A weary hiker limps into Mount Rogers Outfitters in Damascus, Va. (pop. 981), and heads straight for the shoe department. The hiker’s feet are aching after a six-week, 450-mile trek on the Appalachian Trail.
Manager Tom Davenport inspects the hiker’s boots, measures his right foot and suggests a new set of insoles to keep his feet from slipping and blistering on the mountainous terrain.
“We do a big business with people trying to solve their foot problems,” says David Patrick, 62, a Damascus native who opened the store in 1991, a year after hiking the entire 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
“After being out in the woods for six months I thought it was something I wanted to do as a service to the hikers,” Patrick adds. “At the time, it was hard to even find a pair of socks in Damascus.”
Plenty has changed in Trail Town USA since Patrick started selling outdoor gear 16 years ago. Today, Damascus, which lies at the junction of five hiking, biking and scenic trails, is home to two sporting goods stores, six bike shops, and more than a dozen bed & breakfast inns and hostels that cater to thousands of hikers and cyclists each year.
Many come to Damascus to ride bicycles on the 34-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, which follows the forested route of a former railroad line between Abingdon and Whitetop Station, Va.
“Most of the people ride from Whitetop to Damascus,” says Rick DeArmond, 40, the owner of Blue Blaze Bike & Shuttle. “It’s all downhill, so families can bring kids along and ride 18 miles.”
The dense forests around Damascus long have attracted adventurous outdoorsmen. Daniel Boone blazed a trail through the wilderness of southwestern Virginia in 1775, opening the region to European settlement.
“He came through here and went west into the Cumberland Gap in Kentucky,” says Louise Fortune Hall, 94, the town’s historian and a founding member of the Mount Rogers Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains 56 miles of the trail north of Damascus.
Today’s trailblazers are the hundreds of long-distance hikers that pass through Damascus each year en route to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Most arrive in April or May and many time their visit to coincide with the town’s annual Appalachian Trail Days.
The festival, which serves as both a community celebration and hikers’ reunion, features a hikers’ parade and talent show, Appalachian Trail photo contest, backpacking workshops, a trout tournament, and dozens of outdoor product vendors and trail-related organizations.
“Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a mission and they want to accomplish the whole trail,” says Mayor Creed Jones, 80, of the visiting trekkers. “Then they love to come back here and brag about it.”
Damascus is a virtual oasis for weary hikers, a place where they can eat a hearty meal, wash a load of laundry and restock their backpacks from the parcels of food and outdoor gear they send to the local post office.
Townspeople welcome the hikers with open arms. During Trail Days, the First Baptist Church congregation serves free meals to the hungry hikers and offers them complimentary hot showers.
Most of the hikers pitch tents in a campground on the edge of town, while others bunk at The Place, a hostel operated by the United Methodist Church since 1976. “We just ask for a donation to keep the lights on and the water hot,” Pastor Jane Ayers says.
The backpackers appreciate the hospitality and each spring they return to Damascus, a hikers’ haven that residents appropriately call the Friendliest Town on the Trail.
“I hiked 34 miles to get here today,” says Zack Zanzinger, 19, of Chicago. “I’ve got to get to the campground and get out of these boots.”