For A.T. thru-hikers reaching the halfway point, the wooden spoon is a coveted prize.

Jalen DeSantis chose “shaggy” as his trail name because his hair is long enough that he can pull it back in a loose bun and shaggy enough that a mouse got tangled in it during a night in one of the trail’s shelters. 

“There could be one in there now,” he jokes.

He’s 19 years old and he’s from Oregon. He and his twin sister, Spice (Ella DeSantis), are spending their “gap” year between high school and college hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

 The Pine Grove Furnace General Store, the halfway point on the 2,190-mile trail, is a place to find some food and maybe a spot in the hostel next door – which offers a place to sleep, a shower, and breakfast the next morning.

It’s also the home of the Half-Gallon challenge.

The rules? What do you need to know? You eat a half gallon of ice cream.

Since 1980, each summer when the hikers arrive, some have decided to eat a half gallon of ice cream to celebrate making it halfway on the trail. Now it’s a bit more complicated than that. In these days of product downsizing, what once was a half-gallon ice cream carton has now shrunk to 1.5 quarts. So mathematically speaking, you’ve got to eat the larger container, and then another pint, to meet the half-gallon challenge.

Shaggy chose Green Mint Chip, and he was regretting it.

“It’s sooo bad,” he says. 

His sister laughs. “The first bite?” 

“The first bites were good,” he says. “The rest, not so much.”

Phantom (real name: Gregory Arial) has hiked with Shaggy and Spice for the last few days and is encouraging Shaggy through his Half-Gallon Challenge.

“There’s no rush today,” he tells Shaggy, who is working toward the bottom of his 1.5-quart carton. “You get ‘cred’ for that. The way I figure it, he completed it. That’s the ‘new’ half gallon.”

It’s a friendly thought, but it’s not true. On the wall inside the store is a homemade plaque honoring “Turtleman” who’s the current Barry Bonds of the Half-Gallon Challenge. He’s got the record, but there are pesky questions. In 2018, the plaque says, he ate his half gallon in 5 minutes and 48 seconds, a number that leaves this year’s hikers shaking their heads.

“He must have let it melt, then drank it,” one hiker says.

The ice cream freezer in the Pine Grove Furnace General Store. 

Michelle Michael, who runs the store, insists that Turtleman did it straight-up. And for what it’s worth, she also predicts that the record will fall this year.

She gives a prize to the hikers who complete the Half-Gallon challenge. It’s a little wooden spoon—the kind that used to come attached to those little personal cups of ice cream that you ate when you were a kid.

“Member of Half Gal. Club” is stamped on each one.

Shaggy keeps eating.

Earl Shaffer, who lived in Pennsylvania not far from Pine Grove Furnace, was the first person to “thru-hike” the trail. It took him 124 days. A display of Shaffer’s hiking equipment, typewriter, guitar and “signature” Pith helmet is featured in the Appalachian Trail Museum, which is in a former grist mill just across the street from the General Store. It opened in 2010.

Thousands of hikers have followed Shaffer’s trail. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that over three million hike at least a portion of the trail each year. Of the people who attempt thru-hikes each year, only about one in four makes it the entire way.

“It’s a six-month athletic event,” said Lear (Scott Purdy), waiting for his food in front of the ice machine on the store’s porch. Lear, 63, started the trail late, in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, because of a commitment to a Chicago-area stage production of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

After a banking career, he’d returned to acting – something he’d loved as a younger man. Now he was hiking. 

“I wasn’t prepared for it,” he said. “I tried to prepare for it, but I’ve learned that I haven’t quite done what I needed to do.”

Lear’s plan was to flip flop, hike to Maine then come back to Harper’s Ferry and head south to finish in Georgia.

Already, his shoes had let him down. He detoured into a town along the way and bought a new pair. So far, he says, the new shoes feel better than his starter pair did. But he admits that, just couple weeks in, it’s really too early to tell.

“You get up and every day, you hike 16 miles. Then you do it again tomorrow. Basically, it’s an athletic event every day.”

Everybody has their reason for attempting the trail, but the hikers, for the most part, fall into two vague groups. There are young people who are spending months on the trail before their lives begin to get noisy. And there are older people who could never shake the trail out of their heads and now, when their lives aren’t so noisy anymore, they’re hiking.

A woman at the next table awkwardly tries to start a conversation.

“That was something the other week, when that guy attacked that woman and killed that other guy,” she said.

“Yeah,” Lear said, “in Virginia.” There wasn’t much else you could say.

The woman was talking about a man and a woman who were attacked on the trail in Virginia. The woman escaped by playing dead. The man was killed. The alleged killer was arrested, and news of the homicide zipped up and down the trail through the hikers’ remarkably close-knit community.

