Days 36-38: Trail Days 2018!
Here in Damascus for Trail Days!
Originally, the idea of shuttling forward did not appeal to me, but I’m having fun. I’ve seen people from ahead and behind, and it’s nice not to hike for a couple of days. We can relax and give our feet the chance to rest. People are very kind to hikers here. We’ve had mostly free meals, provided by various churches and the fire department. We’re dressed in silly clothes from the thrift store, and we spend our time browsing gear vendor tents and eating carnival food with no guilt whatsoever.
When we arrived in Damascus, our trail angels Eleven and Days dropped us off at Tent City. We paid $5 to camp for three nights in a large field at the edge of town. So far, the festival has been better than I expected. I don’t usually care for crowds or huge parties, but in three days, I feel like I’ve encountered every person I’ve ever met on the A.T. including all five people I camped with at Stover Creek Shelter my very first night on the trail. (There were more than five at the shelter, but I chatted with and remembered the names of just five, and all five of them are here for Trail Days.) I’ve also seen almost the entire crew from the Smokies and other familiar faces from more recently on the trail. There have been gear giveaways and a goofy hiker parade and lots of free services like laundry and showers and foot massages and informational talks.
There has also been the wild partying that makes Trail Days famous… or notorious, depending on whom you ask. I feel like a spectator at a zoo each time I venture into the woods where the “party” camps are. Riff Raff is like a rowdy nightclub in the middle of the forest, and not even hours of pouring rain can stop the revelry. The first night, Etienne and I just took a walk around the camps around sunset and spent the rest of the evening watching live music at the church community center across the street. The next night I fell fast asleep by 10pm.
Now, it’s Saturday night, and I resolve to stay up late like a proper twenty-something. We wander into the woods again, following the sounds of shouts and laughter and a thumping stereo. The soggy ground is bright with glow sticks and moments later we are sporting some ourselves, as a Riff Raff hiker passes by with a literal wheelbarrow full of them. We watch people dancing around a bonfire that burns doggedly despite the rain. A few others smoke and pluck at instruments in one of the quieter camps.
At the Riff Raff camp, music is blaring. People are drinking and dancing beneath a tent big enough for a circus. The downpour is loud on the tarpaulin. I dance with Etienne, sliding around in my slick rubber camp sandals in the mud. I feel strange, and not from any mind-altering substance (although I’m sure that is available nearby). None of this is what I expected from the Appalachian Trail. But I’m glad to be where I am.
The next morning is Sunday. The sun is out, so we lounge around, waiting for our waterlogged tents to dry before we pack up. Eventually, we find another cramped ride back to Elk Park, this time with a fellow thru-hiker Freight Train and his two friends who hiked in 2017. They know Eleven and Days from last year, and it feels like our hitchhiking trail magic has come full circle. We shoulder our packs, which feel heavy after a few days not wearing them, and we hike three miles before stealth camping in a quiet, fragrant pine forest.
Trail Days was fun, but this feels like coming home.