Prelude To Trail Days
The original plan was to skip Trail Days. We had heard all the hype about how it was the Woodstock of The Appalachian Trail and how it was not to be missed. While at first I was intrigued by the idea of partying in the woods for a weekend with thousands of other hikers and those involved in the AT community, I began to lose interest when thinking about the logistics of actually getting there. Trail Days happens in Damascus, from May 13th to the 15th. The trail cuts through the town of Damascus at the 465 mile mark. By the time May 13th arrived, our group would be far past it. As it happened, our group was at the 590 mile mark, in the town of Bland, Virginia, on May 11th. When we initially thought about how to get there, some problems came to mind. How reliably could we find transport back to Damascus with it being so far away? Could we hitch that whole way? How expensive would a shuttle be if we couldn’t hitch? We all agreed it would be even more difficult to find a way back to Bland once all the festivities had ended, when everyone lost their enthusiasm for partying. All the speculation left me feeling a little jaded and I thought it’d be easier to simply drop the problem, to cease worrying. If the opportunity to procure a ride to and from Damascus miraculously presented itself to us, we’d decide to go then.
As the date approached, the group’s thinking was that we’d skip it. It would be wiser to not take all those days off, spend all that money on food and alcohol, get caught up in partying and simultaneously lose track of our journey. While it would be fun to partake, I was becoming comfortable with the decision to have discipline in staying the course. Little did I know, or possibly care to admit to myself, the group and I had been subconsciously trying to justify going. It would be fun, after all.
When I walked into the campsite at Laural Creek, mile 583, I was greeted by my friends and a plethora of other hikers I had become acquainted with over the course of the hike. Tents were sprawled out everywhere. As I searched for a flat patch of land to set up for the night, I ended up right on top of a root. It’s slim pickings for the last hiker to arrive at camp. Everyone was gathered around a fire, cooking, playing dice, and talking about Trail Days among other things. It was May 10th. Some fellow hikers had plans of staying in Bland tomorrow night and shuttling to Damascus the morning after. They seemed to have thought things through quite well. We stuck to our mantra of not going, to some fellow hiker’s dismay. I was beginning to feel like I would be missing out on something great once I realized the number of people I knew who’d be there.
You become acquainted with the hikers in your bubble. You don’t necessarily hike with them everyday, that doesn’t even happen within my group, but you usually end up camping at the same shelter or campsite more often than not with the other hikers in your bubble. The bubble, as we call it, is the larger group of fellow hikers who began their thru hike at roughly the same time period as you, and who travel north at roughly the same pace as you. Because of these two factors, you’re stuck with them. If the people in your group are your immediate family, these people are your cousins. Unless you drastically slow down or increase your mileage, you’ll keep running into them. And if you were to lose your bubble you’d just end up in another, either with people who started in February or April. The trail is crowded.
I love the people in my bubble, and I think it’s safe to assume that nearly everyone walking the Appalachian Trail is humbly awesome in their own idiosyncratic ways. I love talking to the people I meet out here, so much that I only feel a little guilty when I favor hanging out by the campfire rather than retreating to my tent to read and write. And with such a big group gathered around that night, I didn’t want to miss a thing.
The next morning I awoke to find all my friends already packed up and setting off for Bland, a small town with a Subway and Dairy Queen nestled together. Other hikers who made camp had already gone or were packing up; I really was a slow starter, even in relation to my entire bubble. Hiking out that morning I ran into Hot Toddy, a pretty hiker girl named after the alcoholic beverage.
“Hey Romeo! You going to Trail Days?” She asked me as I was walking by her tent that morning. I stopped and turned to face her with a smile. She was several yards away, breaking down camp and getting her pack together.
“Umm I don’t know,” I said with a chuckle, looking down at my trekking poles. I looked up again, “Sundance, Scarecrow, and I kind of want to go, we’d love to go actually, but Muffin Man and Q are not really about it though, and I see where they’re coming from. We think it’d be difficult to get a ride there and back again. And it would cost so much money.”
“Awe you should definitely go,” she said nodding and smiling, “Everyone’s gonna be there and it’s gonna be a great time.”
Okay now I really want to go to Trail Days.
“It definitely sounds like it’ll be fun,” I replied nodding, “but I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. I’m gonna try to catch up to the guys in Bland. Maybe I’ll try to convince them to go. I don’t wanna miss it and end up regretting it, ya know?”
“Oh yeah. You all should definitely get a ride down. Everyone’s gonna be in Tent City together.”
“Yeah that sounds like the place to be for it. I’ll definitely see how the guys feel about hitching down,” I chuckled and looked down again, “I’ll see you in Bland later today?” I asked.
“Yeah I’ll be there,” she replied looking up from breaking down her tent.
“See you then!” I called as I waved goodbye.
Am I really going to try to convince them to make an effort to get to Damascus? Do I even want to go? Am I just feeling a little inspired because an attractive girl requests my presence there? Today’s the day to decide. It would be fun.
