Last week was an unusual one. I hiked from Roan Mountain, TN, into Damascus, VA, for the Trail Days festival. The terrain was very easy and less hilly than usual, which was a nice break. I spent most of the week hiking with some friends and met some new folks that I really like, which made me happy. I’m also excited to be back in my home state of Virginia! For the next couple weeks I’ll be hiking up the western side of the state, which includes a lot of areas that I know well. I’ll also be passing very close to where I grow up and will have the opportunity to stop at my mom’s house and regroup for a couple days. It feels like good luck to be back in Virginia, and I’m hoping for a lot of trail magic.
Last Tuesday I actually got swept up into a Trail Days pre-party while I was hiking in Tennessee. I had to go into town to grab some more food, and at the grocery store two guys got out of a car and told me that they were having a pig roast and I should come. I was initially pretty creeped out, and I had no intention of getting into a car with some strangers to go to a random party. Eventually they told me that it was a party thrown by a group called Riff Raff at a campground that I had been considering staying at anyway. I had heard about the group and a little about the party, so I decided to hike into the party. I wound up staying there for two days.
Riff Raff is a group of past thru-hikers who do a lot of community building around Trail Days. The pre-party camp had a full kitchen that turned out breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the 50+ people there. There were coolers stocked with beer and Gatorade, a full bar, and a tent area literally filled with snack foods. They also had showers and a bathroom with running water. Everything was free, although donations were accepted and I of course pitched in. Coming off the trail and not knowing what to expect, it felt like a hikers Utopia. A lot of people there had cars, so they slackpacked me, which means that someone holds or transports your stuff and drops you off/picks you up at the trail so that you can hike without your heavy pack. Hiking without a pack let’s you hike faster and put on more miles. In my case, it also allowed me to get over a nasty hangover that I wouldn’t have survived hiking with a pack. I slackpacked for two days and was able to get to Damascus on Thursday evening.
Overall, Trail Days was pretty good. I got to drink a lot, eat a lot (for free), hang out with a lot of great people, and get lots of free things that I needed. I also managed to take 4 showers within the week, which is pretty much unheard of out here. However, it did get pretty overwhelming. After a day or two the novelty wore off and I was ready to be back in the quiet of the woods again, but I still stayed the whole three days because it was the cheapest place for me to take some rest days. Having so much going on also helped me keep from getting bored and frustrated with the rest days, although I’m certain staying up late and drinking a lot didn’t do my body much good. My knees and ankles are less swollen now though, which I’m over the moon about.
One interesting thing about Trail Days is that most of the free goods and services are provided by religious organizations. About half of my meals were provided to me by something called Yellow Deli, which I’ve been told is essentially a cult that outreaches to hikers because they see us as emotionally vulnerable. Most everything else came from churches, including one all the way from Sevierville (in Tennessee near Dollywood). They were less aggressive, but I think may have had similar thinking. It’s kind-of funny because I think most thru-hikers are extremely independent and the opposite of emotionally vulnerable because that’s what it takes to come out here. Of course, the church people were ask just nice folks doing good deeds. I’ve never been religious but being from the Bible Belt Im very used to religious people, and I had to pull out some old habits to get along with them and the church people ultimately loved me. I even prayed with the man who cut my hair and the woman who washed my feet (they took ministry very seriously), because I figured it couldn’t hurt any.
One thing that was discussed a lot at Trail Days was the recent murder of a hiker on the AT by another hiker with a machete. Another hiker was also pretty badly injured. All of us are incredibly sad that this happened, especially in a place that feels so safe most of the time. The hiker who was killed was always ahead of me so I didn’t know him, but he sounds like he was a pretty cool guy. Most hikers still aren’t too worried about violent crimes out here, but I know the incident worried many people off the trail. However, I still feel pretty safe especially considering how many years I lived in NYC where way more bad things happened. I think this was an incredibly unfortunate and devastating incident, but it also doesn’t make the trail much less safe than anywhere else.
Ultimately last week was a busy and overwhelming departure from typical trail life. I had a lot of fun and ate a lot of excellent food and enjoyed some good company, but I’m happy to be back on trail now. Some of my photos of Trail Days and my hike that week are below! Also at the request of my friend Anne, here are 10 things that I’ve learned so far on trail:
1. Always carry toilet paper.
2. Endurance is mostly mental, not physical.
3. Water is everything.
4. Breakfast beers are underrated.
5. People will always surprise you.
6. Having all day just to think is incredibly healthy and helpful, but also dangerous.
7. Every birthday is both a gift and an achievement (shoutout to my friend Amy for changing my perspective on birthdays).
8. Fear of missing out is valid, but you’re not always missing out.
9. There’s no weakness in accepting help when it’s offered, and people usually don’t offer unless they mean it.
10. It takes a lot of strength to do exactly what you want to do each day and not follow anyone else’s agenda.