Captain Fantastic’s Trail Days Report, part 2- Friday

With so many people in town and so few restaurants I knew the Damascus Diner would be packed for breakfast. I really wanted Sapling to have that experience because it’s soooo good. The food quality is absolutely better than any diner I’ve ever eaten at. They didn’t open until 8am so we tried to arrive early enough to beat the rush. Unfortunately we moved slower than the Virginia Creeper that morning and got there a few minutes after they began seating the early-bird fast folks. The line spilled out the door and into the street. Sapling got our last name on the list and we pounced on the outdoor chairs being vacated by a couple whose name had just been called. This turned out to be fortuitous because I had a chance to talk with all kinds of friends I hadn’t seen in weeks or months like Cobweb, Lava, Stormtrooper and Opossum.

The Diner was running like a Swiss clock due in no small part to their hardworking staff and a Trail Days menu that limited options, such as eggs only being available scrambled. It didn’t take long until we’d been seated, fed, and were on our way again.

Before doing the festival proper we walked over to the Damascus Outfitters to check out all the gear. The only thing I needed at this point were super lightweight campshoes, the purpose of which were to allow my feet to dry out at the end of a long day of hiking. If not wet from rain then they can get sweaty-moist which leads to maladies like blisters and trench foot. I’ve been warned by many hikers to really take care of your feet and with my track record of problems so far I’m doing the “ounce of prevention” thing. But the store didn’t have what I was looking for, the 1.8 oz pair of Mayfly Imagos. Before leaving I talked to Brad, the employee that tried helping me with my leg injury before I realized its severity. I filled him in on what I learned at my doctor visit and he said he’d be banking all that information to help future hikers with similar issues.

We made our way back over to the Vendor’s area, ready for the assault to our senses a fully open festival market provides. But as we entered the park area who did we see coming towards us? None other than Thirsty Bear, Star Waffle and their friends First Class and Pack Rat. For those of you who’ve followed my blog you’ll recognize TB and SW from the entry titled “About Last Night”. These are the grieving strangers, along with Pied Piper, that became so close to us over the course of an incredible evening at The Barn hostel near Franklin, NC. 

I’d been in touch with Thirsty Bear over the past week to elicit a favor. From what I’d learned he’d never miss Trail Days. Sapling and I were going to need some help in the form of a long shuttle ride after it was over. His text had come back immediately- “You’ve come to the right place!”  There was no guarantee we’d actually come across him during the festival and Damascus cellular coverage is notoriously suspect so we’d hammered out a plan already. On Sunday he’d meet us at a gravel parking area across from Grayson Highlands State Park. We’d leave Sapling’s car there, he’d drive us back to AT trail mile 482.4 where my cousin rescued me two and a half weeks earlier, then we’d hike the 52 trail miles back to the vehicle where Sapling would return to Raleigh as I soldiered on.

But we had crossed paths after all. After hugs and greetings we learned Thirsty Bear and First Class were entering the Cornhole tournament. TB was toting a 12 pack of hard seltzer and seemed confident they had a shot at winning it all. They invited us back to their campsite for a tour of Tent City in which they were set up in the renowned woodsy area known at night as The City of Lights. After a 10 to 15 minute walk we arrived at the town ball fields being overrun by hundreds of colorful tents of all shapes and sizes fluttering in the breezines of the day. TB explained that if you had any designs on sleeping at night during the festival then you stayed there. It was, in his words, “Family friendly”. But to get to his place we aimed for the right field foul pole and beyond, entering the woods and immediately encountering a sign saying “Welcome to the City of Lights”.

I’m trying to decide how much to describe of our trip into the area not known as family friendly. It’s a complete culture unto itself and even has some system of governing going on from what I gathered, including needing an invite to even be there. It’s certainly not an official part of the festival, though to many it’s the most important part of the festival. There were named sections within the woods and there seemed to be a friendly yet palpable rivalry between them. The sights and sounds were surreal- a very skilled and professional barber was set up in the trees giving stylish haircuts; a shirtless fella in a plaid kilt and cowboy boots was walking about and occasionally blowing a Viking horn; and dozens of  groups of friends had set up the largest awnings to gather under I’ve seen in my life. Some were professionally made and others were makeshift and it looked like a scene from Mad Max set in a forest instead of the desert. But that’s all I’m going to say on all that since I was a guest and had the confidence of my friends to be invited. It was hippies doing hippy things everywhere. And it was fascinating.

Sapling and I ended up on one side of a brown picnic table placed out in Beaverdam Creek. The four legs were submerged to just below the seats. Thirsty Bear and First Class sat opposite us. I’d never met FC as TB had just gotten to know him as part of Star Waffle’s tramily. He was a chill guy and calming to be with. To my knowledge they are the only current thru hikers I can call friends that are actually still behind me on trail. TB, who isn’t hiking this year, picked them up in Erwin to shuttle them north to the festival.  

We spent an hour plus hanging out, talking and watching a guy running two ropes across the creek. One rope was placed an inch above the water for a rubber ducky race being planned for later in the day. He wanted to capture the hundred or so ducks at the finish line so they didn’t float downstream and pollute the river. We threw him a “test duck” once his line was in place and he set it down. The current swiftly pushed it into the string where it bobbed underneath and floated downstream rebelliously. Oh well. I left before seeing if his other plan to tie animal shaped pool floats that people could ride to a very thin string would work!