I arrived in Bland via way of SUV, as a former thru hiker waiting at the road connected to the trail gave me a ride two and a half miles east into town. He was kind and selfless. He even told me that he’d be in the area all day, giving hikers rides to and from town, as well as doling out free soda. He was taking his entire day and giving it to the hikers, just to make their day a little easier. He had been in their place before. Hitching can be futile from time to time, and unexpected treats along the way can become the highlight of your day as a thru hiker.
He first stopped at the post office. I got out of the car and hastily picked up a package my mom had sent, containing new reading material and several pounds of rice and beans. Then he took me to Dairy Queen, where I was reunited with Muffin Man, Q tip, Sundance, and Scarecrow, among other hikers in the bubble who were huddled in a grassy field enjoying burgers and fries.
“Hey you guys thinking about going to Trail days?” I asked my group half jokingly with a crooked smile. They all looked at me inquisitively, except Sundance, who was laying in the grass, hands behind his head and sporting some stylish sunglasses. He was chilling. Everyone looked away, as if pondering my question with serious intent.
Damn. They really have been thinking about it.
“Well, I’m going to Dairy Queen if anyone wants to join me.” I said after a brief silence. Then I set down my pack and ambled over to the parking lot. “I’ll go with you Romeo! I was thinking about getting a Blizzard,” called Sundance as he stood up wiped the grass off his clothing. Between stuffing my face with burgers and ice cream, I continued to ponder the prospect myself. I turned my thoughts over to Sundance to find he had been thinking along a similar vein.
“Do you wanna go to Trail Days as bad as I do dude?” I questioned, smiling because I had a hunch I already knew his answer.
He began laughing, and I began laughing too because I knew I had been right. Sundance and I share many of these types of moments. Nothing needs to be said between us for us to break out into fits of laughter, simply because we’re certain of what the other is thinking. The internal dialogue is tacitly understood, and usually the smile gives it away. We were also cramming hefty amounts of beef into our mouths, which looked pretty ridiculous.
He began nodding after the laughs quieted somewhat, then said, “Yeah I really wanna go actually. I know you do too. But, I don’t think Q and Muffin Man are about it, ya know? Which is fine, I understand. But I really wanna see what it’s about.”
“Yeah I mean it’d be so much better if the whole group went. But I think even if me, you, and Scarecrow went for a couple days we’d be able to catch them on the trail afterwards,” I returned.
So many other hikers I’ve come to know were going, and I was becoming motivated by the fear of missing out. Maybe Sundance was too. Then in the next moment Q tip walked through the glass door beaming with excitement, made his way to our table and asked, “So you boys thinking about going to Trail Days?”
I wiped ketchup off my lips and replied, “Yeah. I think it’d be fun.” Sundance nodded and continued chewing.
“Well I think I can get us a ride.”
My eyes widened and a flood of questions came over me, “All of us? Muffin Man and Scarecrow too?”
“Nah I can only get three of us in the shuttle. And I don’t know if Muffin Man really wants to go.”
I began stroking my beard and staring off, something I do when in deliberation. I asked, “What about Scarecrow?”
Q tip shrugged, “I don’t know, I haven’t talked to him yet.”
“I think he wants to go,” Sundance interjected, and I nodded in agreement.
“I think we should try to convince Muffin Man to come too,” I added, not really considering how difficult this proposition could be. He’s even more stubborn than I am, and when we disagree, our arguments can become fairly heated. I’ve had many political debates with him in the Costco bakery between wrapping pies. Once his mind is made up, it’s solidified in granite. I would have to chisel my way through to even begin to make him think about changing his mind.
“Dude. I’m not going. I left Kim and my son at home to come out here and hike the AT. I don’t have the time to take a weekend to party in the woods. I don’t have the money for that either. And what the hell do I look like doing that? I’d be the biggest asshole in the world to go off and party while Kim’s at home taking care of everything. I’m supposed to be hiking, not partying.” He laid out his argument transparently. Who am I to question that motive? I’d be an asshole to drag him along knowing he’s inclined on taking the high road. His journey is his, and his alone.
I sat and stroked my beard more. I didn’t want to go without him, but how selfish would I be to foist my inclinations on him? We started this hike together and hadn’t been apart since the outset. I knew Trail Days would be a memorable experience. And even though I’d be going with the awesome people I’ve come to know, I didn’t want to have that experience without my friend from back home.
I pestered him to come with us, and he started considering it. He was being pulled in so many directions and I felt bad for contributing to the tumult of his decision making. He went outside to call Kim. Q tip, Sundance, and I waited in the Dairy Queen. He came back inside a few minutes later smiling.
“I’m going. I talked to Kim, she was all for it. She just went and deposited a couple hundred bucks into my account dude.”
My jaw dropped, “Kim is fucking awesome!” I pronounced.
“I know dude. She wants me to go and have a good time. I’m so lucky,” he laughingly replied, “I’m gonna start hitching. Where’s Scarecrow?”
