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An Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Part 12 - Damascus, Virginia

Updated on February 25, 2013
Damascus , VA has a reputation as one of the friendliest trail towns on the AT
Damascus , VA has a reputation as one of the friendliest trail towns on the AT | Source

Campfire Cleanup

After leaving Elk Park, we had three days of easy hiking. During that period Paul got out in front of us by about 10 miles or so. We followed his progress through the shelter logs, and he left us some notes. He was about one shelter ahead of us each night. The shelters along the Appalachian Trail are spaced about 8 to 10 miles apart. The trail clubs typically try to locate them at a water source and in a pleasant spot with either a view, a flat area and a nice grove of trees, or near a stream. The shelters usually have a fireplace, a picnic table, a water supply (ideally a spring), and an outhouse (located away from the water supply). The shelters are almost all open front lean-tos with a wooden plank floor. There are no bunks. Hikers just spread their pads and sleeping bags out on the floor. As has been mentioned, each shelter has a logbook. Sometimes hikers get lucky and find that someone who has gone before has left food in the shelter for others. This usually happens when people are about to finish their trip and they realize they won't be eating all their food. Instead of carrying out the extra weight, they leave it behind, knowing that hungry hikers coming behind them will eat it. There were a few times that we ended up with an unanticipated meal that way. Usually it was Ramen noodles or mac and cheese, but on occasion there were some real treats left behind – such as candy or some kind of interesting freeze-dried, just add boiling water meal.

On the third day out from Elk Park we hiked 21 miles and ended up at Double Springs shelter. The shelter was surrounded by all sorts of trash and broken branches, so we had a large campfire to clean things up. We spent a little bit of time during the day holed up at Vanderventer shelter while we waited out a passing rain shower. There we found a note from Paul telling us that he was going on to Abington Gap shelter that night. In the afternoon the skies cleared off and we were able to hike some in the sunshine. Abington Gap was 8 miles past Double Springs. If we hadn't waited out the rain shower we might have made it the extra 8 miles to Abington Gap but we ended up only reaching Double Springs.

I still remember the fire we had that evening to clean up the clutter around the shelter. It was a combination of trash and firewood. Instead of neatly stacked, the wood had been strewn all over the campsite. The trash was scattered amongst the branches and logs. Our fire was the biggest one we had the entire trip. We burned all the trash and a lot of the wood. We neatly stacked the rest. The place looked a lot better when we left the next day than it did when we got there.

Sometimes hikers get lucky and find that someone who has gone before has left food in the shelter for others. ..... Instead of carrying out the extra weight, they leave it behind, knowing that hungry hikers coming behind them will eat it.

We cleaned up the area around Double Springs shelter by burning a lot of garbage that we found strewn around the campsite
We cleaned up the area around Double Springs shelter by burning a lot of garbage that we found strewn around the campsite | Source

Dave grabbed the cup and stuck it in his pack also. He was turning his JanSport into a mobile "Lost and Found".

Lost and Found

On April 21 we crossed into Virginia and arrived in the town of Damascus about 1:30 in the afternoon. The morning was foggy, rainy and cold, but after a few hours the sun burned through and the day turned pleasant. We had an interesting hike into Damascus because we kept running across various items that Paul had either left behind or dropped along the way. When we got to Abington Gap shelter we stopped to see if Paul left us any notes. We found no note but we did find his blue jeans. They were soaking wet and they were lying in the middle of the lean-to floor. We all laughed. We knew he must've gotten soaked during the rain the day before. He probably didn't want to carry or wear the heavy wet jeans so he left them at the shelter in case someone else wanted to take them – sort of like how some people leave extra food at the shelters. Of course the likelihood that someone would need an extra pair of jeans, and would actually fit into Paul's jeans, was not a high probability. The more probable outcome was that people from the local trail club who maintain that shelter would have ended up having to haul the jeans out the next time they came by to check on the place. Dave was always ready to take on more weight in his pack so he strapped the jeans onto the outside of his JanSport. After a few moments it started to dawn on us that none of us had ever seen Paul wearing any pants other than those blue jeans. As we started down the trail again we all started asking each other – what could Paul be wearing now? A little ways further down the trail we found another artifact. Paul’s Sierra cup was lying next to the trail. A Sierra cup is a shallow metal cup with a handle that can be hung off a belt or a pack strap. It is handy when you come to a stream or a spring. All you have to do is grab the cup off your belt and fill it up for a quick drink. They can also serve as a small pot to boil water in for a single serving of cup-o-soup, instant coffee, instant oatmeal, hot chocolate, or any number of other things. Sometimes if you're not careful, though, it can fall off of a belt or a pack and you will never know it.

