Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Trail Days 2012

Being a resident of central Virginia enables me the opportunity to be a frequent visitor to annual festivities at Trail Days in Damascus.  The event always occurs the week after Mother’s Day and is generally a weeklong celebration of backpackers hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT).  Damascus is widely regarded as the “friendliest town on the trail”, a product no doubt of a marketing campaign many years ago to advertise a town that had only 981 people according to the 2000 census.  It has been my experience that this moniker is well deserved as quite literally every townsfolk I’ve ever met in Damascus have been nothing short of kind, generous, helpful and good-spirited.

An event of this type at this time is intentional as a good bulk of hikers stomping their way from Georgia to Maine are frequently in the area.  By this time, hikers are well into their journey, some have already dropped out, and many are already fairly skinny and sporting impressive beards.  Men too.  Consequently, Damascus is also the central point of four scenic trails converging – the Appalachian Trail, the Virginia Creeper Trail, the Iron Mountain Trail, and the U.S. Bicycle Route 76 “trail”.  Each year the town hosts approximately 20,000 tourists during Trail Days making it the largest single gathering of AT hikers anywhere…most of whom make a combined appearance on Saturday for the peak of the festivities (and tourists). 

This year was the 75th anniversary since the official recognized completion date of the AT.  Unfortunately, based on the lack of attention to this fact, I’m not sure it was widely known.  Shame.

Compared to past years, this year was a bit of a disappointment for me because fewer and fewer lightweight manufactures have been making an appearance.  For the first time in recent memory, even Six Moon Designs was absence…course I give them a free pass anyway since they drive a van from OREGON!  Gossamer Gear hasn’t been at Trail Days for many years, but again they would have a long journey (Texas).  Backpackinglight has been a no-show for many years, but then again their product has become so diluted and irrelevant over the last two years that an appearance likely wouldn’t mean a lot to anyone other than those who are still running on the vapors of nostalgia and what once was a very thriving and wonderfully industry-leading company.  Zpacks (Florida) also wasn’t there, but I’m not sure Joe has ever attended.  Skywalker gave a talk on a new book he had written.  For an articulate guy who has not choice at 6'11" to stand out, he got a lot more attention with the dozen or so tugs on his crotch while he was talking.

So who carried the torch for the lightweight industry?  Ron Bell from Mountain Laurel Designs (a Virginia company) had his tent set up with several shelters and packs.  He was even generous enough to give out some freebies to certain folks (UL ground cloth and MLD sticker).  I regret to say that I didn’t see a lot of traffic under his tent despite his top notch and industry-leading quality products.  I think this is due to the fact that lightweight backpacking in the sense of a manufacturer like MLD still isn’t mainstream and items made of cuben or packs without frames are still relevant only to a minority.  Mark St. Pierre from Hyperlite Mountain Gear and his team also made an appearance with their shelters and packs.  He had made the trek from Maine and personally I wouldn’t have minded making the trip back with him as I’ve always had a hankering to spend a bit of time in northern New England.  I’m still trying to wrap my mind around Mark and his company.  He was a chef who one day decided to get into the backpacking business and his company seemed to have come out of nowhere virtually overnight.  While this is not all that uncommon, his business model and products are like the Apple of backpacking in that his marketing, spin and business savvy is surpassed only by the quality of his products.  How he went from unknown to top tier is beyond me…but he does make good stuff and he can definitely walk-the-walk. 

There were a variety of other manufactures too:  Elemental Horizons, Lightheart Gear, Jacks R Better, NEMO, Enertia Trail Foods (now under the Coleman brand at Walmart), Appy Trails, Yama (new high-end quality company finally selling shelters whom I interviewed nearly two years ago), Outdoor Research, Black Diamond (lots of people needed their BD poles repaired…which makes me happy I don’t carry their product even though they have a good following), etc.  I was surprised to not see Brian MacMillen from Outdoor Equipment Supplier (OES) as he is always good to talk to if nothing more than to be impressed with what he’s done in his young career.

One thing that struck me quite resoundingly was the significant increase to hammock manufacturers and products related to hammocking.  It would be impossible to miss a definitive and growing trend in this industry.  From a bird’s eye view, I would argue that if I were going to guess where the next “big thing” in the outdoor industry will be, I’d say it would be in hammocks.  Things seem to be moving quickly towards lighter and more affordable.  In attendance were Hennessy Hammocks, Hammock Gear, DutchWare, Dream-Hammocks, Eagles Nest Outfitters, etc.  I was surprised that Brandon Waddy from Warbonnet Outdoors wasn’t there to defend an industry which he took by storm in the last couple years.  Most of these tents had constant visitors and from my conversations and fondling of hammock gear I can say with honesty that many things impressed me enough to really take hammocking far more seriously. 

If you have the opportunity to visit Virginia during Trail Days, give it a shot.  It’s always nice to be around people of common interest.

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