The dream of thru-hiking the entire length of the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail has become a rapidly rising goal for many people from all walks of life in recent years. Perhaps the rise corresponds with Bill Bryson’s famous publication of A Walk in the Woods or perhaps from something more primal and nostalgic, like the old American ethos of reconnecting with the great outdoors. But whatever it is, the numbers don’t lie.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 3,315 people became 2,000-milers in the 1990’s. The following decade saw 5,890 people earn the title, and now, only four years into this current decade, we’ve already seen 3,029 hikers claim this prestigious title, and that’s not even including this year’s batch. From a personal standpoint, I’m happy and honored to say that I’m a member of the 2,000-miler club, having completed a thru-hike last year.
But this piece isn’t about my personal thru-hike adventure (although you can read about that here ). It’s not even about thru-hiking in general. This piece is about what happens when many of these hikers -both from years past and in the current season- converge upon the tiny trail town of Damascus, VA to celebrate the largest gathering of AT hikers anywhere.
Damascus is commonly referred to as Trail Town, USA- not only because the AT passes directly through town, but because it’s also home to the family-friendly 17-mile downhill bike trail known as the Virginia Creeper as well as the epic Trans-America National Bicycle Trail. For these reasons, outdoor enthusiasts consistently flock to this charming Blue Ridge town to experience all that it has to offer; but never in such concentrated capacity as during the annual Trail Days festival.
This weekend, May 16-18 2014, roughly 20,000 people will visit Damascus. Not all of them will be thru-hikers, but they will certainly be hiking enthusiasts and lovers of the Appalachian Trail. Perhaps more than any other long distance trail in the world, the AT has developed a unique culture and following all its own, and this weekend it will be showcased in its full-fledged wacky glory.
On Friday, there will be free gear repairs, eating contests, live music, and compelling talks from some of the AT’s most well-known names. Gene Espy, the second-ever thru-hiker, will discuss what it was like to thru-hike back in 1951, and Warren Doyle, who has hiked the trail more than any other person (16 times), will discuss his “Forty Year Love Affair with the Appalachian Trail.”
On Saturday, there will be more of the same with an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, live music, and talks from other influential members of the trail community. But the real fun begins with the Hiker Parade at 2pm, followed by the Hiker Talent Show at 4pm. And as the evening approaches, the festivities will become even more exciting and rowdy, with free Contra Dancing at the Rock School and the 1 st Annual Hiker Prom at the Damascus Brewery .
Sunday will see the festivities gradually wind down. There will be a couple more free concerts in the park, but really, people will be preparing to go their separate ways. For the roughly 16,000 people not currently on the trail, they’ll return to their jobs or their section hikes until next year’s Trail Days when they inevitably return. For the other 2,000-4,000 or so current thru-hikers, they’ll head north, up to the wild pony-filled fields of the Grayson Highlands, and beyond, through Virginia, the Mid-Atlantic, and hopefully all the way to the summit of Mt. Katahdin, a mere 1,750 miles from Trail Town, USA.