Dave grabbed the cup and stuck it in his pack also. He was turning his JanSport into a mobile "Lost and Found". By this time we were burning to get into Damascus. For one thing we wanted to catch up with Paul to give him all his stuff back and kid him about losing it. We also were curious what he was wearing in place of the jeans. Of course we were excited about entering into Virginia, and last, and most important, we had heard a lot about Damascus as a hikers town. It had a great hostel and the town had a reputation for being very friendly to AT hikers.

By the time we hiked into town, the day was beautiful. It was as if the skies surrounding the town were welcoming us to Damascus and all of Virginia. The trail follows Main Street right through town. One of the first things we saw as we started down the road was Paul in the distance. He was unmistakable as he walked along with a short quick stride. We could make out his white beard, white hair, and maroon cap. He was coming towards us and it was impossible not to notice the bright yellow pair of pants he was wearing. We were puzzled. None of us had ever seen him wearing yellow pants before and we couldn't figure out why he would have bright yellow pants anyway. It was only after he came closer that we finally figured out what was going on. After Paul had ditched his jeans at Abington Gap lean-to, he had hiked into Damascus wearing the pants from his yellow rain suit. When we met in the middle of the street we told him that we had brought the jeans and the Sierra cup. He was happy to get the cup back, but he didn't want the jeans. He told us that since the weather was warming up he was going to get some shorts. In the meantime he was going to wear his yellow rain pants. We bid Paul farewell for the rest of the afternoon and the three of us went on to "The Place", the famous hikers hostel in Damascus.

The Place

“The Place” was an old house tucked into a residential neighborhood. There was a big sign on the side of the house above the door that read "The Place" in bright colorful letters. “The Place” had a kitchen, a bathroom with shower, and lots of rooms for sleeping upstairs. The sleeping rooms were all filled with yellowish brown, pockmarked, bare foam pads ranging from 5 to 6 feet long and 2 to 3 feet wide, and from 2 inches to 8 inches thick. The living room had a hodgepodge of furniture and a fireplace. When we arrived, there was a bunch of litter lying around the living room – mostly old newspapers and food wrappers.

We claimed a couple of the foam pads in one of the sleeping rooms by laying our packs on top of them. Then we went downstairs and decided to clean up the living room. The campfire at Double Springs shelter was still in our mind and we saw another opportunity to have a fire for the purpose of getting rid of garbage. This time we built the fire in the fireplace. At first we forgot to open the flue and the living room began to fill with smoke. It wasn't long before we realized our oversight and we opened the flue, but we still had to open the doors and windows to air the place out. Luckily it was a nice afternoon. Later we went to the post office to pick up our first package from our parents. Our package contained cookies, gorp, letters, and a nice knife for Dave from his brother and cousins. All the letters were fun to read and the cookies and gorp were much appreciated.

While getting packages are always occasions of great excitement, for some thru-hikers packages take on extra significance. Some thru-hikers plan their trips with resupply packages mailed to post offices along the way. Their food for subsequent phases of their journey lie waiting at post offices in various small towns along the trail. In those cases, not only are hikers reading letters from family and friends while they munch on chocolate chip cookies and brownies, they are also reloading their packs with packets of noodles, oatmeal, trail mix, and other trail food. We supplied ourselves using a different method. We decided to bring travelers checks and buy supplies along the way. That approach seemed more flexible to us when we planned our trip and it turned out to be a good move. Post office package pickups tie a hiker to a schedule, whereas bringing the travelers checks allowed us to resupply where and when we wanted to. After getting our package at the post office, Dave and I spent the afternoon learning the layout of the town. One unfortunate discovery was that the local laundromat had been closed down. We found out that the closest laundromat was in a town called Abington. We would have to find a way to get there if we were to wash our clothes.

Staying in an AT hiker’s hostel is the best way to meet other thru-hikers. Paul and Mark were the first thru-hikers we had really gotten to know. Others we had encountered were just acquaintances. Another thru-hiking pair arrived while we were at "The Place" in Damascus. They were two brothers. They were both young – in their early 20s, and they both enjoyed Redman chewing tobacco. It was from their Redman habit that they drew their trail name of the "Chaw Brothers".

