Fear and Loathing in Damascus: Days 39-42

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

  1. The last week has been BUSY. Trail Days and Grayson Highlands won’t fit in a single post, so I’m treating them separately. Stay tuned for deets on our hike among the ponies.
  2. Of course I don’t use anyone’s real trail names in this. 

Okay. Let’s kickoff with some trail slang. 

Vortex: to spend 4 or more days in a place, usually a trail town, usually unintentionally. 

Used in a sentence: “I vortexed in Damascus, VA.”

While it sounds like a bender, I assure you, Dear Reader, it was not. I arrived on Monday, with intentions to use the wifi at the Virginia Creeper Lodge for an important video call I had planned with folks back in Kansas City on Tuesday.

On Tuesday night it rained, and Bootleg texted to say he and Wigham were marathoning it to town on Wednesday. It’d been weeks since I saw either of them, so what the hell, one more night at the lodge.

Wednesday night it rained, with rain predicted again on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. My budget wouldn’t support another day at the lodge, but I did hope to see the Grayson Highlands in the sunlight. Plus with Trail Days starting on Friday, Tent City would open up the next morning. 

Trail Days itself didn’t interest me. I was imagining a weekend long bingefest with everyone reliving their early 20s as thoroughly as possible. BUT tenting in the rain is more fun when there are portable showers and hot meals at the church across the street. 

Plus, ya know, who wouldn’t want just a small peek back into their early 20s, especially when their body FEELS like it did in their early 20s? 

Mine has become a blackhole for calories. Suddenly, I’m capable of hiking 20 miles and climbing thousands of feet a day, wake up, and do it again. And again. And again. My thighs could crush a cantaloupe. NAY! A watermelon. 

A growing (and dangerously misplaced) sense of invincibility, coupled paradoxically with dread of a rainy climb into the Grayson Highlands made the call. Trail Days was on the itinerary.

Tent City

Historically, Tent City had been located closer to the center of Damascus, if such a small, spread out town could be described as having much of a center at all. It is what it sounds like. A collection of tents on a scale that can only be called a city.

Hiker trash from north and south on the trail, as well as past hikers, aspiring hikers, and folks who just love the Appalachian Trail, set up shop for a weekend of festivities. As one might expect, a city of voluntary vagrants— hippies, ex-military, ex-cons, college kids, kids who skipped college, folks with plenty of means and few inhibitions— gets rowdy. 

Wisely, the town of Damascus moved Tent City way on the outskirts, across two streams, past two churches, a collection of baseball fields, and back in the woods along Laurel Creek.

Driving past, you only see a tree line, wooly with kudzu and Virginia creeper. The clouds seem to hang closer to the mountains there.

If you park in the gravel lot to check for cell service, you might hear a murmuring under the maple and chestnut trees. Music too, perhaps. You might notice the smell of cigarette smoke, pot, and damp campfires in the air. 

Once you realize there is no cell service, you get back in your car and continue downtown where rows of vendor booths, food trucks and live bluegrass are set up in the rain. 

Or maybe you stay. 

Maybe you turn off your car, and grab your pack because you know what you’re looking for, and know exactly where to find it. Following a narrow muddy trail along a chain link fence, you follow it left where it meets the forest. Like walking into a crowded concert hall from the quiet street outside, you step into what is arguably the beating heart of Trail Days, and to some extent the Cult of the Appalachian Trail itself.

Cult of the Appalachian Trail

When I say, cult, I’m leaving out the religious connotations, images of a dominating patriarch, etc. But the fanaticism is there. The idea of the Appalachian Trail has an undeniably mystical allure. It’s a thread of dirt that traces the backbone of some of the oldest mountains in the world.

However, what distinguishes the AT is its popularity, and proximity to trail communities. For many, I think the magic comes from bonding in shared ordeal with so many people for such a long period of time. Different from what I’ve heard about the PCT or CDT.

Past hikers come back every year to see friends they met climbing up Springer. They show up ready to ply that year’s crop of hikers with free food, and live like animals in the mud. Mothers and fathers who’ve hiked visit  their children following in their footsteps, and tearfully nod in approval of how awful the offspring’s tent and clothes smell. They talk about Blood Mountain, the Virginia Triple Crown, the Whites, like chapters of a holy book. 

It feels different from a music festival, but not that far off. Music is secondary. There is dancing, and plenty of tripping over tent stakes— familiar enough. But the fires, the howling, the sharing of stories and boosting up the initiates, those now hiking the trail, takes center stage.

