If you start at the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, say sometime around mid-March, you can walk northbound right along with the leading edge of the spring season, just as if you’d packed along some pixie dust to be sprinkled liberally on the budding flowers and leaves that line your path.
Making reasonable progress against this standardized schedule, you ought to be somewhere in the vicinity of Damascus, VA just in time for the annual Trail Days celebration, held this year May 16-18.
The so-called thru-hikers—the Georgia-to-Maine contingency—compare that early spring beginning with the first days and weeks of a freshman year. Former strangers share their scant information, pool their resources and have a laugh around the campfire. They bolster their collective courage against perils known and unknown. They say goodbye to a few dropouts along the way and wonder if those weren’t the smart ones.
During the hikers parade, the central highlight of the Trail Days event, their class reunion is consummated by a ceremonial march through town under a banner that says, for example, “Class of ’08.”
Hikers dress for this occasion in costume associated with their adopted trail names—you have to have a trail name—usually involving a bit of animal imagery such as dog, cat, bird, bear, wolf, rat or possum. (That won’t be the whole thing, of course. It will be something along the lines of Sun Dog or Singing Bird.)
Permanent residents of Damascus haven’t forgotten their old trail names. Dancing Bear runs Dancing Bear Inn. Gadfly works at Mount Rogers Outfitters. Footloose runs the Old Mill Restaurant and Inn.
In trail lingo, kicking back and staying awhile is called a “zero” day, and thru-hikers have taken quite a lot of those in Damascus, whether for Trail Days or just as a brief visit to civilization before plunging back into the woods.
Walking sticks, hiking boots and beards are also part of the pageantry—some of it worn for effect, but in many cases hikers were picked up off the trail by shuttle buses and later returned to wherever they were found. This is arguably the only regional festival where the major attraction is the free showers in the trailer behind the Baptist church.
Much of the celebration is geared toward gear, in the form of vendor set-ups, panel discussions and lecture/demonstrations. The bands start Friday night and play almost nonstop through the late hours of Saturday night. Tents in the town park give cover to handmade arts and crafts as well as food vendors. In the gazebo, the second-biggest event of the weekend is staged—the hikers talent show.
Other venues throughout the town showcase the maverick hiker mentality, ranging from the Virginia Creeper Trail to the Old Rock School, where films are screened, books are signed and hikes are led. Some “classes” reserve space in local restaurants, tents are pitched just about anywhere you could pitch a tent, and the hikers sit on the ground in small clusters, just like they were back on top of a mountain in the Smokies where bears and rattlesnakes silently waited just outside the halo of a small campfire.
Trail Days began in 1987 as part of the Appalachian Trail’s 50th anniversary, the first official recognition of Damascus as the trail’s unofficial headquarters. (The real AT headquarters are in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.) Damascus is the only town along the trail where the AT runs right along the sidewalk on Main Street. It calls itself Trail Town USA, a title that stems from the fact that Damascus is a stop along the Virginia Creeper Trail, the Trans-America Bicycle Trail, the Iron Mountain Trail, the Daniel Boone Trail, the Crooked Road Musical Heritage Trail, and Virginia’s Birding and Wildlife Trail.
The town has more outdoor outfitters than any other conceivable enterprise and the major local activity—equally suitable for the physically fit as well as for the rest of us—is to take a shuttle bus to the top of nearby Mount Rogers and glide back to town, 17 miles, on a rented bicycle.
This, like going to any of the Trail Days events, at least gives that effervescent glow, the contact high of outdoor sportsmanship. Now you’ve seen the mountaintop. Now you’ve rubbed elbows with the thru-hikers. Now you can tell your friends.
Watch the web site, traildaysinfo.com, for news about next year’s Trail Days.