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Originally published on Outside
The grocery bag full of Pop-Tarts sitting alongside the Appalachian Trail made me wonder if I’d been wrong about God all along. It was the end of August 2019, and I was 60 miles into the 100-Mile Wilderness, the path’s much-feared remote Maine climax, where supplies, resources, and human contact barely exist. Three days earlier, I’d left Monson, Maine—the last stop before reaching the base of the trail’s northern terminus, Katahdin—in an unnecessary huff, hastily buying too few groceries for the arduous route between and over rugged mountains.
Peeking beneath the lid of my bear can, I spied my dwindling supplies and began pondering a 40-mile sprint to the end, to stave off hunger I could already feel setting in. But then, there they were alongside a sandy lake shore, silvery wrappers shimmering in the August sunlight with all the universe’s collected opalescence: a half-dozen packages of unopened Pop-Tarts, just waiting to make me whole.
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Within 15 minutes, every one of those 12 pastries was gone, devoured in a trance more transcendent than the idyllic lake that stretched out before me like a gemstone. Who had put those Pop-Tarts there, I wondered? Some hiker toting too much food? The ghost of John Harvey Kellogg? Uhh, God? I shrugged, stuffed those wondrously space-age and now empty wrappers into my pack, and continued north. In 36 hours, the taste of Pop-Tarts still on my tongue, I’d finished my first thru-hike.
This was, as you might guess from my gustatory zeal, neither my first encounter with Pop-Tarts on the Appalachian Trail nor my last. Though I’d started that winter by diligently boiling grits or oatmeal, I soon realized how much time I was wasting, shivering each morning in my tent for the chance to eat something hot. After gripping my first box of Pop-Tarts a week into the haul, I have not backslid even once since 2019. Every morning I am on a long trail—14 cumulative months in less than four years now—I eat at least one package of Pop-Tarts. They are, after all, the best breakfast food that exists for endurance athletes, manna for us masochists who’d rather be burning calories by dawn than thinking about them.
I duly recognize and respect that there is an entire industry devoted to proper breakfast fueling, to ensuring that athletes start with a scientifically reasoned balance of macro- and micronutrients, their calories ensconced in some dense composite of, say, peanut butter and spirulina. I want absolutely no part of it. So many of these breakfast bars make me feel like a ruminant, the cow who chews, swallows, and barfs back into its mouth to masticate more still, all with the blind hope of turning that into usable fuel. If it sounds awful, that’s because it is. This is especially true on a frigid morning, when that first breakfast bar bite conjures the effort of an icebreaker creeping through the Arctic.
But Pop-Tarts are compact and somehow almost soft, able to be savored over a cup of camp coffee or eaten entirely in a minute, even while walking. Their manifold flavors are a boon in this department, too. On chilly mornings, I favor Chocolate Fudge, Frosted S’mores, or Apple Fritter, pretending I’m sitting in some cozy pastry shop back home; when it’s hot, give me something lighter, a Strawberry or even a Brown Sugar Cinnamon. (But never, never Cherry, the scourge of the Pop-Tart world, cough syrup ruinously trapped inside flaky pastry goodness.) Days on trail are days of labor, anyway; why would I want to toil for breakfast, too? Pop-Tarts—frosted only, because unfrosted are heresy—are the fast track to 420 splendid calories or so per brilliantly glistening pack.
That these calories are, by and large, the empty calories of the corn syrup variety is kind of the point. I want an early-morning jolt, a surge of blood sugar so swift and unmitigated that it sends me powering down the trail like a race car squealing new tires while leaving pit row. After an hour or so of moving, I switch to the fancy snacks, the clean protein bars or organic dates or sport gels that start the days of those souls unlucky or foolish enough to not yet have given into the pleasure and salvation of the humble Pop-Tart. Blessed are these meek, as there are plenty of Pop-Tarts to spare.
Indeed, the Pop-Tarts’ ubiquity and accessibility—our “true American madeleine,” as a friend recently put it with sincere apologies to Proust, able to conjure so much about our past in a bite— are two of its essential advantages. When Kellogg’s first shipped their revolution-in-waiting in 1964, they sold out so quickly that the company issued winking advertisements that admitted “Oops! We goofed.” For better and worse, our national enthusiasm has not waned, and Pop-Tarts more or less lurk everywhere that sells food that’s not Whole Foods, as though they grow on gas pumps. (Sorry, Nature’s Path and Bobo’s, but if I want to eat cardboard masquerading as a Pop-Tart, I’ll buy a Sharpie, find a recycling bin, scribble Pop-Tart onto something corrugated, and forevermore save myself several dollars.)
Ramshackle convenience stores in Florida, Dollar Generals in Appalachia, Cascadia hideaways in Washington state: I’ve never hiked somewhere that I’ve found people but not Pop-Tarts, a pack of twin pieces of perfection ready for about a dollar. Breakfast for a buck during a months-long adventure when budgeting will make or break you? Count it.
I know this last bit—hell, everything I’ve written here—will invoke ire. Jeremiads alternately chastising Pop-Tarts as a steadfast gateway to childhood obesity, an early symptom of a progressively broken food system, and an enduring byproduct of capitalism’s slovenly excesses are being mounted right now. I can hear the keys clattering, fingers still sticky from the morning’s free-range smoothie.
Know what? Those incoming missives are right! That you can get 400-plus calories of processed garbage for a dollar from a company worth $22 billion when a great, big apple often costs twice that is poppycock, the end result of an economy built on investor satisfaction instead of sustainable outcomes. Pop-Tarts’ omnipresence is emblematic of an American moral failing.
But redirect those words to Congress or the Department of Agriculture, not the hiker trying to exploit the fruity or chocolatey or (get this) snickerdoodly deliciousness of those faultlines just to get from Georgia to Maine or whatever. I get it. I only eat Pop-Tarts when I hike or, on occasion, when I run long distances early in the morning. (They are, at least in my experience, endlessly easy on the stomach, too, their light weight much more conducive to speed than a piece of toast—just another element of their mastery, systemic woes notwithstanding.) Otherwise, they are verboten in my life, squirreled away with bags of dehydrated food until the time to hike returns.
Two weeks after I found and ravaged that bag of Pop-Tarts on the Appalachian Trail, I stopped by the doctor back home for a routine physical. The doctor reported that everything appeared to be in order except, he said with a furrowed brow over eyeglasses wriggling down his nose, my elevated blood sugar. I told him the story of the lakeside trove and how I’d become addicted to Pop-Tarts while walking 2,200 miles. I knew to give them up back home, I assured him, to lay off this manna of masochists. “That’s probably a good idea,” he said, smiling kindly. “Just eat them when you hike.”
That was the day, I admit now, I began thinking about my next thru-hike.