Captain Fantastic’s Trail Days Report, part 3- Saturday
Realizing the festival was in full swing and with limited options to go out for breakfast, there were going to be long lines unless we got up early. It was 7:30am and I was kind of cold and wet anyways. I’d forgotten to open the vents on my tent and I’d tossed and turned into the sides of it and gotten wet with condensation. So I hastily dressed and jumped in the car to warm up, a luxury I don’t normally have. Sapling was still asleep so once I’d warmed back up I drove over to Mojo’s for some coffee and blueberry muffins.
There was a line already, though it wasn’t too long and moving fairly quickly. As I stood there Sapling texted and wanted to know where I was. Somehow she was able to get dressed and hustle the two minute walk over before I’d ordered.
While we stood waiting for our order Sapling asked if that was SpongeBob back in the corner? I looked and lo and behold it was! I was astounded. Back during the first two or three weeks we’d been best trail friends out here. But we hadn’t seen each other since March. We had checked in twice by text, but our paces were so different we’d even said that we’d have to get together in the future when this was all over. I guess being sick and injured had it’s silver lining because now, as I’d come to find, he was in front of me by only 50 miles. I could look forward to maybe catching back up to him in the coming month or so.
SpongeBob and I spent the next forty-five minutes hanging out. He looked great and unlike me had stayed relatively healthy on the first quarter of the trail. But he did say something to me that was quite sobering. He, along with his hiking partner Georgia, had recently come to the conclusion that at the rate they were going they wouldn’t finish in time to see Katahdin before it closed mid-October. Therefore they were going to do a flip-flop once they got to Harper’s Ferry by going up to the trail’s northern terminus and working their way backwards to finish the complete route.
Yikes! These two started at the same time I did, are a week in front of me and don’t think they’ll make it without rerouting. That just drove home the point I need to be well, focused and luckier than I’ve been to pull this off as I dreamed it up. Call me a purist or whatever, but I want to walk the trail from one end to the other in linear fashion. I judge no one for how they hike their hike because everyone is different, plus we have factors beyond our control. But SpongeBob’s point was valid. He didn’t think he could average the necessary miles a day, with any rest days raising it, and still make it on time. Hmmmm. I do think I have the capability, but my margin for error is getting thin.
I had to run so I made plans to see SpongeBob later in the day. I put the car back at the tent site and set off for the gear repair station with my emptied out backpack and trekking poles in hand. I was behind schedule after staying at Mojo’s so long because I needed to meet Sapling at something she’d been looking forward to at 10am, the play about Grandma Gatewood. Buttttttt, I passed a sign at the Damascus city pool that said “free showers” hosted by the local baptist church- with toiletries supplied. I couldn’t pass that up as I’d not had one in a few days. Unfortunately it turned out to be ice cold, but at least it was wet. The fella running it offered me a prayer on the way out for a safe and healthy journey. Thanks Damascus Baptists!
By the time I’d handed over my mouse chewed backpack and dull-tipped hiking poles to the repair gurus it was 10:02. Drats! I arrived at the packed out play ten minutes late to see Sapling had saved me a seat on the front row. I felt like I was having a Larry David moment. It was a one woman play and I wanted to get into that seat since this was something Sapling really wanted us to do together. I inched closer up the left side and when Grandma Gatewood looked right I pounced, startling the lady in the seat opposite of my daughter. Mission accomplished!
The play was wonderful and so was the playhouse. It was in the Rock School, made in 1923 of beautiful local River Rock. Handsome wood panels blended nicely and the chandeliers provided the perfect amount of light. I wondered what kinds of events this room had witnessed in the last 100 years. You could feel it’s history.
Grandma Gatewood is an iconic figure to hikers. She was the second woman to thru hike the AT, but the first to do it solo, back in the mid 1950s. She’d raised her family despite an abusive husband who she finally divorced when the kids were grown. By then she had plenty of grandchildren and famously told them, “I’m going for a walk.” She hadn’t mentioned it was to be 2,000 miles! She went on to become a bit of a national celebrity through newspapers, magazines and television coverage for her accomplishment.
Sapling wanted to meet the actress that played her so well she’d received a standing ovation from the audience. Her real name was Diane and after watching her perform in character for an hour it was bizarre to see her still in costume interacting with my daughter as herself. Diane is section hiking the AT and has done roughly what Sapling has. They entertained the thought of hiking together soon and exchanged numbers. I thought that was a hoot, Sapling and Grandma Gatewood hiking through the mountains together.
