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Trail Days: A Celebration of Appalachian Trail Hikers in Damascus, Virginia *with Video*

Annually, millions of people head to the woods to walk a portion of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,180 mile path winding its way through 14 states, from Georgia to Maine. Most visitors to the trail engage in day hiking or  multi-day backpacking trips. However, some people decide to hike the whole trail at one time, embarking on a feat called a "thru hike." (no, not a misspelling, as this is how many AT enthusiasts spell "through").
A Typical Appalachian Trail Road-Crossing Sign

Last year in 2013, three thousand hikers started either northbound from Springer Mountain, Georgia, or southbound from Mt. Katahdin, Maine. The hikers hope to reach the opposite end of the trail in 6 or 7 months, although a fraction of the hikers actually complete the entire trail in one try. This year about 600 hikers are expected to complete the trail in one calendar year.
Since the trail's completion in 1937, the trail has generated a cult following of sorts. Just like a rock band with groupies and promoters, the trail has people who live to be around her, and others who make a living off of her. Somewhere in between the two extremes exists a happy medium; those just want to see what all the excitement is about with a brief visit, and others who enjoy her in small doses for a lifetime.

Some people make the trail their profession; people have quit their jobs to hike mile after endless mile (some year after year), while others have ended a successful profession in order to simply live near her borders. Businesses catering to the needs of hikers exist merely because of the trail. Hostels provide showers and laundry. Restaurants offer hot meals. Transportation services transfer the hiker from the trail to a warm bed.

Indeed, some towns have so thoroughly embraced the concept of the AT, and the hikers who love the "long green tunnel," as it is known, to offer celebrations and festivities revolving around the trail. And no town puts on a hiker bash like Damascus, Virginia.

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the southwestern corner of the Old Dominion State, and about 400 miles north of Springer Mountain, Damascus throws open her doors annually the weekend following Mother's Day. The town, with a population of under one thousand, swells exponentially when as many as 25 thousand people converge on the small town to celebrate the spirit of the Appalachian Trail.

Tent City for Trail Days, Damascus, VA

A week before the event, participants start arriving either by hiking on the AT (which literally runs right through the center of town), or catch a ride south to Damascus from farther up the trail: hitchhiking rides from motorists unaware of what a hiker smells like. Hostels and hotels within 20 miles of Damascus book well in advance, but Trail Days attendees are welcome to camp on town property near the ball fields. Tents, bivy sacks, and camping tarps are strewn about the grassy area know accurately as Tent City, while even more tents and backpacking hammocks are found in the surrounding woods along the stream that runs through town.

We arrive at the camping area, paying the parking and admission fees and receive our plastic bracelets. Local and State Police and rescue personnel man the gates of the park; making their presence known and lending to a decidedly Woodstock feel to the event. Port-a-potties surround the parking area, and a church group brought laundry and shower trailers so hikers can get cleaned up.

After an hour of searching for the "perfect" campsite, we end up sharing a spot in the woods near the stream with a mixture of thru hikers and weekend car campers. Later that evening around the fire, one of the campers regales us with tales of harassment by law enforcement, where his car was impounded for possession of marijuana. Many of our older (and more subdued) group are thankful for the officers, whose presence ensures the weekend will not get completely out of hand :-)

Our camp in the woods, Trail Days, Damascus, VA

Peter Pan and Smee sell hammock camping gear
A satisfied customer visiting the Jacks R' Better Tent
The week opens with a town wide yard sale and beauty pageant, followed by several days of lectures, guest appearances by trail experts, and book signings. Weary walkers can get a foot massage and haircut courtesy of the many church missions in attendance. By Friday the festivities are in full swing. Vendors set up booths in a smaller park adjacent to the bridge, camping spots are harder to find and limited to the less desirable patches of poison ivy and stinging nettles, and some of the restaurants run out of popular dishes. Hikers can even drop off gear to be repaired at booths operated by certain gear manufacturers such as Big Agnes, Leki poles, and Gregory packs.

The author visits with Marty from Wilderness Logics 

Backpacker Mag Gear Giveaway

The highlight of the week is the hiker parade on Saturday afternoon, when hiking alumnus line up by year of completion and stroll through town, often in outlandish garb, being cheered by bystanders and being soaked with water from Super Soakers, water balloons, and even garden hoses. A tradition that supposedly started with the residents deciding, rightly so, that the hikers needed a bath.

Following the parade, the festivities hit a fever pitch with the hikers, when vendors give away copious amounts of gear at many free and paid raffles. Some of the most anticipated giveaways this year were by Gregory Packs and Backpacker Magazine. In addition to fully loaded packs, replete with sleeping bag and pad, Backpacker Mag also throws a huge number of socks, bandannas, water bottles and filtration systems, among other items, into the crowd. Last year I had the good fortune to be the recipient of a box loaded with goodies, including a Casio Pathfinder watch!

Once the raffles are over, some hikers quietly pack up and slip away to the trail in order to beat the throngs of hikers that will depart on Sunday. However, there still remains a throng of people who plan on partying the night away. A huge fire on the perimeter of the camping area is the site of the "drum circle," where anyone feeling the spirit can bang a rhythm on a 5 gallon bucket or dance around the circle (usually in the mud and sans shoes). The local law enforcement is in heavy attendance to make sure the revelers don't get crazy :-)

Here is a video I made of our 2014 Trail Days experience with the DC Backpackers Meetup group. We managed to get in a nice 14 mile hike of the Iron Mountain Trail, as well as summit Mt. Rogers during the weekend.

Happy Hiking!! :)  Demeter

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