During my Appalachian Trail thru-hike last year I had the opportunity to experience the wilderness of nature in a more intimate way than I ever anticipated. From the complete remoteness of Maine, to the sheer intimidation of the Whites, to the stunning views in the Grayson Highlands, you would think these moments, where you feel on top of the world, would be the freshest memories in my mind. While these were all incredibly special and memorable features of my journey, the true wonder of the AT is in the people not the places, the community not the mountaintops, and the hours you pass with new friends huddled together in a shelter like you've been best friends since childhood. Some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met were at the sparse water sources in Pennsylvania, the hostels in the Northeast, and at random crossings between the iconic white blazes. There is a beautiful sadness to making friends while you travel, your trails cross paths for brief moments that seem like so much more before you inevitably go your separate ways. The Trail Days Festival in Damascus, Virginia is a way to reconnect with lost hiking friends and the AT community, while also encouraging the new batch of hikers along the way.
I didn’t know what to expect when I drove up to Damascus last weekend. My southbound journey started too late to experience Trail Days last year, though I heard countless stories from the northbounders I would pass. The organized events of the festival include several booths set up in town, ranging from food trucks, to outdoor gear companies, to just about every organization that could possibly be connected to hiking and the outdoors in the area. There was live music, seminars from AT legends, and a thru hiker parade through downtown Damascus. The parade was a highlight of the weekend, as many hikers had elaborate costumes, we were attacked with water guns along the way, and at the end of it all a homemade piñata burst open dispensing hundreds of chicken nuggets for hungry hikers. At the end of the day, hundreds of dollars’ worth of gear had been given away in various raffles to lucky guests and the festival began to die down.
The real excitement came during the night, in the area known as “Tent City”, about a ¾ mile walk from downtown Damascus. Here hundreds, if not thousands, of hikers were camped in fields or in the woods for several days. Apparel and gear companies had gear repair stations nearby, and as the sun went down, the party in Tent City came to life. A massive bonfire with a drum circle attracted the attention of hundreds, with those crazy enough dancing around the fire in a game of limbo to the beat of the drums. The noise and celebration would go on until nearly dawn, before taking a hiatus only to return the following night.
Some of the most important people you meet on a thru-hike are the trail angels who spend an incredible amount of money and time to assist the hikers in their journey. Whether they offer free rides in and out of trail towns, run donation based hostels, or simply leave food on the side of the trail they ensure the hikers have as smooth a trip as possible. Many of them help transport hikers to and back from trail days, and set up large tents to help feed and accommodate the hikers. For them, trail days is the highlight of the season, and for the past hikers it's nice to run into those who helped you so selflessly in the past. The only thing better than reconnecting with the trail angels is running into the people you actually traveled across the Eastern coast with. Old friends you hadn’t seen since the first few weeks on the trail, those you met at the very end, and it some cases those you saw nearly the entire way were there to greet you and relive your adventure together.
Current hikers and past hikers view Trail Days in completely contrasting ways. The current hikers are looking forward to a few days to relax, eat free food, and forget about whatever struggles they are currently facing on the AT. On the other side, the past hikers would give anything to go back to the trail, and the community at Trail Days just pulls them closer. I know I am not the only past hiker to yearn for more adventure since my thru-hike, and I'm definitely not the only who considered hopping back on the trail in Damascus to go see Mt. Katahdin one more time.