By this point it was nearly noon so we headed toward the bbq on offer by a group of veterans. We found ourselves in line right behind another familiar figure, though it took a minute to place her. We’d eaten lunch together once before on a large rock back at the Georgia/NC state line in March. She was holding a loaf of sourdough bread that was more appetizing in that moment than the bbq so we exited the line and made our way towards the farmer’s market down near the park at Laurel Creek where she’d made the purchase. Along the way we picked up Grateful Ed and enjoyed his company as we searched out the baker.
After polishing off coffee and a massive cinnamon roll it was getting close to time for the main event, the hiker’s parade. I still needed to get my gear back from the repair zone and that required yet another trip through the vendor’s market. I heard a familiar British voice and turned to see Mighty Blue, a popular AT podcaster that I listen to weekly. Sapling and I waited behind another couple and I saw that he was selling a book, presumably about the two thru hikes he’s completed. He was super fun to talk with and as he handed me a business card he told me if I could make it to Katahdin he wanted to interview me on his show. That would be a thrill and even more motivation so I told him to be ready for me in the Fall.
A couple hundred paces from Mighty Blue’s booth was The Trek’s set-up.The Trek not only hosts bloggers like me but the website is also an online magazine with hiking articles and they produce a weekly podcast. Zach and Chaunce host it and I was excited to meet them and get a picture. Their booth was surrounded by a crowd in a ring shape watching volunteers take the Watermelon Challenge where hikers try to crush a watermelon between their legs. Sapling and I watched as a dozen people of all shapes and sizes sat down on the ground, meticulously placing the fruit between their knees and squeezing for all they were worth. Their cheeks would puff out and their faces would become beet red but it wouldn’t break. Most broke the rules by getting their arms involved to assist with some extra force but it didn’t do any good. A couple of the guys were so strong looking it seemed an impossible task if they couldn’t do it. But then a skinny fella with a beard in a purple dress and hiking shoes confidently plunked himself down, situated the watermelon, and with palms on the ground lifted his torso and in a mighty clench won the challenge. Sapling said it looked like he’d been pregnant and his water broke.
I retrieved my freshly repaired gear from the fix-it folks, thanking them profusely. They spent every day at the festival professionally making our stuff like new again and it was free of charge. Thanks gear-head guys!
After a quick trip to the tent to change it was time to line up for the event that would draw a close to my festival experience- the hiker parade. The organizers had put out cardboard, sticks and markers in a parking lot to make signs signifying the year of our thru hikes. While only one was necessary some groups had brought their own fancy versions. We were to line up in order and the front of the line had signs from as far back as the 1970s. There were literally thousands of people so we had to organize and line up on the Virginia Creeper Trail. I just made my way along the grass to the back where I finally saw a sign with 2023 scrawled upon it. I also began seeing friends and we shared our excitement by hanging out and snapping pictures while waiting for the parade to start.
When I had changed clothes I’d had to walk back through the parking lot of a convenience store that was being overrun with kids organizing their cache of water guns and supersoakers. I thought we were in trouble until I saw tons of hikers were armed to the teeth with water cannons of their own. What started as a tradition to have the townsfolk give smelly hikers a “bath” had apparently turned into a huge watergun fight. I liked our chances.
We were finally underway and Sapling and I marveled at the spectacle around us. Horns blew, water flew and there were smiles on every single person’s face. A guy sitting on a chair on the roof of his house kept pointing toward me and I waved back enthusiastically before realizing he was a giant life sized puppet! I’d never been in a parade and it was wild to have everyone on the sidelines cheering us along. In the end Sapling and I were wet but not soaked. In fact I was hit more often by friendly fire than by the crowd. Well, except for the guys who had the mother of all weapons, the garden hose.
So that’s my report from Trail Days. It did not disappoint. I had a blast being with Sapling and the thru-hiking community to celebrate the Appalachian Trail. It charged me up to get back out there and finish what I’ve started. Thank you to all the planners, vendors and volunteers for a wonderful time. And a heartfelt thanks to the citizens of Damascus for hosting us!
Tomorrow’s going to be a big day to test the leg starting back where I left off, the spooky and unsettling Stagnant Pond at mile 482.4. This place weighed heavily on my spirits that evening a few weeks back so I lit a fire to introduce more positive energy. This time I’m bringing along Sapling for good luck! Stay tuned to see how it goes-
Thanks for reading!
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