeling sort of odd about the spectacle. Clovis was laughing.
“It’s been about fifteen minutes, how are you feeling Romeo?” He asked.
Another fifteen minutes went by, and the gallon was about half full. I wasn’t feeling too hot, but I was on pace, as everyone observed.
“How are you feeling now, dude?” Clovis asked, recording me.
“You still have half the gallon to go. Better start chugging, Joey!”
I continued taking gulps on pace for about five more minutes then I slowed down, dramatically. I buried my face in my left hand and held the gallon of milk in my right, burping and feeling sedated. This sucks.
“Dude, you’re really slowing down,” Clovis said, “You haven’t taken a single drink in almost ten minutes.”
Was that right? I took another drink, and felt my stomach expand, painfully. I got up, and everyone gasped.
“What’re you doing?” Muffin Man asked.
“I gotta piss.”
I waddled behind the garage to relieve myself as everyone watched me intently. I walked back to my seat and picked the gallon back up and continued to drink against my will. I started to doubt whether or not I’d be able to do this with a quarter of the gallon remaining and ten minutes to finish it. I felt like I couldn’t have another sip.
“How do you feel now?” Clovis pried.
“Like I’d rather die than finish this milk.”
Everyone laughed. This is hell.
“Come on dude, you can do it!” Clovis said.
Good Talk and Muffin Man were laughing, “You only have a little bit left, just drink it!” Muffin Man commanded.
“Dude…” was all I could muster. My ribs were hurting as my stomach expanded. “I’m kind of worried about my health, my stomach might bust open.”
Everyone laughed again, and I couldn’t help but laugh too, even though it hurt. I got up to pee again, and again a couple minutes later.
“Three minutes!” Muffin Man informed me.
I couldn’t have cared less, I was giving in, succumbing to defeat. I was being beaten by a gallon of milk. But everyone urged me to drink more, and at the last minute they broke out in a half hearted chant, “Romeo! Romeo! Romeo!”
I took another gulp, But I still had about three or four more gulps to go.
“Ten seconds left!” Muffin Man announced.
“Chug it!” Everyone yelled.
I shook my head in defeat. I felt that if I ingested one more drop, my stomach would tear open, flooding the surrounding chambers with creamy whole milk and potato chips. When time ran out, everyone made a big commotion about the spectacle, holding up the gallon of milk and seeing how close I was to finishing it. They were looking at my protruding, rounded stomach, and I slowly waddled back inside the garage, making my way to the couch I woke up on. I collapsed on it, moaning in agony, laughing at my stupidity, and then rolling over on my left side. I drifted into a deep sleep, wasting the rest of the daylight on a nap I hoped would cure me.
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