“Just outside,” Sundance replied.
“Cool. I’ll get him and we’ll hitch together. Ya’ll already got a ride set up so we’ll just meet you down there,” he said before walking outside to relay the plan to Scarecrow.
All I had to do was camp out that night with Sundance and Q tip a quarter mile up the trail, hitch back to Bland the next morning with them, then meet up with a couple other hikers in our bubble who’d already secured a reasonably priced shuttle for us and themselves. A surefire way of safely traveling to Damascus. Muffin Man and Scarecrow on the other hand, would be going on a hitchhiking adventure, riddled in uncertainty.
Upon realizing he was stuck having to hitch, Muffin Man grabbed his blowup sleeping pad, wrote “TRAIL DAYS TO DAMASCUS” in black sharpie across it, and stood out on the side of the road outside of Dairy Queen and waited with Scarecrow. We waved and playfully flipped him the bird as we walked by, and he returned the message smiling. Scarecrow did too, adding, “Fuck you hiker trash!” As we passed. I love these guys. They saw us walk down the street and procure a ride back to the trail, where we set up camp in the comfort of knowing our way to Trail Days was already paved.
So there they waited, on South 77, waiting on what they thought would be a long, weary, possibly hopeless hitch. They had a hundred miles to cover, and little time to cover it. Every time you’re hitching, you don’t expect anyone to stop for you. You hope for it, but you expect nothing. You’re usually walking in the direction of where you’re trying to go as well, with your thumb out wishing someone driving by is sympathetic enough to stop for you. If someone does pull over a few yards up the road, you begin running towards their vehicle, grinning ear to ear, ready to thank them profusely for making your whole day.
So when a man in a little red pickup truck pulled over on South 77 and told Muffin Man and Scarecrow he was going south to Wytheville, they hopped in the back. They had never heard of Wytheville before in their lives, but if it got them further south it was better than nothing. Twelve miles later they hopped out and waited by a roadside gas station in the obscure town of Wytheville. Scarecrow began asking passerby’s if they were headed south, and they sternly replied “No,” as they started their car and headed south. People usually aren’t fond of hitchhikers, especially smelly ones. Muffin Man and Scarecrow decided to take their packs sit by the Exit going south.
“Now they can’t lie to us,” Muffin Man said to Scarecrow, as they waited idly.
A half hour went by as they looked at cars driving by, drivers making eye contact and slowing down just enough to get their hopes up before speeding off down the southern exit. Then a Semi came hauling up the road, screeching to an abrupt stop. Truckers don’t usually stop for hitchhikers, so this puzzled them. “Maybe he’s having engine problems, I’m gonna talk to him,” scarecrow said as he ambled over to his driver side door, climbing up and leaning in the window to talk to him. Muffin Man sat and waited with his sleeping pad in hand, the written message displayed clearly. He didn’t think the trucker would be aiding them in their journey, but he curiously watched the muffled conversation between them, unable to hear their specific dialogue exchanged. Then Scarecrow waved him over.
“Come on,” Scarecrow called, “He’s gonna give us a ride!”
“Oh shit!” Muffin Man exclaimed as he picked up his pack and hustled over to the passenger door. The inside of the Semi was spacious, harboring a bed, microwave, and even a flatscreen TV with several DVD’s in tow. This man spends a large chunk of his life inside this vehicle.
“So where y’all headed?” he asked enthusiastically.
“Damascus!” they replied.
“Well, I don’t know where the fuck that is but I got sixteen hours to get to Knoxville. Let’s see here,” he began typing Damascus into his GPS, “It’s on the way, I’d be happy to take you there. What’s y’alls names?” he asked.
“I’m trucker Tom. I’m guessing y’all are hiking the AT?”
“Oh yeah,” Scarecrow replied, “We were trying to hitch south to go to this big hiker festival, Trail Days.”
“Yeah we can’t thank you enough for stopping for us, we didn’t think in a million years that you’d be able to give us a ride,” Muffin Man added.
“It’s no problem at all. These long drives have gotten pretty lonely since my dog passed. It’s nice to have the company,” he continued, “I’m guessing y’all smoke weed too?”
Muffin Man and Scarecrow locked eyes for a moment and decided it was alright, “Yeah we smoke,” Scarecrow said scratching his head.
Muffin Man began reaching for his pipe, “You wanna smoke on the way?” He asked.
“Don’t worry about it!” Trucker Tom said, waving Muffin Man down, “I just got two ounces from my cousin!”
He pulled out a transparent plastic bag filled with a large amount of fuzzy green plant matter that reeked of freshly harvested cannabis. Muffin Man and Scarecrow locked eyes once again, this time glimmering with excitement.
“I got us covered fellas,” Trucker Tom announced happily, and a long toke ensued over the next hour on their adventure to Damascus. As Muffin Man would later tell me in his own words, “Trucker Tom was the fucking man.”
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Great reading can’t wait to read what happens next.