Except there is no center stage. Tent City is spread over many acres. Thousands of hiker tents clustered in tight groups among the Japanese knotweed and poison ivy. Tremendous roofing tarps are strung up, and various trail families turned alumni groups— Camp Riff Raff, Trash People, Pirate People— create separate parties throughout the forest.

An unbroken supply chain runs throughout the day from the (church-led) shuttle caravan by the road, to the grocery store, and back to Tent City. Beer, instant potatoes, hot dogs, and other delicacies are in functionally endless supply.

Conversation is also in endless supply. 

Salami, Quaker, My Ego, and a Blow-Up Doll

You have the conversations that go like this: 

“I had ecstasy in my shirt pocket for so-and-so but it melted in the rain.”


”So some other guy licked it out.”


End conversation. Nothing left to say, and you go your separate ways through the woods.

Not to say that isn’t a fine and interesting conversation. It has everything one looks for in a story: a hook, a believable protagonist, conflict, and a clean resolution. 

But you also have conversations that go like this:

A woman my mother’s age named Salami was angry about how she’d been treated in years past by the group of folks who were providing beer, and marshaling the tremendous bonfire we were sitting around. The rain had been pounding for half an hour, but we happened to find ourselves in the cluster of chairs out of dozens that were under a tarp. The others didn’t seem to care that they’re getting wet. 

“You know I’ve had my trouble with them.” Referring to the hosts. “They can be very rude. They could be a little more courteous, ya know?” Salami said. 

I told her it’s not hard for me to imagine this particular group of guys being less than that. I said it for the sake of the conversation, to tease out Salami’s story. All said and done, these folks were wildly generous and I was having a great time. 

They were in their late 30s and had the biggest setup in Tent City. 12 beer coolers. A burrito tent. They spread straw on the dance floor around a giant speaker blasting whatever Spotify playlist mixes George Jones with Bob Marley and Lil Nas X.

“You know, I’ve worked hard to get where I am in my life. I can tent where I want to, they don’t own the woods.” She lights a Marlboro and crosses an ankle over her knee. “They have no idea what it’s like to work hard. Everyone wants handouts these days.” 

A young guy named Quaker on my right asks where she’s from. She said Florida. Or Ohio. “Depends on why you’re asking.” She said.

Quaker, blessed Quaker, wanted to keep things positive. “I think what I like best about the woods is that they don’t really care how hard you work. Everyone can be whoever they want to be out here.”

Dear Reader, I want to say that I was not in my best form that night. A little buzzed, perhaps, but mainly I was a little cranky. I was disappointed with missing miles, homesick as always, and really, REALLY tired of the rain. 

This explains (but does not justify) the socially inappropriate length of the lecture with which I then held forth. 

Leaping wildly from topic to topic, I promptly and with humiliating gusto stomped out whatever buzz Quaker and Salami had painstakingly maintained since 11am that morning. 

Like a holy roller I railed on quotes pulled from far flung texts; theoretical frameworks spanning racial, class, post-colonial and gender analysis. I ranted about the nuclear family as an invention of the 20th century that propped up industrial capitalism, and assigned appropriate and inappropriate social performances to us all.  

In a trance, I decried wilderness and nature as socially constructed weapons in the service of whiteness and empire.  

I finished with a rapturous declaration that indeed the Appalachian Trail as a project had strayed from its original design as a bastion for the working class, into a playground for those who can leave work for 6 months, afford hyperlite gear, and/or find it in their size. 

When I ran out of thoughts to spew, Salami killed her beer and crushed the can with her foot. Quaker nervously watched the vein popping out of my forehead. 

Then, from across the huge fire pit, a broad chested man in dangly earrings and pink crocs waltzed a full size blow-up doll over to us. 

Grateful for the interruption, we all looked up as he leaned in, and whispered through his thick beard something we couldn’t hear over the rain, the fire, and the thumping music.

”I can’t hear you.” I said. 

“I said, ‘Every fucking time I look over here you’re talking. Shut up.’” He said. And continued waltzing around the fire. 

We three looked at each other. “You’re right.” I said to Salami. “Pretty rude folks.”

“No, I think he’s got a fair point there.” She said, and asked me if I’d seen her lighter.  

She was definitely right. I needed some sleep. 

Louisiana and Who is A Thru-Hiker?

When Salami left her chair for greener conversation, Quaker had some polite follow up questions but I quickly steered conversation towards safer topics. For example, how many miles to the first shelter out of Damascus?

A woman who had been sitting behind us the whole time, leaned forward. She was older, Hispanic, and wore a Louisiana Hot Sauce branded track suit. She said her name was Louisiana, “for obvious reasons.”

