Trail Mixer

Each year, Damascus, Va., earns its place as the friendliest town on the Appalachian Trail, throwing a party tribute to the hikers passing through.

May 10, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

DAMASCUS, Va. -- When the world's most famous hiking trail is your main street, certain things are expected of you.

But an intimate party for 15,000? "Hikers are like family in this town," says Dave Patrick, owner of Mount Rogers Outfitters, as a simple way to explain this week's Appalachian Trail Days.

Since 1987, Damascus (pop. 900) has thrown a wing-ding in loving tribute to the free spirits who suffer blisters, gorp and moldy socks to trek from Georgia to Maine.

Hikers are already drifting into town and by the weekend, the banks of Laurel Creek will be a multicolored sea of nylon tents. Others will camp in back yards and next door to the Methodist church. "I've already got a house full," says Steve Webb, who hiked the trail in 1996 under the trail name Sundog. He moved to town a year ago.

Trail Days were started by the late Charles Trivett, a town councilor who was tickled by the notion that a tiny portion of the 2,100-mile path cut right through the heart of downtown.

By word of mouth, that simple weekend get-together grew each year. Speedy thru-hikers doubled back. Slowpokes hitchhiked north. Veterans returned for reunions.

Just last week, townspeople were smiling in anticipation of seeing old friends, who they discuss by trail name. There's Pirate and Jester and Paw-Paw (he's 82). Wee Willie and Model T and Baltimore Jack. (He's from Hanover, N.H. Go figure.) "They all wind up here sometime," laughs Debbie Reed, who with her husband owns Quincey's Pizza and Callie's Dining, where hikers carbo load, share tales from the trail, and pop change into the jukebox. ("Have You Ever Seen the Rain" is a favorite.)

Another mandatory stop is the post office, where six workers sort through 1,100 packages of food and clothing hikers mail themselves to restock their backpacks. "We meet almost all of them," says Betsy Henderson. "We get packages for Grizzly and RoboCop and then we're anxious to see what they look like."

Weary hikers who can barely lift their feet come out of the post office with boxes in their arms and renewed spring in their steps.

"You just love to see their faces. It looks like Christmas morning," says Reed.

Townspeople spend all year getting ready for Trail Days.

The checklist is staggering: portable toilets, Trail Days T-shirts, snacks and water to be ordered; workshop speakers to arrange; computer stations to wire so hikers can get and send e-mail.

"There's no such thing as a paid staff," says this year's chairwoman, Denise Patterson. "This is all done by volunteers, by people who are much too busy."

Patterson is in the middle of opening Damascus' first coffee bar and bakery but makes time for Trail Days. "You just do it," she says, shrugging and laughing.

At the center of the storm is Elizabeth McKee, former school teacher, librarian and, for six years, the mayor of Damascus. McKee is a familiar sight downtown, checking on this and that.

"I do it because I want this town to be known. I want people to visit," says McKee, who is not shy about telling a rowdy hiker half her age to behave or else.

McKee admits to pampering the hikers, making sure sick ones get to a doctor, a companion dog gets to the vet, a tapped-out trekker gets a few dollars. Townspeople even shuttle hikers with family emergencies to the airport or bus station.

"We've never lost a penny on any of them," McKee says.

In return, the hikers send notes and snapshots to Damascus when they finish.

"We like to know they got home," McKee says. "We're just like moms."

The weekend will include a parade, a hiker talent show (everyone still talks about the Blister Sisters and their "Thru-Hikers Blues"), sausage-and-egg breakfasts by the volunteer fire department and outdoors equipment vendors.

But the biggest attraction this year will be the appearance of Earl Shaffer, the first thru-hiker in 1948 who duplicated the feat last year at the age of 79. He will discuss last year's hike and show slides from the historic first hike.

The popularity of Trail Days has started locals talking about how long they can keep being "the friendliest town on the trail."

"It's gotten so big now, it's kind of scary," says Dave Patrick, who will add eight workers at his shop to handle the weekend hordes.

At least one corporation has offered to sponsor the event, but was turned down.

"I think next year it's going to be the turning point," says Patterson.

"If we start listening to corporate sponsors, that will open a can of worms. We want to do Trail Days and not sell our soul."

By next Monday, hikers will be pulling up stakes and setting their sites on the long, humid haul through the Mid-Atlantic states. Damascus residents say they will go through a kind of withdrawal.

"It's just like when you have a birthday," says McKee with a wistful smile. "You cut the cake, open the presents, and then everyone is gone."

Pub Date: 5/10/99

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