As I have mentioned before, there is a festival called Trail Days which is held in Damascus VA, May 17th-19th. The events are centered around the AT and backpacking in general. Much like a state fair, there are. Number of food and beverage vendors as well as crafts and local produce up for purchase, but the reason most thru hikers attend Trail Days is for the gear and the party. The town is divided into two congregation areas. The first is about 2 miles outside town and is the designated camping area known as "tent city". It lives up to its name. This section of town is where all the camping and craziness takes place as well as the spot where all the big name gear companies are set up for repairs and exchanges. The second are is the town center. This is where one would go to get a bite to eat or to visit gear companies that attend Trail Days on a more sales-oriented basis. The larger manufacturers that are allowed to set up shop right next to where the hikers are camped are generally there to service any malfunctioning or damaged gear. They come with an army of gear techs and tables upon tables of tools, sewing machines and rolls of nylon fabric. This is an unique service and a large part of the reason people migrate back to Damascus for the festival. We tend to forget that the mud stained, mildew laced pack we have slung over our shoulders is actually housing about $2,000 worth of gear if ot more. As well made as these articles are, they still break down when you use them every day. Having the manufacturer come to you, take in your gear, fix it like new, and then hand it back to you with maybe a free doo-dad or additional piece of gear is a wicked service.
Tent city itself is half field and half woods with a river running along the edge of the forest, camp sites and big event tents set up throughout. There were probably 2,500 people camped in a 20 acre space. The turnout was much smaller than we anticipated but, then again, the validity of information that trickles through the trail tends to be fairly diluted. At any rate, the party scene was pretty much exactly what we expected. Big fires, cheap beer, tye dye, harmonicas, frisbee, hacky sack, banjos, dred lockes, drum circles, body painting, big beards and course; ganja. The whole place turned into the quintessential hippie combine for a 72 hour period. We definitely land on the conservative side of the hiker spectrum but it was a hell of an experience to see such a free spirited lot in a contemporary setting. There were definitely a few people out there who were born in the wrong generation, viewing the full-on hippie culture up close was like going back in time.
The keystone of the festival is the thru-hiker parade that takes place on Saturday and is made solely of previous and current thru hikers. The hikers get dressed up in everything silly they can get their hands on and march through the streets arranged by the year they hiked. The most senior thru hikers lead the parade, with current hikers bringing up the rear. The whole mob is equipped with squirt guns, water balloons and five gallon buckets to splash each other as well as onlookers lining the streets. we had gotten about 300 yards through the 1 mile march before pandemonium broke out. A local older fella who drives in the parade each year had some sort of episode which caused him to lose consciousness. He had forgotten completely that he was supposed to be driving slowly behind a parade and instead hit the gas, plowing through the back portion of the parade. We looked to our right to investigate the commotion and saw an old Cadillac literally driving over people that we had just been standing next to. The crowd scattered. Every person in the area was screaming bloody murder and those that had been right near the vehicle (our group included) began running along-side the vehicle to try to stop the car. Once the car was stopped (by a member of our group, Big Yankee), the surrounding people muckled onto the chassis (lead by Thunderfoot, another member) and lifted the car off from a young girl who had ended up under the vehicle at the time it was stopped. You could hear her over everyone. It was absolutely horrifying. After we scurried around to make sure everyone was accounted for, the mood quickly went from a big silly party to a state of emergency. The crowd squeezed on the side walks and ambulances screeched down the road. Paramedics attended to a lane of scattered hikers laying on the road. Helicopters were touching down at any space large enough to accommodate one. Four injured hikers were air lifted to whichever hospital is closest. Anyone who was unscathed was directed to leave the main drag and go back to tent city. Party's over.
Being that the mood had just gone from happy-go-lucky to utter shock, we all just went back to our respective camp sites and cooled down. We got together and said a word or two for those who had been rushed to the hospital and made our arrangements for our departure the following day. Having received some follow-up news that those affected would be okay, we are able to look back on Trail Days fondly.