I can tell how long I’ve known Bill Harris by the length of his beard. When I first met him, it was short and bushy. Now it hangs well below his chin, its wiry brown hairs nearly grazing his collarbone. Bill is a tall, lanky kind of guy with big, calloused hands. His laugh is infectious, a pair of off-kilter eyes crinkling at the corners every time he smiles. Looking back on the four years I lived off and on in Damascus, it’s hard to picture my life there without him. If he wasn’t at Mojoe’s Trailside Coffee sipping a cup of coffee, he was usually on his bike cruising down the Virginia Creeper Trail with his canine sidekick Deohghi in tow.
Originally from the southwest corner of Michigan, Bill found his way to Damascus after losing both his house and job in 2000. With his daughter grown and his days now suddenly much freer, Bill decided to take this otherwise unfortunate turn of events and make it something positive. After researching “rails to trails” online, he came across a site for the Virginia Creeper Trail, reduced his possessions to the pack on his back, and headed south.
“Michigan wasn’t my happy place. This,” Bill says, sweeping his arms wide, “this is my happy place.”
For the decade following that first ride down the 34-mile-long Creeper, Bill would bounce around southwest Virginia working side jobs and making enough money to keep his now-transient lifestyle afloat. But in 2012, the call of the Creeper could no longer be ignored. With the permission of a local landowner, Bill established a campsite off the Creeper just outside of Damascus and has been living in the woods ever since.
“Home is where your hammock hangs,” Bill says. “I’ve got no lights, no power, no bills. There’s no stress. I’m here to live and live as easy as I can and do what I can to help another.”
Aside from his hammock, a tarp, some fly-fishing gear, and a minimalist espresso maker, Bill doesn’t really own anything. He gets around town on a black aluminum frame Trek with a doggie cart attached. Litter hurts everybody reads a weathered sign tacked to the back of the cart. Bill is what you might call the “trail maintainer” of the Creeper, taking it upon himself to pick up the trash that others leave behind. Generally, he’s one of the happiest people you’ll ever meet, but if he catches you tossing even so much as a cigarette butt onto the Creeper (or anywhere for that matter), you’ve got another thing coming.
“I don’t know if you can call me a trail angel,” Bill says. “I don’t ask for anything and I don’t take anything. It all comes around. I’ve learned that everything is connected.”
A typical day in the life of Bill always involves picking up at least one bag of trash from the Creeper, an unglamorous pastime at best, but one that does not go unrecognized. Although Bill occasionally runs shuttles for hikers coming into Mt. Rogers Outfitters, he hasn’t needed to find a full- or even part-time job in months: the town of Damascus takes care of him.
“Anytime I need something, I always meet someone who can help,” he says. “Sometimes I might have to go looking for that help, but it’s there.”
Living outside year-round may sound like a dream come true, but the reality of such a lifestyle is not nearly as tranquil. Bill’s “front yard,” as he likes to say, is Whitetop Laurel, the local creek that parallels the Creeper through town. In January 2013, his setup earned the name Camp Floodzone after days of nonstop rain forced Bill to move his hammock site in the middle of the night.
“I was voted off the island,” he says with a chuckle. “But there were people looking out for me. Within a few minutes of taking down my campsite, someone was there with a truck to help me load it all and take me somewhere dry.”
I saw Bill the morning following the flood. Although he looked tired, likely from being awakened in the middle of the night to a roaring river beneath his feet, he was not so much as a fraction less cheery. Even in the sticky heat of the long summer days or the bitter cold of the longer winter nights, I’ve never once heard Bill complain. The mosquitos, the snow, the torrential downpours—nothing fazes him.
“A guy once said to me, ‘you’re just on a next level of Zen with your happiness. More people need to get there,’” Bill says. “I guess the secret is I’ve thrown everything away. If you’ve got stuff, you have to live with stuff, and nobody really needs stuff.”
Aside from his daily trail upkeep, Bill is an avid hiker, a connoisseur of wild mushrooms, a fly-fisherman, and a master fly craftsman. His favorite pastime is listening to the gurgling waters of Whitetop Laurel from his hammock and his most treasured book is Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang.
“Pay your rent, work for the earth,” he says. “If I didn’t do what I do, who would do it?”