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Appalachian Trail Days

By Lacy Hilliard
Tomahawk Writer/Photographer

Each year, the tiny town of Damascus, Virginia, or perhaps better known to some as ‘Trail Town U.S.A.,’ triples in population with the coming of the much celebrated Appalachian Trail Days festival. ‘Trail Days’ is a celebration of Appalachian Trail thru hikers both past and present. The thru hiker is defined as one that intends on completing the vast expanse of the AT in a single season. Trail Days honors this feat of mental and physical endurance and many have come to see it as a sort of hiker family reunion as it attracts previous thru hikers from all over the country; traveling from far and wide to reunite with friends and relive a bit of former Appalachian Trail glory.
The Appalachian Trail or commonly known as the ‘AT’ spans approximately 2,200 miles of ridgelines and forestland from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine and is perhaps the most celebrated American trail system. Benton MacKaye, an American forester and conservationist, originally proposed the concept for the AT in 1921. In his article titled “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” MacKaye detailed his plans for the AT. The introductory paragraph in MacKaye’s article reads, “Something has been going on these past few strenuous years which, in the din of war and general upheaval, has been somewhat lost from the public mind. It is the slow quiet development of the recreational camp. It is something neither urban nor rural. It escapes the hecticness of the one, and the loneliness of the other. And it escapes also the common curse of both – the high powered tension of the economic scramble. All communities face an ‘economic’ problem, but in different ways. The camp faces it through cooperation and mutual helpfulness, the others through competition and mutual fleecing.” Interestingly, MacKaye’s introduction to the Appalachian Trail Project is curiously similar to the modern-day description of the trail. The AT is a physical and mental challenge but it’s also an escape, a means to forget the civilized world and commune with the simpler things in life. In August of 1937, MacKaye’s vision was realized and the Appalachian Trail was officially established.
The Appalachian Trail Days festival began in 1987 and has grown in size and popularity each year since. The festival is truly a town wide effort with many residents, businesses, and local churches pitching in to help welcome the hikers. The events associated with Trail Days take place from one end of town to the other and the lineup offers a bit of something for everyone. For music lovers, several bands took the stage throughout the event including Brother Gravity, Sons of Bluegrass, Phantom, This Mountain, The Contrarians, The Farmhouse Ghost, and The Deer Run Drifters. For lovers of crafts and festival foods, vendors of every sort fill the town park. However, the majority of the events are focused on the guests of honor. From free home cooked meals to gear repair stations, medical tents, and even showers, it’s clear that Damascus loves its hikers.
Some events have become so deeply etched in Trail Days culture, they have become synonymous with the celebration. One such event is the ‘Hiker Talent Show’ in which AT thru-hikers exhibit their talents, whatever they may be, on the town stage. Showcased this year was everything from singer/songwriters, a Native American flutist, a performance of Katy Perry’s “Firework” that won’t soon be forgotten and a beatboxer that dropped beats so hot even Biz Markie would have to bow down.
The annual “Hiker Parade” is also a celebrated Trail Days tradition. Each year, hikers from previous ‘classes’ are celebrated by lining up on Laurel Avenue, waving their chosen banners and dodging squirt guns, hoses and other water propelling paraphernalia brandished by festivalgoers. However, the hikers certainly don’t come unarmed and the event usually results in epic water wars and general good-natured merriment. Sadly, the 2013 Hiker Parade ended abruptly in a haze of chaos, confusion and sadness when an elderly man driving a 1997 Cadillac broke through the parade procession and ran over 50-60 parade participants and bystanders. Helicopters were quickly dispatched to fly the critically wounded to area hospitals and at the time of this publication, all those injured are reportedly in stable condition. What other publications don’t tell you is the general feel of the scene as it unfolded. Proving their resiliency to even the most unexpected of situations, the hikers immediately banded together to aid the wounded, even lifting the car off many of the fallen. Though sadness and at times terror were certainly present at the scene, greater was the feeling of brotherhood between friends and strangers that formed and immediately established a common goal, tend to the wounded, help in any way possible. The driver of the Cadillac was reportedly suffering from a medical condition at the time of the accident; however, no further details as to his identity have been released. The Damascus Police have said that the investigation is ongoing and they are already working to prevent any future incident at Trail Days. Though it’s easy to focus on the tragic happenings of the 2013 Hiker Parade, helping your fellow man and positivity in the face of sadness were much stronger themes at this year’s Trail Days festival. It is this camaraderie that has become tantamount to the hiker mission and unless you’ve experienced it, it may be difficult to imagine an instant family -–just add boots and a backpack.
