The Annual Trail Days Festival in Damascus, VA

Written by

Jason Barnette


June 19, 2013

Trail Days is a celebration equally for the thousands of people who hike the Appalachian Trail as well as the town of Damascus itself. Strategically located directly on the AT, Damascus is one of several hearts along the trail. Think of this town as being a train station along a very long railway, a station where everyone stops to enjoy a warm shower, juicy hamburger, and actual bed. This is why, once a year, the town puts on a huge celebration for all those people who once stopped in this sleepy little country town.

Just to show you how much this festival is centered around the thru-hikers, it is always scheduled around the third week of May because if you begin a typical thru-hike at Springer Mountain, Georgia in April you will reach Damascus (463 miles from Springer Mountain) just in time to join the fun. With a Talent Show, free gear repair, a medical tent to provide tetanus shots and foot care, the festival is built to make the thru-hikers feel comfortable for a few days before they begin their 15-20 mile-per-day routine through the Virginia Highlands.

TRAIL DAYS CREATES A COMFORTABLE ATMOSPHERE for the thru-hikers as well as all the visitors. If you park near the Damascus Library, which offers you both the easiest way in and out of the area, you’ll start your walk through the festival at the same point where the Appalachian Trail first enters the town. Make a single loop around the park where the vendors have tents, supplies, and demonstrations and you’re likely to find heavily bearded thru-hikers playing cornhole, checking their Facebook notifications, and giving great big hugs to one another. But wait, it’s not just for the thru-hikers! You’ll also find families complete with two kids and a dog eating the unhealthiest festival food you can find, future hikers checking out the ultra-lightweight hiking equipment, and kids who just want to look cool pretending they can afford to buy a $300 sleeping bag.

The festival takes on a lot of important roles during those three short days: reunion for past thru-hikers, meeting point for current thru-hikers, and information gala for future thru-hikers. Every time you see two strangers suddenly scream at one another and run with arms wide open like a scene from a cheesy romantic movie, it’s probably because they just realized they met last year somewhere along that 2,180-mile trail. Some have planned a reunion, others just happen upon those long-lost trail buddies. Vendors set up tents, products, and bring a passe from their nearest store or local headquarters to show all future hikers why they need to shell out hundreds of dollars for their equipment. At the very least it is a great opportunity to learn how you won’t be thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail with equipment bought at Walmart. More than likely, you will be able to see some alternatives for traditional tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, shoes, and little trinkets you didn’t know you wanted. There is no doubt about it: you would be wise to visit this festival before you begin a thru-hike.

Damascus, VA

Rocket from Texas and King from Brookline, MA play cornhole during Trail Days.

HIKERS ARE OFFERED USE OF A FREE MEDICAL TENT so they can receive a simple exam, foot care, a tetanus shot, and even a foot massage. The exams are simple, quick, and free from a volunteer medical staff provided by the Southwest Virginia Medical Reserve Corps. The volunteers check weight and height to generate a BMI figure, check for any other medical conditions, and then move on to the most important part of a thru-hikers’ body: their feet.

Blisters, foot diseases, and sores are among the most dangerous of medical conditions for thru-hikers. The average thru-hiker will cover 15-20 miles in a single day, but if you have a foot condition that can seriously slow you down. The biggest concern for time with thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is Mount Katahdin at Baxter State Park, Maine. Each year around October 17 the state park is closed for the winter season because of the weather conditions. If you have not climbed the summit of Mount Katahdin by then you may find yourself missing a very short section of your thru-hike. Understanding this importance, the Medical Reserve Corps set up a tent to provide this free foot care to the hikers to keep them moving at their best.

Damascus, VA

THE HIKER PARADE has become the most popular aspect of the festival, held on the Saturday during Trail Days each year. The parade features a few local celebrities such as previous thru-hikers, the mayor of the town, and a beauty queen. But the main event is the collection of thru-hikers who gather in a mass and march proudly down Main Street.

In previous years, the thru-hikers would be pleasantly assailed by water balloons from loving pedestrians along the sidewalks. This year, however, the rules were changed to prohibit water balloons for safety reasons. Instead, water guns were allowed to continue the tradition, as if the rain from this years’ festival wasn’t enough already. Kids ranging in age from five to twenty-five lined the streets with their water guns at the ready (more than a few took aim at me, but fortunately my Lowepro All Weather bags really are all weather), waiting for their hikers to come through. It’s just one of the many unique, fun aspects of this festival that makes anyone want to come out, even if you have no intention whatsoever to give up five months of your life to thru-hike the trail.

Damascus, VA

THE TALENT SHOW is perhaps the most entertaining and interesting moment of the festival. Sure, you have dozens of vendors with really neat toys, the hiker parade with its water carnage, and thousands of people with which to chat, but where else can you find two dozen people from around the world climbing onto a stage to play fiddles, guitars, perform a mime’s rendition of Katy Perry’s Fireworks, and see a magic trick involving a never-ending piece of string. The music was surprisingly good and I felt more like I should have paid admission to a street music festival rather than just walk along the absolutely free Trail Days festival. Some of the songs were original works, the lyrics written about the Appalachian Trail while hiking the Appalachian Trail, and completely entertaining.

The winner this year was a thru-hiker named Clever Girl who decided to artistically express the lyrics of Katy Perry’s popular song Fireworks. At first I didn’t know if I should laugh or shoot, so it took a few moments before I began snapping away at the photos. She never uttered a single word as she gyrated across the stage. I have no idea if she rehearsed this beforehand or just winged it, but she definitely had me under her spell along with everyone in the audience. The first time the lyrics “Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon” played, she turned and gave her butt a good shake. The second time, however, she decided to delight the crowd with a little bit of her own moon as she slide her dress down for the briefest of moments. I don’t know if this was the reason she won (I doubt it because her overall performance was quite incredible) but the audience sure seemed to love the moment.

Damascus, VA

WHETHER YOU’RE A THRU-HIKER OR NEVER HIKED AT ALL, Trail Days is an event everyone should attend at least once in their life. It’s fun, full of adventure, and a family-friendly event. Rain or shine, people come out for the music, food, and fun of meeting a bunch of thru-hikers from around the world who haven’t shaved their faces or legs in weeks and smell like three-year-old tennis shoes. Damascus is a beautiful little town with local lodges, rental cabins, and bed & breakfasts so you have an easy place to stay. Take a three day weekend some spring and check out this event.

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