I awoke Friday morning to the sound of hiking poles clicking against pavement.
I unzipped the window of my SylvanSport Go and peered out from behind the mesh. An old man with a silver braid of hair hobbled along down the road toward Damascus, Va. His pack was a faded army green with loosely stitched patches and duct tape jobs. He wore sturdy boots that nearly met the hem of his khaki hiking kilt, and despite the almost pained limp with which he walked, he was singing.
Trail Days had finally arrived.
Every May, the town of Damascus commemorates past, present, and future thru-hikers by hosting a weeklong Appalachian Trail celebration. Brands and outfitters cram the park grounds, offering hikers gear repairs, free hair cuts, giveaways, discounts, and water gun blasts to the face, all in the spirit of the white blaze.
There’s a reason this place is often referred to as the “friendliest town on the trail.” Not an hour after I saw the older gentleman in the kilt, a team of women appeared at the trailhead and set up shop to greet the hikers. They offered up water, a shaded place to rest, directions to a shower and a hot dog eating contest. One by one, the hikers made their way down the switchbacked ridge line to the south of town and emerged from the woods, tired, hungry, and ripe from weeks’ worth of sweat, and one by one, the ladies treated them each with the same hospitality and kindness, barely batting an eye at the stench of crusty socks.
Which, if you’ve never smelled a thru-hiker’s socks, imagine catching wind of an animal carcass a week into its decay. It’s that bad.
That evening, I found myself in the thick of that hiker fetor during the viewing of Chris Gallaway’s film The Long Start to the Journey. Packed shoulder-to-shoulder with hikers of every variety, the stuffy auditorium smelled much like that rotting animal corpse, except stuffed inside a sweaty shoe. The stale air hung in my face, and I fought the urge to dash from the room out into the cool spring evening. I sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, uncomfortably shifting my position every few minutes, annoyed that more chairs hadn’t been supplied.
This is going to be a long hour-and-a-half, I thought as the lights turned off and the movie began.
But just 10 minutes into Gallaway’s film, I started to feel incredibly silly for thinking that. Brutal winter weather, unrelenting mosquitos, ravaged feet, and personal tragedy were just a few of the obstacles Gallaway was forced to overcome during his nearly 2,180-mile walk. That’s certainly more than I’ve ever had to overcome in six months, and certainly more worthwhile of a complaint than my temporarily sore bum and hunched back. By the end of the film, I had long forgotten the smell and the pain between my shoulder blades. As the crowd rose around me to give Gallaway a much-deserved standing ovation, I sat in speechless stupor with tears rolling down my eyes.
Why? Because there’s something about a thru-hike that seems to speak to the most basic and primal nature of humans, an existence we’ve all but lost amid the gadgets and technology that consume our lives. On the trail, your day is invested in accomplishing one goal — to take one step, and then another, and then another, no matter the pace.
The following day, I found myself reflecting on this and Gallaway’s experience as I spoke with current thru-hikers who stopped by the Blue Ridge Outdoors tent. Though with nearly three-quarters of the trail still ahead of them, the daunting task of walking from this southwestern corner of Virginia all the way to Maine didn’t seem to phase them — they were taking it day by day, step by step, mile by mile.
As someone who very easily gets overwhelmed in thinking about the “big picture,” I often lose sight of the process and wallow in its magnitude. As a writer, it’s downright paralyzing. And so, I decided, it’s time to do as these hikers have done and take a hike.
Join me this Saturday, May 23rd, at Reeds Gap off the Blue Ridge Parkway (located at mile marker 13.5) at 9 a.m. I’ll be heading south along the Appalachian Trail with a team from the magazine and Blue Ridge Mountain Sports looking for hungry hikers in need of a little magic. Trader Joe’s has kindly offered up bread, meats, veggies, fruit, and water to our white blazers and I’ll be handing out Farm To Feet socks and LifeStraw water filters to those in need.
Plus, two lucky hikers will receive the ultimate Charlottesville experience with free tickets to the Old Crow Medicine Show and The Devil Makes Three performance at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion. We’ve got a yard for camping and a ride back to the trailhead Sunday morning for the pair that wins.
So pack a cooler, throw on your hiking boots, and hit the trail. Everyone could use a little magic in their lives.
Check out the Live Outside and Play Facebook album for more photos from Trail Days 2015. Happy trails, y’all!