In order to gain insight into the kinship that is hiker culture, as well as a first-hand account of the thru-hiker experience, The Tomahawk caught up with a few of the members of ‘The Thru-Project’ (www.thru-at.com); a group of friends that are thru-hiking the AT while photographing and blogging about their experiences with the eventual goal of publishing their work in the form of a book. The Thru-Project team is Joshua ‘Still Don’t’ Nevin, Joel ‘Mr. Dallas’ Dallas, Bryan ‘Rickshaw/Dumstermouth’ Anderson, and Jarred ‘Muffins’ Douglas. The peculiar middle names listed for the Thru-Project team are keeping in line with a long-lived hiker tradition, the trail name. There are several different ways to obtain a trail name and though the variety of trail names is as vast as the AT itself, there is one common theme –personality and creativity. Joshua Nevin, or ‘Still Don’t’ is the primary photographer and one of the founding members of The Thru-Project. After completing several section hikes on the AT, he still didn’t have a trail name, and so, ‘Still Don’t’ was born. Nevin holds a degree in photography from Savannah College of Art and Design and his work is anything but the typical AT images of flowers, trees and long-range mountain views. His work immediately draws you into the emotion of the circumstance and his imagery is so complex that you could spend several minutes gazing at each photo as you peel back the layers of elaborate artistry. Joel Dallas is the co-founding member of the team and primary writer/blogger. ‘Mr. Dallas’’ trail name pays homage to his profession as an educator. Dallas is charged with the task of blogging about the team’s collective AT experience as it unfolds. The Thru-Project blog can be accessed by visiting www.thru-at.com/blog and Dallas plans to update his entries for the duration of the hike. In addition to the blog, Dallas is also maintaining a journal during his trek with the idea that many of the entries will make their way into the Thru-Project publication. In his blog posts, Mr. Dallas paints a stunning and intense portrait of the triumphs and struggles experienced on the thru-hike and his drafted illusions compliment Nevin’s work as though the two crafts were a born betrothal. Project members Bryan ‘Rickshaw/Dumstermouth’ Anderson and Jarred ‘Muffins’ Douglas also contribute to the team. Originally named ‘Rickshaw’ for his profession as a petticab driver in Savannah, Georgia, Anderson became known as ‘Dumstermouth’ as the hike unfolded due to his clean-up crew like eating habits. “Dumstermouth is the only person gaining weight on the trail,” said Nevin. Anderson lends his talents to the project by acting as secondary photographer and sharing his work on the blog in order to save Nevin’s images for the printed publication. The journalistic style of Anderson’s work adds just another layer to The Thru-Project and provides a stunning contrast to the artistic compilations of Nevin. Jarred ‘Muffins’ Douglas is the self-described Sherpa of the AT journey, lending his muscle to shoulder the extensive gear needed to complete the trek and the project. Muffins earned his trail name when he made the decision to backtrack several miles down the trail in order to obtain a single forgotten muffin –a muffin which he didn’t even consume for several days following the rescue.
The Thru-Project is made possible through sponsorships and donations. Clif Bar and Creative Motion Designs are two of the team’s primary sponsors, however every little bit helps. The amount of calories required to traverse the AT is substantial and therefore just the amount of money spent in food is significant. If you’re a business that would like to sponsor The Thru-Project or an individual that would like to make a donation, visit the website at www.thru-at.com for more details.
The Thru-Project team members are down to earth but more importantly, dedicated. Dedication to the mission is often the key element that makes the difference between a successful AT thru-hike or a failed attempt. The guys agree that it is the mental challenge that is greater than the physical and they know that by staying true to the project, they have increased their chances of success.
The Appalachian Trail and the town of Damascus is filled with colorful characters (like Damascus local ‘One-Eyed Tie’ who is also affectionately referred to as the ‘Creeper Keeper’ for his dedicated and admirable volunteer conservation work) that share a common goal, to keep the Appalachian Trail thru-hike dream alive. Fortunately for Johnson Countians, the historic AT winds its way right through our backyard. If you’ve never experienced the beauty, mystique and tradition of the Appalachian Trail, this summer might not be a bad time to join a hiker family and trek your way to unforgettable memories and unbelievable beauty.