I took the weekend off from the TransAm and visited Trail Days this year, the annual celebration of all things Appalachian Trail in Damascus, Virginia. Many current thru-hikers make a pilgrimage in the midst of their hikes, as well as alumni, outfitters and hostel operators. Last year, I only dipped my toes in, but this time I sought a fuller experience, and armed with my camera, hoped to document it well. In no way did I leave disappointed!
My visit to Trail Days this year was made possible by Thorny, a grizzled traveler who finished his second thru-hike last year Southbound (SOBO). I met him on my Northbound (NOBO) journey after he took in me and a few other freshly acquainted hikers on finishing Shenandoah. With Thorny’s intervention, we all became pretty good friends that night and it changed my hike for the better. He offered to pick me up with my bike on his way down to Trail Days and so I went for the road trip.
Camping with Thorny this time meant being part of “Camp SOBO”, as the rest of the hikers he coordinated with were all his new friends from last year. That led to me being the “token NOBO” amongst the group. There’s a silly rivalry between the two sects; I didn’t mind the ribbing, thru-hikers all smell the same to me. We set up in Tent City, where folks visiting for Trail Days typically stay, and there are lots of coordinated campsites, some with impressive amenities and lighting for navigating to and from in the dark.
After dark, Tent City gets interesting. There is a reputation for excessive drinking and drug abuse that has dogged the festival, but this year folks were (allegedly) on good behavior. That’s obviously a relative term, as camping in Tent City implicitly means you cede any expectation to a good night’s sleep to the revelers. The highlight of each night is the Great Bonfire, where a massive fire is stoked, a drum circle pulses and dancers orbit around its flames. If I come back to Trail Days, I’ll be bringing torches and other illuminated juggling equipment to party all night.
On Saturday, I attended the annual hiker parade. All the hikers, garbed in the most flamboyant attire, gather and walk from one end of town to the other. Meanwhile the locals blast away with water hoses (that’s one way to get a shower!) This year, the weather turned into a downpour halfway through adding to the chaos and swamping the festivities for a couple hours. Glad my camera held up!
Sunday, we booked it back and Thorny dropped me off back on the Trans Am. Though Trail Days goes on officially for another night, it tends to mellow out and the miles were calling me. I crossed the AT at Rockfish Gap that evening for some well timed nostalgia, but no hikers emerged. Trail Days was a fleeting moment of time, but it brought back the echoes of my awesome thru-hike and settled my nerves for biking to Oregon. Virginia’s route criss-crosses the AT a few more times and I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for hikers as I navigate it before I wind up in unfamiliar lands.