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GARDNERS, Pennsylvania (Reuters Life!) - Halfway along a hiking trail that stretches along the east coast of the United States from Georgia to Maine, a museum celebrates the joys and wonders of the great outdoors.
The Appalachian Trail Museum, in the tiny village of Gardners in the Pennsylvania hills, marks the middle of one of the nation's premier natural attractions -- the 2,147-mile trail of the same name which attracts thousands of hikers each year.
"The actual half way point is two miles south of here." said Larry Luxenberg, the president of the museum located in a 200-year-old stone grist mill.
The museum contains photographs of 13,000 trail pioneers and hikers, as well as a reconstruction of a shelter built by Earl Shaffer, the first person who walked the entire trail in 1948.
A festival from June 17-19 will mark the one year anniversary of the museum, which is funded by donations and grants, and include the induction of the first members of its Hall of Fame, according to Luxenberg, who is a hiker and financial adviser.
June is also the month when so-called "thru-hikers" start to arrive at Gardners on their four to six month trek north to Maine.
The U.S. National Parks Service estimates that to complete the entire trail would involve 5 million steps for the average adult.
An estimated 300 to 500 thru hikers complete the entire trail each year, but the parks service said about 4 million people hike parts of it of annually, either in long sections, or just for the day.
Ron Tipton, senior vice president for policy at the National Parks Conservation Association, and himself a veteran thru hiker, estimates about 1,000 people start with the intention of walking the whole trail, but far fewer actually finish.
He said about 90 percent of hikers travel south to north because the weather breaks right for them on a months-long trek and about 10 percent hike north to south.
The thru hikers will be passing through Gardners and the nearby Pine Grove Furnace State Park, and most will stop at the Pine Grove Furnace General Store to fulfill what has become a hiker tradition here -- eating, in one sitting, a half-gallon (4.1 kg) of ice cream.
"You really have a craving for ice cream on this trail," said Luxenberg, "You have a craving for fat."
Store clerk Barbara Delgado said hikers gulp down their choice of chocolate, vanilla, moose tracks, cookies and cream or green mint chip - some of them too fast.
"It's a lot of sugar," she explained. "They throw up."
One hiker wrote proudly in the store guest book: "I, Ryan LaMarca, also known as #8 northbound thru hiker on the AT have completed the half-gallon challenge. Easy day. Peace."
Serious hikers on the trail tend to use nicknames rather than their given names.
At a campground a few hundred yards (meters) from the store, hikers like Two Tents can be seen cooking soup on a small propane heater beside his tent. He earned his nickname because one day he was carrying two tents.
Two Tents, whose real name is Joe Huston, of Sheakleyville, in western Pennsylvania, has completed many sections of the trail. His longest hike a 21-day adventure. He described his urge to hike saying, "You carry everything on your back. You have to take care of yourself."
Lorrie Preston, a 55-year-old from a suburb of Harrisburg, is also a volunteer at the museum. She estimates she has walked some 1,400 miles of the trail at various times. She started hiking when her children finished university.
Unlike thru hikers, Preston is a section hiker. Along with some friends she hikes 10 to 20 miles a day with a planned finish near a motel and a restaurant.
What's for dinner?
"Something hearty," she said, "steak, pizza, spaghetti. You eat good."