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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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November 17, 2019

Trail Days in Damascus, royalty, and a sacred institution

When I was much younger, about the age of the droves of recent college grads on the trail, I used to go to many stadium concerts, spending entire days or even weekends crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the hot sun, screaming and jumping for band after band, taking leave only for brief trips out of a mosh pit to carry back as much beer as I could.

While a good concert is still one of the most effective ways to dissolve my severe social reserve, and I am not above (or below) creeping right up to the stage, I certainly have gained a newfound appreciation for those two magic words “reserved seating” as I have gotten older. So, too, was my approach to Trail Days, hands down the largest festival on the Appalachian Trail held in Damascus, VA, where I believe 2,000 attendees were expected this year (Consider that as of the 2010 census, the population of Damascus itself was only 810).

While there are a few hostels and B&Bs, the majority of this crowd camps in one giant “tent city.” I have not been thrilled upon finding myself at a campsite on the trail with 30 others, so you can imagine how much enthusiasm I had for a campsite of probably a thousand or more. I also did not like the idea of leaving behind everything I own, at least for these six months on the AT, completely unguarded when I left for meals and such. Luckily, I found a camping spot at a small, church-run hostel.

If I’m being honest, I spent most of Trail Days allowing my blood glucose and my legs to recover, making just a few trips to see the vendors and live music. I was, however, incredibly excited for one particular event, and it far exceeded my expectations.

It all started a month ago in Hot Springs, NC, as I stood dumbfounded on the main strip watching the mountains burn. A short yellow school bus stopped in the middle of the road and the relatively young driver stuck his head out to let us know that he was working on getting a site approved for free camping for those evacuated back when the fire began. The next morning I learned that this bus belonged to “Odie,” publisher of the Hiker Yearbook started in 2014. He had stopped by the grass behind a Dollar General where many of us found ourselves camped to give us an update on the fire. His web site was listed on the side of the bus, but I inquired his name to add to my long list of people to thank for aid during this epic adventure because I didn’t expect to see him again.

Boy was I wrong.

Odie popped up all over the place over the next several weeks, his yellow bus making appearances in seemingly every trail town I came across, helping out hikers in any way he could. Considering a shuttle often costs $50-100, he could be doing a pretty good business, but I’ve never seen Odie take a dime from hikers.

Fast forward to Trail Days. Many vendors do drawings, raffles, or other giveaways, and I learned through his many appearances that the Hiker Yearbook would be doing the same, with on catch: Odie’s giveaways would be limited only to thru-hikers. He was so excited about everything he was working on obtaining for the giveaway that it made you excited.

So it happened that my number one priority at Trail Days was to get my picture taken for the Hiker Yearbook and thus be entered, and on Saturday afternoon crowd around that short yellow bus. This would unexpectedly become one of my most memorable experiences on the trail so far.

I don’t say this because I won anything; I did not. I say this because Odie took all of the passion he has for the AT and for hikers and blew the crowd away.

Everyone was crowded around the Hiker Yearbook bus long before the giveaway began, in numbers conspicuously larger than for the live music or other events going on. As the time approached, the crowd began chanting: “Hi-Ker Year-Book Hi-Ker Year-Book.” Finally, the doors of the bus opened, Odie stepped out, climbed his way up on top of the bus, and I think, for a moment, learned what it feels like to be a rock star.

“Youuuuuuu arrrrree royaaaalllty!” He shouted.

He then continued an impassioned speech about those that take on the spiritual journey of thru-hiking to many cheers, but the keen observer will have noticed the undertones of this speech. I do not have to read the news — something I haven’t done in two months — for it to have become quickly clear along my hike that the institution of the AT thru-hike is under fire. As the amount of hikers on the trail grows in ridiculous numbers, so too has the trash, the privies that can’t keep up, and the interference with wildlife.

In response, many who must cope with such frustrating results, from park rangers to residents near the trail, are growing weary. Most people who hike the AT are out for the day, the weekend, or maybe a week, but thru-hikers spend such a long duration on the trail that they are in the spotlight. This spotlight requires that thru-hikers be even more diligent in their care of the AT.

It did not go unnoticed that Odie’s “royalty” analogy was built in large part around the responsibility that goes with setting foot on the trail, treating the “crown” with dignity so that it may be passed on to future thru-hikers. While most people will only thru-hike once, it will always remain in the hearts of those who have done so, or even made a serious attempt to do so.

When an institution is in jeopardy, leaders are required to mount a defense, and it’s clear Odie is not only worthy of being one of those leaders, but that he has also overwhelmingly commanded the respect of the people — the thru-hikers — by promoting good trail practices in a non-condescending way.

Whether helping hikers when the trail throws a curve ball, filling up his bus with trash bags packed out by conscientious hikers who have come across litter, or rallying the troops in the rare case a pack disappears and a would-be thru-hiker’s dreams are almost dashed, Odie is a friend to both The Trail and the thru-hiker.

After his speech, he proceeded to give away an overwhelming amount of gear, hostel stays, outfitter gift certificates and more, all provided because he simply told the various sources that he was looking for something to give the thru-hikers. Odie would probably say he had so much success with giveaways because he said it was for the thru-hikers; I suspect part of it had to do with who was asking.

I have been conversing with many who are preparing for their own future thru-hikes, and I just hope that I can be a positive rather than negative influence on the trail, and that other “rock stars” step up to help protect this sacred institution.

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