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Appalachian Trail hikers converge in Damascus for annual Trail Days

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DAMASCUS, Va. — Damascus loves its hikers, and no event displays that affinity more than the weekend of Trail Days.

Hikers came from all over to unite in Damascus this weekend for the 35th annual Appalachian Trail Days Festival held in the heart of Trail Town, USA.

On Saturday, the usually small town was a bustling city full of hikers, travelers and outdoors enthusiasts who came to Damascus for a weekend of camaraderie and all things Appalachian Trail. The free live music, gear repair, showers, haircuts and other hiker services were a bonus.

“Trail Days is a big celebration of the Appalachian Trail and thru-hiker culture,” Julie Kroll, recreation program director for Damascus, said. “We are estimating that about 5,000 thru-hikers will pass through this season, and we probably have a couple thousand of them camping here with us this weekend.”

According to Kroll, Damascus is one of three towns where the trail passes along Main Street, leaving a unique imprint in the minds of Appalachian Trail, or A.T., hikers.

“Damascus is fondly known by thru-hikers as the friendliest town on the Appalachian Trail,” Kroll said.

Cody Stiles of Iowa said he hiked almost 200 miles in two weeks to make it to the festival that started in 1987. He is one of the many thru-hikers calling “Tent City” home for the weekend, which is the hikers’ campground at the festival that he described as being like a mix of 1969’s Woodstock and the modern-day Burning Man festival.

“All the locals are super friendly and happy,” Stiles said. “I’m sure it’s great for the town as far as raising money. ... Small businesses need all the help they can get.”

For Stiles, the free three-day festival has been a way to reunite with fellow hikers he met previously on the trail.

“It’s neat because people shuttle (in),” Stiles said. “I’ve seen people from the group we are hiking with now and people we hiked with back at the beginning of April, too.”

Alyse Ford of New Jersey is a section hiker who timed her hike to coincide with Trail Days.

“It’s wild — it’s so much fun,” Ford said. “I knew it was going to be cool like this, but it’s definitely awesome … just being amongst all of the other [hikers] and the rest of your people and all of the outdoor vendors.”

Ford said she got on the nearly 2,200-mile trail stretching from Georgia to Maine as a kind of escape, but it soon opened her eyes to much more.

“Originally, I just wanted to leave society for a while and just get away from the real world, and then we got wrapped up in the whole community of it and all the people and the whole environment,” Ford said. “It’s not just a regular backpacking experience — it’s a whole other level.”

Kimo, a 79-year-old hiker from New Hampshire, traveled 14 hours to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his A.T. completion by taking part in the Trail Days hiker parade, where hikers young and old march together in groups based on the year they finished the trail.

“It’s like a county fair basically celebrating hikers,” Kimo said.

According to Kroll and Susan Coleman, chair of Trail Days, this year’s festival saw a record number of sponsors and vendors, and likely met past attendance numbers of up to 20,000.

“I think my favorite part is meeting people from all walks of life and just having chats with them,” Coleman said.

For Kimo, he just wants Trail Days to see continued support from the A.T. community.

“Keep it going; don’t stop it,” Kimo said. “It’s a financial boon for the town, too, so why not help the town that’s so friendly to hikers?”

Trail Days wraps up Sunday afternoon with a 5K at 10 a.m., a worship service at 10:30 a.m. and live music from Carson Peters & Iron Mountain from 1 to 3 p.m.

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