Downtown Damascus, Virginia
Downtown Damascus, Virginia | Source
The trail following Main Street in Damascus
The trail following Main Street in Damascus | Source

Money Concerns

Since Dave and I chose to carry a large sum of money with us and buy supplies along the way as we needed them, there was a danger in overspending. We could spend all our money too soon and not have enough left to finish the trip. This was a concern of ours when we reach Damascus. We took stock of our situation by comparing how far we had come and the amount of money we had spent. It was clear that we were spending too fast. We resolved to cut back and start spending more wisely. We realized that a lot of the spending had come about due to the restaurant hopping we had done in previous towns along with our choices of staying at motels when we could have either stayed on the trail or stayed in a hostel – we had done that in Wesser, Robbinsville, and Hot Springs. We decided Damascus was going to be different. We felt good about the money we were saving by staying at "The Place" and we developed a plan to be careful shoppers in Damascus.

We spent a lot of time on our grocery shopping. There were either two or three stores that we visited to compare prices. Not only did we compare prices, but we also began to purchase food a little more like traditional hikers. We still bought a few cans of food, but we invested in a lot more light, cheap, starchy foods like Ramen noodles and Kraft macaroni and cheese at prices like four boxes for one dollar. Also, we started getting Quaker instant oatmeal instead of the "just add water" pancake mix. It may have been in Damascus or it may have been later that we switched over to eating saltine crackers and Velveeta cheese instead of peanut butter and jelly for lunches. Another meal choice we made that started a trend was to buy a pack of hot dogs. Previously we had been afraid that hot dogs would go bad in our packs. We decided that we would eat them early and finish them within a day or two (the weather was getting nicer, but it wasn't too hot yet). What we found with the hot dogs over time was that they don't go bad when unrefrigerated. All the preservatives that are in hot dogs keep them from spoiling too quickly, as long as they are kept out of the direct sun. Let me be clear that I am not recommending it, but in terms of documenting all that we did on our trip, I have to relate that there were times that we ate hot dogs (two apiece) for three nights in a row in between supply stops. We also adjusted the snacks that we purchased to carry with us in our packs. Early in the trip we would get candy bars for energy snacks or we would try to make gorp (a.k.a. trail mix), a mixture of peanuts, raisins, and M&M’s. We found the candy bars were eaten too quickly and often would be messy due to melting in the wrappers. Gorp also went too fast, and required us to have Ziploc bags to mix the ingredients. Individually wrapped hard candies or taffy-like stuff such as Bit-O-Honey seemed to work best for us. They were easy to eat on the move, and they came with their own individual wrapper so they could easily be carried in our pockets. Furthermore, they gave us a little shot of energy when we needed it, but they were numerous enough and we could resist them enough so that we could make a bag of them last several days.

Overall, I think of Damascus as being a breakpoint of sorts on our trip. After that point we still found opportunities to stay at hotels as further reading will reveal, but Dave and I became a little more practical about our eating and spending overall. We didn't make a point of hitting one restaurant after another after we got into town. In fact, while in Damascus, we didn't go to any restaurants. We brought groceries back to "The Place" and fixed meals in the kitchen.

Trail Magic

The interesting event of the second day in Damascus was our trip to Abington and how we got there. Dave and I had been somewhere in town and we came back to the hostel to be greeted by Paul.

"Hey guys, we’re going to Abington to do our laundry," he informed us.

With Paul it was never "Hey guys, do you want to go to Abington." Or "Hey guys, Mark and I met a couple nice young ladies who have offered to take us to Abington...". It was his style to immediately insert people into the action and let them catch up on their own. So when he greeted us as we returned from our stroll about town, Paul just told us to hurry and get our laundry together because Kathy and Rebecca were going to take us to Abington right after they took our picture for the newspaper article they were writing.

Dave and I were a little bewildered. There were quite a few questions in my mind: "Who are Kathy and Rebecca?", "What newspaper article?", and "Where and how far away is Abington?"

Being used to following instructions from older people, we dutifully went upstairs and returned with our black plastic garbage bags full of dirty, smelly clothes. We posed for a few pictures in front of "The Place" while Paul chatted amiably with the two young women. Mark seemed to know a little more about what was going on, but he stayed quiet like us. The next thing we knew, we were squeezed into their vehicle, driving off to the town of Abington where there was a laundromat. During the drive I managed to get some questions answered. One of the young ladies was the daughter of the man who owned the newspaper in Abington. They were writing an article for the paper about AT hikers and how they start coming to Damascus about this time every spring. They had shown up at "The Place" to see if there was anyone to interview for the article and to get some pictures. That was how they met Paul and Mark. Once that happened they had a steady stream of information for their article. By the time we showed up, the questions had all been asked and Paul and Mark had wrangled the ride to Abington. On the ride to Abington we also found out that the two young ladies were in a band with Rebecca's brother and that they had just recorded a record at his studio.

