There’s a special kind of despair that endurance athletes are all on a first-name basis with, a uniquely awful feeling that somehow convinces you that you are physically incapable of taking one more step. It’s called the Wall, and it once introduced itself to me at the 18-mile mark of my first marathon. I came to a dead stop on an empty stretch of asphalt somewhere near San Diego, laced my fingers behind my head and proceeded to scream at a man dressed as Jesus that if he wanted me to keep going, then he could just throw me over his shrouded shoulder and walk me there. (This was not a hallucination: There was an amateur Jesus standing out there on the race course.)
Anyway, last Saturday afternoon, I met the Wall for the second time in my life while I was sitting on a Fourth Street sidewalk, trying to finish my fourth straight hot dog.
Four years ago, one of my friends read an article in a tourist magazine that celebrated all of the hot dog joints that were scattered in and around Winston-Salem. It had a map of more than a dozen restaurants, listing the high points of each one (and only the high points, because if you’ve ever read the ingredient list on a package of wieners, you know the low points). We decided that we would try to visit as many of them in one day as we could, because everyone does stupid things when they’re young. We visited six restaurants, downed six dogs and since no one lost a toe to gout, we did it again the next year.
We have kept this tradition going every Memorial Day weekend, and I think we’ve visited all of the spots on that original list, including Pulliam’s, Dairi-O, Char’s, Alan’s Dairy Treats, Hot Dog City and the Little Red Caboose. Last year, we also realized that six hot dogs is too many, so we’ve since limited ourselves to four restaurants in an afternoon. Regardless, my official cause of death should probably still be listed as Hot Dog. (Also, we also had matching “Weiner-Salem” T-shirts last year and I assumed we’d be wearing them again on Saturday, but nope, I was the only dummy who showed up with a screen-printed bottle of ketchup on her chest. Thanks for letting me know, guys!)
Anyway again, we started at Skippy’s this year, sliding into its unending line in the hour before it closed. The downtown favorite reopened in March, and its signature pretzel buns are still on the menu — and they are still glorious. My dog was smothered beneath a thick layer of Velveeta and cheddar (purely because if I see the word Velveeta on a menu, that is always the option I’m gonna take) while everyone else went for the Chicago dogs.
“It’s not a poppy seed bun, so it’s not exactly the same as a real Chicago dog,” my Chicago-transplant friend Jason said. “The relish is a little different too, but it’s still a damn good hot dog.” Everyone else agreed, praising the freshness of the toppings, and the crunch of the peppers.
The next stop was PB’s Takeout, which is undefeated in its hotdoggery: it has been our unanimous favorite for three straight years. The dogs are simple — no pretzel buns, no logos branded into the bread — but those buns are perfect. They’re buttered and toasted to the perfect crispness, and the entire combination of cash-only payment, picnic table seating and an unfussy hot dog is deeply satisfying. If I had to eat one hot dog for the rest of my life, it would be PB’s. (“Then why do you insist on stuffing your face with mechanically separated pork parts, Jelisa?” you might be asking. BECAUSE IT’S ABOUT THE JOURNEY, KELSEY! IT’S ABOUT THE JOURNEY!)
We were halfway through, and still surprisingly optimistic about life. The next stop was Kermit’s Hot Dog House, which Our State magazine once named one of the 10 best hot dogs in North Carolina. “You here for hot dogs?” a customer asked us on our way in the door. We all nodded. “Well, you’re about to have some good food up in here,” he said, raising a heavy looking to-go bag. Kermit’s does make a good dog — I’m a big fan of the pimiento cheese — but the banana pudding is what keeps it in our rotation every year. We scraped the last spoonfuls of pudding out of the Styrofoam cups, waved our sodium-swollen hands at the staff, then inched toward our last hot dogs of the day.
We finished at Local 27101, which serves ginormous quarter-pound dogs in buns with the restaurant’s diamond-shaped logo seared into the sides. When I carried my tray to the sidewalk tables, that nacho cheese-drenched hot dog felt like it weighed 50 pounds. After two bites, I was starting to regret a significant number of my life choices. It was my all-around least favorite of the day — I wasn’t a fan of the bun, dog or chili-cheese — and I’d feel that way even if I hadn’t already eaten several feet worth of animal byproducts. When we all wiped our mouths for the last time and calculated our votes for the favorite, we were split between Skippy’s and PB’s, with one vote for Kermit’s.
As I write this several days later, I’ve almost forgotten how it felt to hit that Wall, and my hands are no longer the size of catcher’s mitts. I’m not saying I’m ready for next year, but I will be… next year.