Captain Fantastic’s Trail Days Report, part 1- Thursday

At the last moment I decided to whip Sapling’s little red Hyundai Accent into a Pay to Park lot smack-dab in the middle of downtown Raleigh. Seconds earlier she’d told me by phone she’d overslept and was running late and could I just “go somewhere” until she was ready. Uh, no problem! Take your time… really!

After two weeks of couch surfing I was in a great mood. I think my leg is healed. Sapling is joining me for a week. We’re going to Damascus for the huge annual Appalachian Trail celebration. And we’re hiking about fifty miles together to Marion, Va. where we’ll cross the two highest points in the state and visit the wild ponies freely roaming those mountains.

Life is good!

I bided my time waiting for my hiking partner by googling the schedule of events for Trail Days 2023. There were classes you could take, such as “Birding by Ear” or “Foraging for Edibles on the Trail.” Neither are my cup of tea but they sounded interesting . An eating contest caught my eye but it didn’t mention what you had to eat. There was constant live music by bands with intriguing names such as The Tan & Sober Gentlemen. They in particular promise everyone will be up and dancing to their set. I don’t boogie in public so we’ll see about that… bah humbug.

The four local restaurants would all be offering special menus of their best dishes so as to streamline the process of serving the masses. You see, Damascus is a town with a population of only around a thousand. Trail Days brings in a crowd of twenty-five thousand hiking enthusiasts, their families and curiosity seekers alike. It’s like high school homecoming for backpackers, outdoor adventure lovers and hippies of all ages. It’s been going on annually for over 30 years.

Food trucks were rolling in to help with the feeding process. Large and small vendors of hiking related products were setting up shop in the grassy park down by Laurel Creek on the north side of town. The itinerary also listed: a Cornhole tournament; a hiker talent show; open mic night; a javelin, er- hiking pole, throwing contest; presentations by famous hikers; an actress impersonating a famous hiker now gone to hiking heaven was going to act a one woman play; musical chairs with big prizes every round; raffle tickets were being sold to win expensive gear; a 5k running race was being offered, though there’s a better chance I’ll dance than do that; even large scale Yoga and Contra dancing events were planned.

I glanced at my watch and though 23 minutes had passed I still hadn’t gotten Sapling’s call. I double-checked to be sure my ringer was turned on and then looked about for traffic cops. I’ve watched enough Parking Wars on A&E to know they aren’t to be trifled with. The coast seemed clear so I resumed my research. Of special interest was a free gear repair zone where you could get packs, shoes, poles and clothing repaired by professionals. Two places on my pack have been chewed through by mice looking for wayward candy wrappers and this would be my chance to have them fixed. Also on the docket was something both Sapling and I would be sure to need. The town library would be doubling as a chill zone for those in need of a break from constant motion, enthusiasm and noise. Their air conditioned space would provide opportunities for adult coloring, puzzles, reading and meditating (aka sleeping).

I finally found some info on what I’m most looking forward to being a part of at Trail Days- the Hiker Parade. Thousands of AT hikers from over the decades line up and march through the streets, organized by the year they completed the trail. I can’t wait to be surrounded by so many like-minded people. While hiking the trail is amazing, most friends from your normal life just don’t really relate to why you would put yourself through it. I feel this parade will energize me to start my own personal AT reboot this Sunday fully focused and with a singular vision- to make Katahdin this coming Fall.

Sapling finally called and I slid my phone into the center console and headed off to fetch her. We loaded her pack and poles into the car, bid bf Brennan goodbye and were off to the high country, pausing briefly to Java up and get some snacks for the road from Bruegger’s Bagels.

Four hours passed smoothly and as the terrain became hillier the skies turned clearer. By the time we pulled into Damascus we were greeted by a gorgeous albeit windy 70 degree day with low humidity. There are only so many lodging options in town and surely they had all been claimed the better part of a year ago. But when I was in Damascus a few weeks back, prior to the leg injury pulling me off trail, I saw a flier in the window of Dollar General offering a spot to pitch your tent in a local yard. I’d called the number and booked it figuring Sapling and I would prefer that situation over the crowded and sprawling accommodations officially on offer by the festival known as Tent City, much the same way we prefer stealth camping to Shelters.

Diana Goodwin, the land owner, had texted me the address of the property and we drove straight there. I was happy to see she’d had a Port o John installed, and even happier to see how clean it was. She pulled in right after we did and gave us a quick tour. The site had previously housed a couple mobile homes which were no longer on it. The lawn was freshly mowed and there were nice Mountain views as well, though to be fair you can see beautiful mountains from anywhere you stand in Damascus. We enjoyed getting to know our host and found we had much in common, including the fact her son and Sapling’s boyfriend attended high school together back in Raleigh and knew one another. Before leaving she offered us to come back next year and stay at Camp Whitetop which she also runs.

Only one other person, a 2022 thru hiker with an arch problem that spawned his trail name, would be staying with us. Crooked Foot was very congenial and used one of those futuristic one-wheeled skateboards to travel back and forth to the festival. I envied him for that as it was about ⅔ of a mile walk along the Virginia Creeper trail to get to town proper where most of Trail Days took place. He offered to teach me how to ride it but I politely declined as I’ve spent enough time-off already with injuries.

After putting up our tents Sapling and I took the Creeper and strolled over to the Vendor area. The trail’s unusual name comes from the fact it was once the railroad bed for a train that chugged up the surrounding mountains so slowly everyone thought it was “creeping”. But since we had a hop in our steps and the benefit of walking the flat terrain between the mountains we arrived relatively quickly. It was set-up day and some vendors were still unpacking their wares while others looked eager to make money. The atmosphere was very relaxing because the sales pitches and small talk meant to draw in customers wouldn’t be employed until Friday. Everyone was smiling and excited and you could look at all the awesome gear without feeling guilty for not buying anything from the people at each booth. One item in particular caught my eye- a crystal white backpack by Hyperlite that only weighed 2 lbs and was 15% off for the festival. Hmmmmm.

The one purchase we were able to make at the information booth was for festival tee shirts. They also gave us maps and a paper copy of the event schedule I’d been reading online that morning. We decided to go to Wicked Chicken for supper where I ate a “bird on a bun” and drank beer while Sapling read the literature we’d just inherited and came up with a loose game plan for the coming weekend.

Finally, we rounded out our long day at the lovely aforementioned park set on the waters of Laurel Creek. A band from Raleigh played Americana style music and young people danced. The Damascus Brewery served up their drinks and I supported the local economy again. While sipping my beer on a bench next to Sapling I recognized a few friends from on trail milling about who’d made it back to Trail Days too. I felt lucky in that moment. I was sitting with my beautiful daughter, my health was back, I was about to hike, but first I got to celebrate with the trail community.

Life is amazing!

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Comments 3

  • thetentman : May 26th

    Party time.

    You deserve it.

    Glad you had fun.

    Time to hike.

  • val vitols : May 26th

    Glad you are well and on the road again, check in for an interview when you feel like sharing!

  • CB : May 26th

    Great to see you all bright eyed and bushy tailed! Glad you got Sapling back from the boyfriend. Hike on!


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