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Bagpipers Hiker Parade
Bagpipers lead. It's the Hiker Parade down Main Street (aka Appalachian Trail).
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Downtown AT. The trail runs through Main Street in Damascus, with bricks and telephone poles marked with classic white blazes.
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Readying for Trail Days. Volunteers paint the caboose at the town park in preparation for visitors.
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The Place. The A.T. Hostel welcomes hikers. Note the wealth of walking sticks out front.
Want a true sense of just who the Appalachian Trail thru-hiker is? Saunter on into tiny Damascus, Va., May 14-16 for the full flavor.
It's a beautiful afternoon in southwest Virginia, under blue skies and sunshine. Thousands of multicolored tents make a patchwork on the grass - big striped pyramids, little blue domes, traditional triangles and tarps stretched across sticks. Mountain Laurel, Jester and Rainbow Rocker (trail names all) gather to talk and drink, the strains of "Scarlet Begonia" in the background. Vendors sell incense and tie-dye shirts. Long-haired men bang out a steady beat on homemade bongos and conga drums, thumping rhythms well into the night.
No, it's not the Furthur Festival, although the scene does recall a Grateful Dead concert. It's an annual gathering of long-distance hikers - the folks who walk the Appalachian Trail end-to-end, all 2,150 miles of it. And it happens every May in "the friendliest town on the trail," Damascus, Va. More than 1,000 hikers - past, present and future - among many others, pitch their tents along Laurel Creek for a weekend of commiseration and relaxation.
Manufacturers of hiking gear set up shop to generate goodwill, replacing worn items for free and feeding the hungry hikers with mountains of barbecued chicken and kettles overflowing with spicy chili. An Appalachian Trail thru-hiker can never get enough to eat, burning some 6,000 calories a day while backpacking. Damascus is a small town, and its handful of restaurants - Dot's, Quincey's, Cowboy's and Dairy King - sometimes run out of food while the throng is in town. The grocery store does a brisk business in Ben & Jerry's ice cream, which hikers walk around town eating straight out of the carton.
For most people here, the hike is a culmination of a lifelong dream.
"I've been waiting 20 years to do this," says Robert George, a fellow I met on the trail where it heads straight down the main street in town. He is enjoying Friday night entertainment in Damascus, which consists of Mike's Auction, a storefront where the auction items include jellybeans, cleaning fluid and screwdrivers. The place is packed to the gills with locals and curious hikers like George. He's a retired fellow who set foot on Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the trail, on March 25th. He speeded up his hike to get into town for Trail Days.
"I'm thrilled with being out there - outdoors - every day," he says. Like many hikers, he takes advantage of the shelter system along the AT, and the hiker hostels in trail towns.
Damascus boasts The Place, a hostel run by the Methodist Church. This weekend, The Place is packed to capacity; every square inch of its yard is covered with tents. Next door, the church offers hungry hikers a pancake breakfast, and slide shows and talks go on all day. At breakfast, I meet Tinkerbell and Rockdancer, who discuss their approaches to hiking.
"I'm taking it easy," says Rockdancer, a programmer from Boston. "It's a most relaxing experience. Once I got past the daily details - setting up camp, cooking dinner, breaking camp - and had a routine, I started to enjoy myself." He loves the break from his workplace, and takes side trips from the trail to points that interest him. "I rented a car and climbed Mount Mitchell a few days ago - I'm trying to bag peaks along the way," he says. "And I spent a week in a vegetarian commune last month, a great place."
Tinkerbell, a young lady, raves about the wildflowers and the wildlife. A hiker next to her chimes in.
"My partner and I did only four miles per day in the Smokies, we loved it so much. We saw a mama bear with her cubs one morning. The next morning, I awoke to find a deer grazing barely a foot from my face. We camped on high peaks and dodged the rangers." (Hikers are supposed to stick to the shelters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and will be fined if they camp elsewhere.)
Hikers are spiritual people. You'll find an eclectic mix of Christians, pagans, Buddhists and philosophers of every stripe. Spiritwalker, a 1990 thru-hiker, picked up her name through an epiphany on a mountaintop.
"I had been on the AT for almost three weeks and finally had a night alone, camping on the open bald of Max Patch," she says. "It was an incredible evening - clear, windy, cool. I lay in the grass and watched night fall over the multiple ridges, occasional lights from a farm far below, stars appearing all around me. I watched a herd of deer about 100 feet away grazing on the bald. It was one of those rare moments of perfection. And I knew that I wanted my hike to be more than just a hike, not just an exercise in logistics and endurance, I wanted it to be a spirit walk, not just a physical walk."
The Trail Days celebration is more of a family reunion than a festival. People who shared a shelter together once 12 years ago meet, greet and sit on the grass to talk about their life experiences. Hikers gather around the bonfire and talk trail philosophy to anyone willing to lend an ear.
"This is not the experience I expected," says Needles. "I was so focused on getting to Maine when I started the trail, I couldn't make myself enjoy the here and now. It took me quite a few weeks to shift that focus, and now I'm enjoying the trip."
