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The white blaze leads thousands to Damascus

By: Lacy Hilliard
Tomahawk Writer/Photographer

Imagine a town with a population of 815 people as per the 2012 census count suddenly expanding, virtually overnight, to a population of approximately 25,000. Each year since the first Appalachian Trail Days Festival in 1987; the tiny town of Damascus, Virginia plays host to a vast array of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers past and present, section hikers and various trail enthusiasts.
Trail Days is celebrated each year in tandem with the period of time when thru-hikers pass through Damascus on their way to the finish line. The Appalachian Trail begins in Springer Mountain, Georgia and winds its way through the peaks, forests and valleys of 14 different states and five National Parks. The total distance is 2,179 miles and only the strongest make it to Katadin, Maine.
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a true test of endurance both mentally and physically; it can also take its toll on the wallet. The Appalachian Trail takes anywhere from five to seven months to complete the duration and hikers that intend on indulging in occasional treats while passing through the various towns can expect to spend at least $1,000 per month. When factored in with the thousands of dollars spent on equipment and lack of income being generated during the hike; thru-hiking is an expensive endeavor. The expense is the reason many thru-hikers seek sponsorships to help with the cost.
At last year’s Appalachian Trail Days Festival, The Tomahawk interviewed Joshua Niven of the Thru Project. Along with a few of his friends, the talented Niven intended on completing the 2,179 mile distance while documenting it photographically. The Tomahawk caught up with a proud and accomplished Joshua Niven as he displayed his impressive work at the 2014 Trail Days. From resting fawns captured in Shenandoah National Park to coiled rattlesnakes ready to strike; more than beckoning exploration of the trail, Niven’s work told the story of his hike. An endless galaxy in the Maine sky and an other worldly sunset peeking over a vast pine forest in Vermont are just a few of the Appalachian Trail experiences Niven’s art brings to light. Displayed on both canvas and metal, Niven is currently travelling around with Thru Project sponsor Paramount Fit Foods in hopes of selling his artwork and sharing his Appalachian Trail experience. To learn more about The Thru Project or to view and purchase Joshua Niven’s work visit www.thru-at.com. A percentage of the proceeds earned from art created as a part of The Thru Project will be graciously donated to various non-profit organizations dedicated to the betterment of the Appalachian Trail and its community.
Many thru-hikers do so with purpose like 23-year-old David Sweitzer who is hiking for a cause very near to his heart. An Appalachian State University graduate and a Bristol native, Sweitzer knows all too well the devastation an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can bring having watched his grandfather battle the debilitating disease. In honor of his grandfather and all those battling Alzheimer’s, Sweitzer launched his “Walk to Remember” with a tall order in mind. Sweitzer’s goal is to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail while attempting to raise at least $15,000. The money raised will be donated to Alzheimer’s research with the hope that others won’t have to suffer through the trials of forgetting all you know and love as Sweitzer’s grandfather has. Donations to help support David Sweitzer’s noble goal may be made to may be made by mail to the Alzheimer’s Association of Northeast Tennessee, 207 N. Boone St., Suite 25, Johnson City, TN 37604. For additional information about donating to Sweitzer’s cause you may call, 423-928-4080.
Appalachian Trail Days always plays to a charismatic audience; however, no matter how many walks of life are represented at Trail Days, a mutual love of the trail experience is a static commonality. Trail Days is a huge community effort with many local churches/ministries, organizations and individuals coming together to create a festival worthy of the mighty Appalachian Trail. For hikers, Appalachian Trail Days acts not only as a celebration but also a reunion with hikers past and present gathering together to relive and recreate trail magic. For the community of Damascus, Virginia it is a chance to show the Appalachian spirit. From free haircuts to showers to delicious pancake breakfasts, Damascus loves its hikers and every year without fail, they’re given a royal welcome.
Though Trail Days takes place in Damascus, the vast wilderness of the Appalachian Trail can be found in Johnson County as well. The area of the trail that spans the Northeast Tennessee/Southwest Virginia region is considered by many thru-hikers to be one of the most plentiful in terms of scenery. The enchantment of the trail cannot be denied with its bounty of surreal beauty just waiting for discovery. Festivals such as Appalachian Trail Days work to support the preservation of the AT by promoting the love of hiking for generations to come. And as long as there’s a trail to love, Appalachian Trail Days will roll out the red carpet or the memory foam sleeping pad as the case may be, for hikers young and old.