“I just wanted to say I appreciate something you said there. I’ve hiked the trail three times, or you know, tried to. But I always get this look when I’m in town, like they think I’m a worker or something.” She said each time she had to stop because she felt unsafe either on trail, or in town. 

Louisiana said that because she didn’t “look” like a thru-hiker, with the tight fitting sun shirt, the lean build, and an accent that hinted at her Central American origins, she wasn’t always treated like a thru-hiker by owners of hostels, outfitters, shuttle services, or other hikers.

Though she’d been in the United States for longer than I’ve been alive, her accent still colored others’ perception of her as a thru-hiker. It should be noted that there are PLENTY of hikers from outside the US who are on trail, and haven’t had these issues.

The UK, Germany, Finland, Belgium, are all well represented in my experience so far. Thick European accents are part of many conversations in shelters. Not sure why Louisiana would have a different experience…

Louisiana, Quaker and I continued to chat about her experiences until the early morning. She had a lot of advice for the rest of Virginia, “The Virginia Rollercoaster is fun. If you keep an open mind.”

“Is that a nice way of saying it’s hard?” Asked Quaker.

“Yes.” She said with a smile.

Louisiana isn’t hiking this year, but living towards the northern end of Virginia, gave us her contact information for when we got closer to Harper’s Ferry. I’d love to touch base with her then. 

Onward and Upward into the Grayson Highlands

For all the anxiety I felt sitting in Damascus those 4 extra days, the sunshine on the road out of town was well worth it. 

Bootleg, Wigham, FireSloth and I ducked out after the hiker parade on Saturday. We planned on taking the Virginia Creeper Trail along Laurel Creek for 8 or so miles, until it met the AT just below the first shelter.

Wigham had been told it was a pretty walk, especially with all of the recent rain. The Virginia Creeper Trail is an old railway converted to a bike path where we could follow the river in all its raging glory. She promised rapids and waterfalls off of high stone walls.

We might not be purists, but we were not disappointed. The AT has lots of opportunities for “choose your own adventure” stuff like that. I don’t expect to always take the best tack, but it’s worth trying to experiment with

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Comments 6

  • Snorts : May 22nd

    Ben is a good writer, his articles are fun to read. However, as a past thru hiker and Riff Raff alumni, it’s sad to see the negativity of one person paint a whole group in bad light. He had free beer, a dry place to sit, music and fire to enjoy, and yet complains about lack of hospitality? I understand that this was one man’s experience and opinion, but it feels like he ate half his meal and then tried to return it because he didn’t like it. Riff Raff is my family, the best people I’ve ever met. That’s all I’ve got to say!

  • Krazed : May 22nd

    This guy is an idiot. Who mooches off off people just to complain about it. Clearly this sheltered nobody isn’t ready for the world or the trail.

  • YeeHa of BeeChHill : May 23rd

    I haven’t seen your previous posts, Ben, but was entertained and informed by reading this one. Having never attended Trail Days, I believe I now have a sense of its nature – positive and otherwise. I’m offering one factual correction to consider: it is very unlikely that the “murmuring” from the gravel lot was coming from beneath “maple and chestnut” trees. The chestnut tree blight (a parasitic fungus) was introduced to the U. S. in the late 1800’s by Chinese chestnut trees (which were immune), eventually killing 3.5 – 4 BILLION American chestnut trees, a keystone species of the Appalachian hardwood forests. Cross-breeding efforts to incorporate immunity into the American chestnut genome seem promising, with the hope of someday re-populating our forests with these magnificent trees. Best wishes on your trek, Ben. Stop by to say “Hi” when you pass through Daleville/Troutville. We’re just a couple minutes from the trail.

  • Anna : May 23rd

    Ben, I appreciate your observations of your fellow thru-hikers and the difficulties of figuring out when to be true to your own values and how to voice them. I’m reading AT blogs every day and it is clear that each hiker carries her own fears, desires, eccentricities and kindness in those heavy backpacks. It is meaningful to read about a hiker’s struggles not only with what the trail demands but with their feelings in the moment.
    I think I want to own a blow up doll to pass around when conversations become entrenched in unmovable positions!.

  • Xine : May 23rd

    Keep writing Ben. You’re one of the better writers on this blog and your stories are worth the time to read. This appears to be your most controversial post but ignore those who are lashing out because they are offended by your (self-adnittedly) raw observations. Who among us has not been wiped out emotionally and talked trash? It’s just human.

    Take care and stay safe!

  • thetentman : May 25th

    Nice post. Thx.



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