Under a gorgeous blue sky, I pointed my truck south and was off to Trail Days, the big backpacker festival held right on the Appalachian Trail where it passes through Damascus, Virginia.

I didn’t get much sleep in Berea, so it was a constant fight with the Z-monster to keep my eyes open for the five-hour drive. My Explorer devoured mile after mile as rural Appalachia rolled by in waves of green. I was slamming energy drinks and was blasting Bluegrass music to indoctrinate myself and get prepared for the mountains. By the time that I arrived I was a caffeinated, red-eyed mess and my hand kept twitching into a claw like I was playing a phantom banjo or something. 🙂

I was amazed at how they could squeeze a festival of this size into a space the size of Damascus. I lucked out and found a place to park right in the middle of the main area and I had not been out of my vehicle for 30 minutes before people were introducing themselves, offering me a fresh grilled hamburger, and chatting with me about backpacking. I was honestly caught off-guard, I have never met a more open and warm group of people at any festival in the US. All groups of backpackers were represented from the hippies that make their own clothes to trendy yuppy backpackers that look like they have North Face sponsorships. All had one thing in common though, a love for the outdoors and a desire to escape mainstream society and be with others of like mind.

Although I did not really meet many world travelers, these people were all just doing another flavor of vagabonding. They walk from shelter to shelter along the trail and meet up in groups or “camps” for big parties before setting off again. It was obvious that this festival was a reunion for many, there were loads of hugs and “is that who I think it is?” explosions of happiness. They accepted me in minutes without question or reservations about the way I was dressed. I like these people! I met several hikers that had been walking the Appalachian trail for months and planned to finish the entire distance to Maine before October came around — now that is hardcore.

My eyes are opened — this is a whole new counter-culture to me. Much different than world backpacking, but very inviting still the same. I will definitely do a segment of the AT sometime and write about the people I meet. I learned a lot just partying with the camps…for instance, the standard greeting is “where are you?” The first time someone asked me that, I thought maybe he had been passed the peace pipe too many times because I was directly in front of him. They assume that you are walking the AT and mean what part of the trail are you on, others usually answer with the nearest town or feature. Also, I learned that almost everyone uses their trail names. I got so many funny looks introducing myself as “Greg” that I switched to “Bucho.” It’s not quite as friendly or organic as most of the other names I came across, but no one questioned me and it became my name for a weekend.

At night, a good 20-minute walk from the festival in what is called “tent city” there was one hell of a party. Bonfires burned all through the night and a circle of people beat drums to pagan rhythms as we danced all around the fire. It looked like a scene from a cannibal movie, but it was fun and wow a hot fire feels good when the temperature has fallen into the 40s!
In such a crowd, good pictures were nearly impossible unfortunately.

There were also more tame camps which I visited with one or two guys playing guitar and about 20 people gathered around a campfire. It was nice to chill with these people and you could actually hold a conversation. The guitar was passed around but I declined, I really wish that I had kept up with it back when I was playing.

I stumbled two miles back to my truck around 03:00am and somehow managed to find it in the dark. The thermometer on my dash read 38 degrees when I climbed inside to sleep. I was comfortable in my sleeping bag in the back, but any exposed flesh was a no-no so I mummified myself under wraps of blankets. The sun came pouring into the windows way too quickly in the morning, and these crazy bastards were up and at it around 07:00am! I just pulled the blanket over my head and pretended that no one could see me still sleeping – maybe I don’t have what it takes to hike with these guys after all!

If you are looking for forums about the AT, you can find some good people and good info here. I met up with Doc Tari, a serious hammock fanatic who isn’t Scottish but sports a kilt anyway. He shared some good insider info with me about sleeping light on the trail.

I spent around $100 for gas round trip (my rideshare partner couldn’t make it) but it was well worth it. Next year I will arrive earlier and get a good spot in tent city for at least two days of the festival. It was an awesome experience and definitely worth a go next year.