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Throwing a Party for Trail Magic on the Appalachian Trail

Damascus, Va. (pop. 981) may be a tiny town, but Trail Magic will be celebrated there in a big way this weekend.

Up to 1,500 Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and as many as 30,000 outdoors devotees are expected to gather in Damascus starting Friday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Trail Days, a grassroots hiker hootenanny that for one weekend each May transforms this small patch of southwest Virginia into a sprawling harmonic convergence of hikers, helpers and random fresh-air lovers.

"It's been coined the largest backpacking event in the world," says Allyn Morton, one of the originators of Trail Days. "Until someone challenges us, it is."

Future AT thru-hikerDamascus, a valley community just west of 5,729-foot Mt. Rogers (Virginia's high point) and not far from the point where Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina borders intersect, is an area where Daniel Boone once explored. Modern-day Main Street in Damascus has no traffic lights. "Not even a flashing light," Morton says.

But it has trails. A transcontinental bike trail (U.S. Bike Route 76) travels through Damascus, as does a 38-mile rail-to-trail conversion popular with cyclists (the Virginia Creeper Trail). The Appalachian Trail, meanwhile, passes right through the center of town.

Trail Days Get a Start

In 1987 Morton, a longtime custom leather worker who lives 45 miles away in Boone, N.C., got a phone call from a buddy in Damascus. "He was a TV repairman, and he was starting an outdoor shop," Morton recalls. "He said, 'Hey, we're going to have a little festival here. Why don't you bring some of your sewing stuff, come on over and see what's going on?' I said OK."

Morton figures about 50 or so people, many of them AT thru-hikers, wandered through Damascus on that inaugural Trail Days event. In the benevolent tradition of Trail Magic, where residents who live near a long-distance trail share acts of useful kindness to convenience-deprived backpackers, Morton offered free repair work to any hiker who needed some. "I hung out for the day," he says. "One of the churches was having pancakes and an ice cream social. There were some fun and games in the town park. That was about it.

"I thought it was pretty cool, so the next year I spent the night in my van and fixed some more stuff," he says. "Then Shorty, the shoe repairman in town, he finally passed away, and that's when I started bringing my heavy-duty sewing machines from my shop to start fixing more complicated things."

As Morton's involvement grew, so did the popularity of the event. Do hikers actually try to time their arrival in Damascus, 465 north of the AT's traditional starting point (Springer Mountain, Ga.), with Trail Days? "Oh, hell yes," Morton says in his native accent. "If they're north of here 50 to 100 miles, they'll all catch rides and come back to town for the reunion."

This year's 3-day event includes free meals, free showers, free repair services such as Morton's, films, lectures, storytelling, music (don't miss the Giddy Up Cloggers performing in the town park gazebo on Sunday), a gear auction and the big hiker parade Sunday afternoon. Sounds like Americana at its finest. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is recognizing Damascus as an official "AT Community" this year, the eighth spot along the trail to receive that friendly-to-hikers designation.

Morton, who also works as a rep for gear manufacturers such as Big Agnes and Granite Gear, says 8 or 9 outdoor brands now regularly make an appearance in Damascus during the event. Their presence, he says, doesn't mean Trail Days has gone commercial or has lost its homey, here-to-help spirit. "The Leki guy fixes every type of trekking pole people bring in," Morton says. "He and I do a lot of these festivals together. We want to be able to give back and help hikers. We enjoy it."

REI Lends a Hand

Morton will be joined for the second straight year by Rob Depew, a supervisor at the REI Pineville, N.C., store. Fellow grads of Appalachian State, Depew and Morton are also bound by a love of the outdoors and an eagerness to help.

"They call him Mr. Fix-It up there," Depew says of Morton. "His guys fix everybody's gear, regardless of what brand it is, and he sponsors a chili dinner every Friday night. Last year he fed 260 hikers."

"People seem to like it," Morton says of his recipe. "They stand in line and bang on pots and pans. I think that's a good sign."

What's the attraction to Depew to get involved? "You have more hardcore backpackers in Damascus, Va., right now than anywhere in the U.S.," he says. "I've got a really cool job at REI, selling people backpacking gear, and this is an opportunity to see what's working for folks and give back a little."

Depew says last year he saw lots of lightweight gear on hikers. "Very few people had full leather boots," he says. "Most everybody was in lower-top shoes. The Vasque Breeze was typically about the heaviest thing I saw. I saw a lot of hammock camping, too. Hammocks are really coming in. They're comfortable and easy to set up and zero impact."

An Interesting Scene

Tim Black, a sales specialist at REI Asheville, N.C., thru-hiked the AT in 2003. (Trail nickname: Mello Yello, for the garish yellow sandals his mother gave him for the trip.) Trail Days for him offered a fun vibe, he says. He just didn't get much sleep. "If you're a hiker just going for the day, it's great," he says. "Other people enjoy being there for the entire 3 days. There are definitely all kinds of aspects to it.

"There's a vendor area, which can really be helpful," he says. "Then there's a tourist area, where you have the alligator-on-a-stick kind of stuff. Seriously—somebody was selling alligator-on-a-stick when I was there. Then there's the town. There's really a lot of great people there.

"For anyone who has thru-hiked, this is really a great chance to reconnect with friends from the trail," Black says. "That's one of the reasons I keep going back. The people who I thru-hiked with, people who I don't see every year, I may see here on the big anniversary years, like the 5-year or 10-year. In that way, it's kind of like a high school reunion. Just way cooler."

Morton expects to see a few regulars at his fix-it station during the week. "I've got a couple here that I've repaired their tent twice because they left their food in it twice," he says. "So I finally said to them, 'So what have we learned from this?' The woman told me, 'We have a bear bag system now, Allyn. We even hung it up here in town, and we know there are no bears here.' I was glad to hear that."

Morton also thinks of Trail Days as kind of a pep rally for AT hikers who may be rethinking their commitment to completing the trek.

"You're 465 miles into the gig, and there's a lot of people who get off the trail after the party's over," he says. "The think, 'I'm baked. I'm done. I've had enough.' We see a lot of them regain their spirit here. People start patting 'em on the back and telling them, 'C'mon, you can make it all the way to Katahdin. Let's go.' That kind of stuff goes on around here. They call Damascus the friendliest town on the trail. I think that's true."

Posted on at 5:22 PM

Tagged: AT, Allyn Morton, Damascus, Hiking, REI Asheville, REI Pineville, Trail Days and appalachian trail

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Ann B

Fantastic! Is there anything like that out here on the Pacific Crest Trail?

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