Across America, the month of May marks the conclusion of school, the end of those constant spring rains, and the start of the summer vacation season. For those of us here in the Tri-Cities region, it heralds the approach of a favorite festival just across the border in Virginia. Appalachian Trail Days draws thousands to the small town of Damascus each year. Located just thirty minutes from Bristol, the community is an important stop on the Appalachian Trail for many of the hikers who trek through on their way to the rocky peaks of Katahdin.
Unlike some communities who are indifferent to the trail’s passage through their neighborhood, the welcoming folks of Damascus have melded the famed footpath with their local culture and earned the proud title of “Trail Town, USA.” Bisected by both the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail, the city has become an outdoor recreation destination. Outfitters, bread and breakfasts, and hostels line the streets and welcome those seeking adventure, whether on the trails or within the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The city began hosting the Trail Days festival back in 1976 as a way to celebrate not only the trail itself, but also all its hikers, past and present, and those who work hard every year to preserve the trail for all to enjoy.
The Trail Days Festival is scheduled every year the weekend after Mothers Day, with this year’s 31st Trail Days having taken place between the dates of May 19-21. For hikers, the festival marks a well-earned rest and time to celebrate after tackling the highest mountains along the trail’s entire length. For the rest of us “normal” citizenry, the fair gives us a chance to peer into a world we may not know much about. More than likely, we will walk away with a better knowledge and sense of gratitude not only for those who steward the trail, but also for the fantastic natural landscape the A.T. passes through within our region.
From day one, a plethora of different activities are available to catch almost anyone’s interest. From BBQ, bluegrass concerts, and a farmers’ market to raffles and fly-fishing lessons, you’d need ten heads and twice as many feet to sample everything that’s packed into the weekend. Families might be interested in taking a guided nature hike along a short section of the A.T. to identify different flowers, animals, and trees. Those who like competition can sign up to take part in the corn hole tournament or eating contest.
Educational offerings this past festival included several guided edible and medicinal walks, lectures on the psychology of A.T. Thru-Hikers, and several talks by those veteran hikers. Birding classes taught festival-goers how to identify their favorite birds just by sound. Another talk sought to inform would-be hikers with info they need to know before hitting the trail, such as permits, costs, rules, and regulations, as well as the impact and strain that increased use has put on the trail in recent years.
Saturday always marks the three biggest highlights of the festival: The Trail Days Annual Hiker Parade, a charity auction, and also the Hiker Talent Show. The parade is led by organizations such as the Boys and Girl Scouts, trail maintenance clubs, and local law enforcement. Soon after come the winners of the Miss Trail Days Beauty Pageant. Afterwards come the dozens and sometimes hundreds of hikers. Here’s where the fun begins, as it’s become a tradition to try and soak many of the hikers with water guns as they pass by. Some don’t take it without a fight of their own, so be forewarned if you are there to just watch: you might get wet.
The Auction sees donations by local businesses, companies, and outfitters (including our favorite Blue Blaze Shuttle!) in order to raise funds for The Place Hostel. This nonprofit run by the First United Methodist Church of Damascus offers shelter to A.T. hikers passing through the area and is dependent entirely on donations. Wrapping things up, the talent show offers those hikers passing through a chance to shine and show off the skills they know, whether it be a skill they already knew or something they picked up while cut off from civilization.
While this year’s festival is already over, be sure to make plans to attend next year. The dates are set for the 18th through the 20th. You’ll have a great time to be sure, and who knows? It might just become another of your favorite yearly traditions. Before ending this week’s article, we would like to say a big THANK YOU to everyone who shared their Dollywood stories with us! The lucky winner of two Dollywood tickets is…Jill Mullis! Congratulations Jill and thank you again to everyone who participated. Keep reading Appalachian Wanderers for more opportunities to win in the future!