Two "official" events highlight the weekend - the Hiker Parade and the Hiker Talent Show. During the parade, classes of thru-hikers band together and hike through town, escorted by all of the noisiest vehicles Damascus can muster. Three fellows in full Highland regalia pipe the mass down the street. Water balloons, thrown by parade participants, crash against pavement, parked cars and hikers. The curious folks lining the street throw candy and cigars. Some folks wear outrageous costumes. One fellow yells, "We're leaving tomorrow!" to the townsfolk smiling and waving from sidewalk. The folks smile broader and wave harder. Warren Doyle, a legend among hikers for his unwavering devotion to the trail - more than 22,000 miles spent on it - takes up the rear guard of the parade, waving to the crowd while eating a half-gallon of ice cream.
The Hiker Talent Show keeps hikers and locals entertained with a mixed bag of talent - good, bad and awful. Entrants have a shot at winning hiking gear, and the stage is open to anyone. While the show goes on longer than most people's attention spans, some of the acts are particularly memorable. The Blister Sisters sing an original blues song "The Thru-Hiker Blues." Southern Harp performs her original composition on a hiker's guitar. Annie and the Salesman sing about hiking to their daughter's graduation just a few days before, and Bull Moose lights up the crowd with his song about Heaters, a bar along the trail in New Jersey. It isn't all song - folks do stand-up comedy, dance, eat raw eggs, tell stories - but the songs stay with you the longest.
As night quietly falls, a group gathers near the creek to watch a stunning slide show by Mike Henderson, alias Ke Kaahawe, a 1991 thru-hiker. The emotional impact of the music, scenes, and narrative overwhelms the crowd. As Waterboy, a Virginia thru-hiker-in-training puts it, "Past thru-hikers were teary at the memories it brought. Current thru-hikers were teary at the realization that those feelings he was conveying were the exact same ones they were going through then. And we future thru-hikers were teary at the prospect of going through the same thing. My favorite line was when he had thoughts of quitting. 'But every time I thought of ending it, I pictured myself in a climate-controlled office at a desk and said, "nope." No matter how hard or painful it was out here, I was still enjoying it more than I would at a desk.' "
The line that sticks with me was from Thoreau. "I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front the essential facts of life and learn what they had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." For many of us, life is a blur. Taking six months away from society to walk the Appalachian Trail - to try a new experience, to gain a new "family," to live an adventure - has appealed to me since my teenage years. Now at the cusp of middle-age, I find I can't put it off any longer. The affirmations of the hiker community I received during Trail Days helped to convince me that my time is soon. Before long, I will heft that backpack and head up Springer Mountain one fine March day, with the intent of living a simple life, closer to nature and the humanity that appreciates it. I'll reach Damascus for Trail Days, no longer the outsider looking in, but the insider with the wisdom that a simpler life brings.
The Damascus Town Hall loosely coordinates the celebration. For more information, write Town Of Damascus, P.O. Box 56, Damascus VA 24236. You may also call 540/475-3831, or visit the Damascus Access Trail Days webpage. Camping, restricted to designated areas along the creek, is free and open to all Trail Days visitors. Bring your own tent, and come early on Friday to stake out a good campsite!
Damascus Details: Earl Schaffer At Rock School
Damascus, a town of just 900, welcomes more than 15,000 hikers, bikers and horseback riders along the AT, which is also the town's main street, Laurel Avenue. (No traffic lights.) Trail Days '99 is dedicated to Earl Schaffer, the first person to hike the entire AT from Georgia to Maine. Last year, on the 50-year anniversary of his accomplishment, he decided to undertake the 2,160-mile trip once again - at the age of 79. Schaffer will give a slide lecture on both hikes in the Rock School's auditorium. A visit to Damascus wouldn't be complete without a stop at the River Rock School. This unique building served as the town's school as well as a community center for many years. Today the building is an apartment house for senior citizens. The auditorium, complete with interior walls of river rock, was recently renovated and will host several events for Trail Days '99. Historians estimate the River Rock School, completed in 1923, was built with the labor of nearly 500 people. Townsmen donated their labor, arriving at the school job site late in the afternoon after completing their day jobs or farming chores. Workers used their own or borrowed wagons and horses to drag rocks on a sled from the banks of the nearby Laurel River. Rock masonry is no easy task, but workers soon realized they could hasten the progress by making a complete run around the building. This allowed the cement to dry and be ready for the next level of rocks, allowing them to maximize their efforts and hopefully shorten their long workdays. In addition to offering the three R's, the school served as a community center. Movies were shown in the auditorium before the town had a movie theater. The auditorium was the premiere site for the first "talkies" Damascus residents would see. During the 1930s, women's groups organized health drives, sanitation drives and health clinics at the school. In one description of a "tonsil clinic," the Banquet Hall was furnished with cots while the doctor and his nurse performed operations in the kitchen - temporarily outfitted as an operating room! Women of the community stayed overnight during these clinics to help care for the children being treated. --Teresa Gereaux