I began to wonder what was up with the Cornhole tournament. As we’d walked towards Tent Town I’d seen at least twenty pairs of boards set up with some very serious people practicing. I thought to myself Thirsty Bear has nerves of steel not to have any butterflies before the big competition. Well, turns out his plan was to be the people’s champ. There was a Cornhole set randomly placed in front of the barber within tent city, far away from the official tourney. TB’s plan had been to find the winners of the real event and challenge them on home turf. It may have been a morning of drinking hard ciders that convinced him to abandon that plan and challenge Sapling and I instead. We obliged and while I’m not convinced they’d have won the tournament, they did almost skunk us. We made sure to score some points when down 18-0 the barber informed us that if we got blanked we’d have to run a lap through the area naked! They beat us 21-3.

We headed back to the festival food trucks for lunch, where Sapling ran into one of her YouTube heroes, Kelly Hayes. She’d vlogged her AT thru hike every day back in 2020 and Sapling watched every episode. I had seen a bunch of them with her so honestly I found myself feeling Starstruck as well. Kelly was standing in front of us in the slow moving line for TexMex and when Sap recognized her she became so excited she impulsively gave her a hug. Kelly was really cool and we talked for a long time while waiting for our food in sunshine so blistering my forehead ended up more cooked than my tacos. But Sap was thrilled to have met Kelly in a really authentic way. Thanks for truly being awesome Kelly Hayes!

We needed some peace and quiet after lunch so we sought out the chill zone in the library. The only problem was a lot of other people did too and while it was pretty chill, there was no where to sit without being surrounded by others. We decided to walk back to Diana’s vacant lot and relax away from the hubbub.

As darkness approached we decided against being fuddy duddies and walked back to the festival. Thank goodness we’re all hikers because this festival requires a lot of that skillset. According to my Garmin I had over 20,000 steps by then but the night was young and this was Trail Days. We picked up burgers and fries at another food truck and watched folks dance in front of the stage while eating at a picnic table. We met a couple young guys sitting across from us who’d thru-hiked last year in only four months. They started really late, in May, and hadn’t felt like they had enough time to go to last year’s Trail Days. I let Sapling do all the talking as the music was loud and I couldn’t make out most of what they were saying. They seemed more interested in her anyways.

Finally Sapling and I debated how to end the evening. We could watch the band finish out their set until 10:30, head back and go to sleep early, or go to the big bonfire even deeper into the woods than where we’d spent the morning. I could tell what Sapling wanted to do so I took the YOLO approach and off we went. 

The original City of Lights in Paris is a very classy affair. This city of lights wasn’t exactly that, but it sure looked cool lit up in the night. When we were there in daylight earlier I couldn’t have imagined what it was like in the dark. There were bright neon colors radiating all through the trees, Christmas lights swirled in their canopies and party lights hung from every large awning. Most of the people were wearing or holding shiny neon glow sticks too. Small, medium and large campfires burned throughout the different areas in which people were congregating. It was an explosion of color in every direction and very unique to my eyes. There were groups of people singing and playing guitars. We stopped to watch one crowd of fifty or so people singing Will the Circle Be Unbroken. 

But we hadn’t ventured into the woods to sing Kumbaya. We were aiming for the bonfire at the end of the woodsy path. It was hard to see where you were walking in the dark and there were hundreds if not thousands of people cutting in and out as they raced to and fro to join their friends in the festivities. One kind fella stood from the time we arrived to the time we left shining his phone’s flashlight at some protruding rocks that would have tripped most people. Once he started being a Good Samaritan he must have felt he couldn’t quit.

While it was confusing to trace the contour of spaghetti noodle paths through the trees we simply kept heading toward the thumping and guttural chanting in the distance. Before long we could see orange embers shooting high into the night sky above and I knew we’d found the bonfire. Only problem was the throngs of people surrounding it were so thick there seemed no hope of actually getting close. But Sapling confidently slid through the small gaps of people like she was at a concert making her way to the stage. I jumped in her wake and stayed close only to find myself suddenly surrounded by a couple dozen shirtless men awkwardly dancing a conga line around a stone pit 10 feet in diameter. A huge bonfire was consuming massive quantities of wood piled high in the middle. 

Being twice the age of almost everyone there and wearing clothes I looked like a fish out of water. But I vowed to blend in by stumbling forward in time to the irrythmic thumping coming from the drum circle nearby. Either they were a bit inebriated or struggling to get everyone on the same page but they couldn’t keep it going more than a minute or two. Every time there was a lull in the energy a large fellow who took it upon himself to be Boss would lustily yell “Reveeeerrrrrsssseeee” and we’d all spin 180 degrees and head the other way chanting “YUH, YUH, YUH” as the drummers got their act back together. 

It was fun and ridiculous and after ten or fifteen minutes I’d had enough. I made my way to the edge to video Sapling as she waved her arms and laughed while doing laps around the fire. Suddenly I felt a tug on my arm and turned to see Peptalk, a friend I’d meet back at Mountain Harbour hostel. She’s visiting from England for a month and section-hiking with her boyfriend. With her was her friend Pegleg who I’ve also gotten to know. They said they’d seen me as I stumbled around the fire and though they didn’t say so I guess they were surprised I was even there. After talking a bit Sapling found us and I introduced them all.

And that was how we spent Friday evening. We were back to the tents and sleeping by 11:30pm, though every time I awoke throughout the night I could hear the irregular rhythm of dowel sticks striking plastic buckets from nearly a mile away.

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Comments 1

  • thetentman : May 28th

    Wow, too much fun.

    Thx for sharing.


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