Violence on the trail is rare. The ATC says there have been nine hikers killed over the last 45 years. It’s estimated that three to four million hikers use the trail annually.

For this group at Pine Grove Furnace, this recent violence happened behind them on the trail. Still, as you might expect, it hangs in their minds.

Michelle Michael, the store’s manager, has been hurrying back and forth all afternoon, making hamburgers and calling out names over the store’s patio. The hiker burger is a popular choice with a pile of fries the size of a campfire. 

Michael Kosnar says his trail name is Dinga Dinga Dooo (“Use as many oh’s as you want to,” he said.)

When his burger and fries arrived, he had a moment. He stared down at the food, then closed his eyes, lingering with the anticipation of the first bite.

“I haven’t had a burger in a long time,” Dinga Dinga Dooo said. “So this is going to be a treat.”

Inside an old wooden lectern is an impromptu “take-something, leave-something” food store. Couscous. Vienna sausages in a can. A plastic bag filled with prunes.

There’s a place where hikers can recharge their cell phones. There’s also a notebook with pages from half-gallon challenge winners. Some of the pages are smeared with ice cream.

“Too cold for ice cream. The burger was awesome,” wrote Tagalong.

“Two hours, 36 minutes. Way too much ice cream. Never again,” wrote Ninja Snail, who also drew a small cartoon of a snail.

“Half gallon of ice cream in the belly, the world ahead,” said Sundown.

Michael, who’s been running the Pine Grove Furnace General Store for years, has seen it before.

 “This place is called a general store, but it really is a hikers’ store,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s a celebratory place. They’re like a family to me.

“They’re the best customers I have.”

Over at his table Shaggy is finishing his ice cream. Spice, Phantom, and a couple of others break out in respectful “golf tournament” applause in honor of his half-gallon accomplishment.

 At Dinga Dinga Dooo’s table, he’s eating his hamburger with both hands.

“I worked my job, I saved money and had the time,” he said. “I want to see the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I want to see the wilderness in Maine.”

Dinga Dinga Dooo thought for a second. “I want to see it all.” 

Half-Gallon Challenge: What You Need to Know

Shaggy eventually finished his half-gallon of ice cream, but he regretted the choice of mint chocolate chip.

How did it start?

Since 1980, the Half-Gallon Challenge has become a tradition at the Pine Grove Furnace General Store, located at the approximate halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. The managers of the store at the time noticed that when thru-hikers came in, they were ravenous. Having spent months on the trail eating typical trail food like ramen, Vienna sausages and Strawberry Pop Tarts, the hikers would seize the opportunity to gorge themselves on hamburgers, hot dogs and ice cream.  They created the half-gallon club—which morphed into the half-gallon challenge. Word of the quirky challenge quickly spread among the hikers. And now, almost 40 years later, hikers arrive in Pine Grove Furnace with ice cream on their minds.

What are the rules?

This is a tradition, not a competition. There are no rules, per se, and eaters are on their honor for the most part. Eat the half gallon, bring your empty cartons back inside, and you’re in the club. You get a commemorative spoon and can note your feat in the ice-cream stained pages of the store’s record book. Speed eaters, a spin-off of the original challenge, do usually draw a small crowd of “witnesses,” and a staff member monitors and usually videos. 

What is the prize?

Michael, who has managed the store for four years, confesses that the old-fashioned flat wooden ice cream spoon seems like a “chintzy” award but says she got pushback when she attempted to change the prize. And it’s not about the prize anyway. Some hikers leave without even picking it up.

How many hikers participate? 

About 50-60 percent of the roughly 1,000 thru-hikers participate in the challenge each year. It’s a seasonal thing, since most hikers try to reach Maine before fall. She says that, as a sample, between June 1-10 this year, 72 attempted the Half-Gallon challenge at her Pine Grove store.

How many calories are we talking about? 

Each carton contains several thousand calories, but the hikers—who can burn over 600 calories per hour hiking up and down mountains—don’t seem to mind.

Are there different brands? Flavor choices? Is there a favorite flavor? 

The store exclusively stocks Hershey’s Ice Cream. (The Harrisburg-based company is not affiliated with the famous Hershey Company in nearby Hershey, Pa.) There are about a 20-30 different flavors stocked in the store’s freezer, depending on how recently the delivery truck’s been there, says Michael. She says that Neopolitan is the favored flavor.

Chuck Preston, marketing and creative director of Hershey’s Ice Cream, says that the challenge has also found some traction among tourists who drop by while visiting Pine Grove Furnace State Park. 

Has anyone gotten sick? 

Surprisingly few. Only one hiker, Michael says, had an unexpected dairy reaction and had to visit a local hospital. •