Monday, August 18, 2008
The Pancake Challenge
You are almost to Oregon. You've walked nearly 1,700 miles and you are in the thick of your hike. You are walking almost a marathon every single day and you simply just can't eat enough to stay full. You are hungry all the time. No restaurant can come up with a meal big enough, calorie-laden enough, thru-hiker enough to fill you. You are a food eating machine. This is how the average thru hiker feels as he struts into the teeny Seiad Valley Cafe with hopes of testing his stomach at the famed pancake challenge. The Cafe is a small town operation run in a little hole in the wall - a place where the Post Office, the general store, and the cafe are all in the same building. Afterall, they are only serving a town of 300 people, why would you possibly need another building?The Pancake Challenge is a bit of a legend on the PCT - something that every thru-hiker talks of with reverence and awe. The deal is five pancakes, each weighing 1 pound, stacked high on a plate. You have two hours to eat them all. The thing is that these ain't no IHOP flapjacks. Each pancake is as big as a large dinner plate and one inch thick. Yes, I repeat, one inch thick. To give you an idea of how big it is, when you order it they bring you out a full sized round cake cover and say the pancakes are BIGGER than this when all stacked up. In fact, it took an hour just to get the order of 5 pancakes to the table because it takes the whole griddle just to cook all five, each with a 1 foot diameter. The batter alone takes up a stainless steel pot that is somewhere between the size of a 5-gallon bucket and a gallon milk jug.At the mere sight of this monstrosity, 5 whopper pancakes with 3 melted balls of butter on top, even through hikers shudder. In the 24 years the Seiad Cafe has offered this challenge only 11 people have completed it. And most recently, no one - not even a through hiker- has completed it successfully in the last 5 years. So it sort of stands as a bit of a Holy Grail of the food world. So much so that the Seiad Cafe was featured on the Travel Channel as the 3rd best place in the U.S. to Pigout for its infamous pancake challenge.This is what I sat down to this morning. I was not the biggest or the hungriest hiker to ever try the pancake challenge. Even our friend Yeti (who is as big and hairy as his name suggests) could only eat 3 of the 5 mammoth pancakes. So I went in with a keen and painful awareness that the odds against me finishing this beast were stacked as high as the pancakes themselves. The good news was that if you finish the thing (and become an icon of consumption) you get it all for free. The better news was that if you tried and failed (the more scientifically probable option given the fact that you are trying to stuff 5 pounds of dough in a sack as large as your fist) was that you only had to pay $10.95 for five pounds of food. That, pound for pound, turns out to be a better deal than most breakfast places. So I figured I could at least give it a go and, worse come to worse, save a couple giant pancakes for the road.So at 12 noon on August 9th, 2008 I started to consume 5 pounds of pancakes. The first couple of bites were quite satisfying. Warm golden fluffy pancakes, still piping from the griddle. They even give you a nice bowl of syrup to dip it in. But after a couple of bites, I lost all the joy because then the reality sinks in. That this is not an enjoyable experience. This is not Christmas morning breakfast with fruit cocktails and sausage links and toast. This is a gigantic doughy poofball and you can't eat anything else without putting your chances to finish at jeopardy. The pancakes are already too much food and to eat anything around it would just be sheer craziness. So, I hunkered down and thought I'd try a new tactic. A friend of mine told me that if you broke the pancake into tiny pieces and then balled them up like a wad of Play-Do and then dipped those into water that this was your best chance to compact the food to fit it all in your stomach at once. So I proce! eded to roll them up and stuff them in. I made pretty good progress on the first pancake. But then I slowed down alot. I was already full and I had only 20% of the challenge done. To eat just one pancake was quite a noble task, yet alone five of them. But I trudged on hoping I could just continue to eak out a couple more bites every few minutes, confident that the 1.5 hours left would allow me to make a sizable dent in the tower of dough. But with ever bite, the pancakes just got doughier and drier. They stuck to the top of my mouth and I had to keep drinking water to get them all done. Rose and her mom were a tremendous encouragement - they kept cheering me on and even made little pancake figurines out of the rolled up doughballs to lighten the experience. Surely, it would be easier to eat a fun shaped pancake man with cranberry eyes and his pancake dough dog. But despite the encouragement, every extra bite became a herculean task. I tried to take a bathroom bre! ak to relieve my tummy of all the pressure on it from the 1 pancake I had eaten thus far. That gave me a bit of a second wind but that didn't last long. Finally after a little more than an hour and about 1 and a half pancakes (including al the dough ball statues Rose and her had made that I had eaten) I was done. It became absurdly apparent that I was never going to finish this thing in the alotted two hours. So, I hung my head in shame and admitted defeat to this huge pile of pancakes. At that point the pancakes had gotten cold and were very hard to put down. And so we had to pay the 11 dollars and walked away another defeated thru hiker.