Trail Celebration in Damascus, VA--May 24
As we hike northward on the Appalachian Trail (AT), we may be walking through woodlands far removed from civilization, yet every five to seven days we must go into a town to resupply, and like sailors looking forward to shore leave, AT thru-hikers eagerly anticipate town stops. One of most anticipated is Damascus, Virginia.
When I first hiked the AT in the early 1980s, Damascus was a dying town with only a tavern, a hardware store, a Dairy King, a struggling small grocery store, and a hiker hostel operated by a local church. All other storefronts on the main street were empty and many of the houses were in need of repair.
All of that has changed. The last few decades have seen the construction and designation of several trails that pass through the town and a corresponding rise in the number of people that make use of these routes.
The main street is part of the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail, while the 32-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, an old railroad line converted to a multi-use rail trail, goes through town on its way from Whitetop Station to Abingdon, Virginia. Damascus is also the halfway point for the 47-mile Iron Mountain Trail, which originates close to Virginia’s highest point, Mount Rogers, and comes to an end in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest. The coast-to-coast National Bicycle Trail wends its way along town streets, as do three driving tour routes—Virginia’s Birding and Wildlife Trail, the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail, and the recently-created Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail, which takes travelers to various sites that figure prominently into Virginia’s contributions to mountain, folk, bluegrass, and country music.
The Damascus that I, Laurie, and MacAfee of Knob, the Amazing Appalachian Bouncing Dog, walked into a few days ago is a thriving community with two coffee houses, more than a dozen bed and breakfasts and vacation rental homes, two backpacking outfitters, half a dozen bicycle rental and shuttle businesses, a pharmacy, a large grocery store, numerous restaurants, and even a hotel and conference center.
To honor its good fortune of being located at the convergence of all of these routes and all of the economic benefits that come with them, Damascus celebrates every May by sponsoring the multi-day Trail Days festival. First taking place in 1987, the fête sees the town of about 1,000 play host to 25,000-30,000 visitors, and is such a major AT event that thru-hikers who find themselves several hundred miles north of the town will use whatever means available—foot, bus, or hitchhiking—to return.
During our three-day visit, we learned why Damascus has earned the title of “Friendliest Town on the Trail.” On Thursday, after a hot dog eating contest in which participants had to consume 10 hot dogs in three minutes, the first Baptist Church treated hundreds of hikers to free hot dogs, hamburgers, soft drinks, and assorted side dishes. Hanging around after the meal to see what a circuit-riding preacher had to say, I got to observe first hand the dichotomy of small town life. Underneath the revival tent, attendees were shaking their heads in agreement to the sermon that extolled the rewards of leading a good and virtuous life, while less than two blocks away other hikers and locals were having a whooping good time draining bottles of wine, whiskey, and beer, and passing around pipes filled with a substance of questionable legality.
The next day, more than 125 vendors displayed their wares and backpacking equipment manufacturers provided free gear repairs (a large rip in my tent was fixed in less than three minutes at no charge to me). The VCA Highlands Animal Hospital checked on the condition of hiker dogs (Mac was given a clean bill of health), the town barber gave free buzz cuts to anyone who was willing to walk away with a shaved head, and a set of five temporary shower stalls enabled festival goers to wash off the dirt and grime of the trail. Once again the First Baptist Church fed hundreds of hikers, this time treating them to a variety of homemade pies, cakes, cookies, and candies.
Musicians filled the air with the strains of bluegrass music on Saturday, while locals and hikers crowded into the town park to see what craft and food vendors had to offer, although there was, once again, an ample supply of free hot dogs, hamburgers, and soft drinks. Without a doubt, the highlights of the festival were the hiker talent show—there were some truly talented acts and some that would have had American Idol’s Simon Cowell howling in misery—and the always weird and wonderful hiker parade. Decked out in makeshift, and sometimes bizarre, costumes, scores of hikers parade through town, trying to avoid being hit by water balloons thrown by local children while at the same time using squirt guns to soak the crowds lining the street.
And you thought Mac, Laurie, and I were just taking a unexciting walk in the woods.