After they took us to the laundromat they brought us to their house. Their home had been an old brick firehouse or an old warehouse that had been completely remodeled. When they had originally bought it, it had been nothing but a brick shell. They showed us pictures of what it had looked like before the remodeling. I was certainly not attuned to home design or décor at that time of my life, but even then I could appreciate the remodeling job they had done. I can remember all of us sitting on some stools around a counter of an island with a tiled surface in the middle of a large open floor plan. The walls were mostly exposed brick. The floors were beautifully stained and finished hardwood. The furnishings and decorations were, even to my inexperienced eyes, perfectly suited for the brick, tile, and hardwood surfaces. I wrote in my journal descriptions of stained-glass windows, oriental rugs, chandeliers, and multiple kitchens.

At the house we met Rebecca’s brother and we started talking with them about their music. They even played the record they had just recorded. At one point the brother left the room to get something. Either Rebecca or Kathy said that they should've mentioned to him to get something else as well. At that Paul popped up off his stool and started off in the direction he had gone, yelling his name. Paul disappeared into a different room calling for him. Rebecca and Kathy just looked after him laughing. I found myself wondering if Paul knew these people. Maybe they were friends or relations. I even took a moment later on to ask Dave when no one else was listening to us. He didn't know but he didn't think so. That was not to be the last time I would wonder whether Paul already knew people we had just met. After a tour of their house, some cold drinks, and a long friendly conversation, they gave us a ride back to Damascus with our now clean laundry. Back at "The Place" we waved as we watch them drive away, and I couldn't help feeling like I had just gotten off a boat that had borne me along a winding stream past vivid and surprising scenes that appeared around each bend. There had been no controlling the craft. I had simply hung on to see where the current would bring me, and in the end it had brought me back to where I started with clean clothes and a wider view of the world. Reading about modern AT hikers there is a term that is used that we never heard when we hiked in ’82. The term is “Trail Magic” which means any unexpected good fortune or act of kindness bestowed on an AT hiker by someone the hiker meets along the way. We might not have known of the term in those days, but we were certainly familiar with and appreciative of the experience.

Reading about modern AT hikers there is a term that is used that we never heard when we hiked in ’82. The term is “Trail Magic” which means any unexpected good fortune or act of kindness bestowed on an AT hiker by someone the hiker meets along the way.

Damascus hosts an annual "Trail Days" parade
Damascus hosts an annual "Trail Days" parade | Source

The Tap Dancing Hiker

We stayed one more day at "The Place" in Damascus. I went and got a haircut for three dollars, and had some repairs done to the toes of my hiking boots. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I spent most of it sitting outside reading Louis L'Amour novels. Even in 1982 the prices I paid for the haircut and the shoe repair were extremely inexpensive. The shoe repairman was especially memorable. I brought my boots to him in the morning and he told me to leave the boots with him and come back in the afternoon. I told him that I didn't have any other shoes to wear. He found me a pair of canvas sneakers to wear for the day until I came back for the boots. When it came time to pick up the boots I went back a little nervous because when I dropped them off I had neglected to ask how much it would cost. I wasn't sure what to expect, either for how the repair would be made, or for how much the price would be. When he showed me the boots I was surprised. The reason I had brought them to the shop was that the Vibrum was wearing down at the toes and it was beginning to peel away from the rest of the sole. He had fixed them by gluing them back and tacking some small metal plates into the sole at the toes on top of the Vibrum. It literally looked like hiking boots reengineered into tap dance shoes. At first I have to admit I wasn't too excited about the effect. I wondered how long the metal toe plates would hold up. More specifically I wondered how long the tacks holding the plates to the sole of the boot would last. Wondering about that but not showing any concern, I braced myself for the answer to my next question, "How much do I owe you?"

He answered two dollars. My eyes must've blown wide open when he said that because he immediately asked me, "Is that too much?"

"No, no," I assured him, "that's fine." I was, of course, relieved. As it turned out, that two dollars was one of the best deals of my whole trip. The metal plates lasted another three months of rugged everyday use, and the plates actually wore down around the tacks that he used to attach the plates to the soles. Walking back to "The Place" in my repaired boots, the plates clicked over and over on the sidewalk and the road. From that point on I heard the sound of tap dance shoes whenever I walked over stones in the trail or on road walks. Every time I did, I wondered how many pairs of hiking boots that man fixed during his career as a cobbler on the Appalachian Trail.

My eyes must've blown wide open when he said that because he immediately asked me, "Is that too much?"

I had to bring my boots to a cobbler in Damascus.
I had to bring my boots to a cobbler in Damascus. | Source


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