If I squint and allow the green blur to take me back in time, I can imagine speeding through this lush valley on a clanging flatbed rail car instead of my gently humming mountain bike. I'd probably be sitting on a giant chestnut log, looking forward to a jug of moonshine after days of sawing through trees as big around as the boiler on this fantasy steam engine.
But the illusion becomes impossible to maintain as I coast into Damascus, where colorful signs peddle ice cream, antiques and a bicycle shuttle service. After several hours of downhill cruising along the Virginia Creeper Trail, a grassy hiker and biker route and one of the country's greatest rails-to-trails success stories, ice cream seems like a good idea.
The Creeper Trail is only one of six official trails crisscrossing Damascus, a town of 1,200 in southwest Virginia that's dubbed itself "Trail Town, USA." There's also the Appalachian Trail, the 2,175-mile path from Maine to Georgia; the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, a cycling route from Virginia to Oregon; the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail, a driving route approximating the pioneer's wanderings; the Iron Mountain Trail, a hiking trail that reaches deep into the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area; and the Crooked Road Musical Heritage Trail, a driving route through southwest Virginia's mountain music country.
Although Damascus resembles other small southern Appalachian towns with its white Victorian houses, red-brick storefronts and green looming mountains, its friendly outdoorsiness is especially apparent. There are scruffy Appalachian Trail (AT) through-hikers, longtime locals, suburban family weekenders and Lycra-clad cross-country cyclists. I see more bike racks than gun racks and almost as many outdoor outfitter shops as churches.
My girlfriend, Bee, and I have come to sample the various trails, using Damascus as a hub. After settling into the Montgomery Homestead, a downtown bed-and-breakfast, we go to dinner at the Damascus Old Mill, a cavernous restaurant, bar and inn. This is Friday night, so we take advantage of the seafood buffet of shrimp, stuffed crab, catfish fillets, steamed mussels and deep-fried frog legs.
After dinner we migrate to the bar, which begins to fill with twenty-something AT hikers, some of whom confirm Damascus's self-proclaimed status as "the friendliest town on the trail." Being roughly a quarter of the distance from Georgia to Maine makes it a milestone for through-hikers. I ask one, Captain Waffle Iron (his trail name), if he really enjoys lugging a 50-pound backpack 10 to 20 miles a day up and down the rocky trail. "Hiking just becomes what you do," he says. "You wake up in the morning and you go to work hiking."
Music starts up in the next room, an aimlessly screeching jam band. We remain in the bar with the hikers to hear tales of the trail: giant rattlesnakes almost stepped on, bear cubs in trees, a wild-eyed, jittery wanderer searching for a legendary lost cave that opens into the netherworld. Bee and I are transported by the hikers' sense of camaraderie, born of suffering along the arduous miles of the AT and alleviated by the sharing of stories, moleskin and oases such as Damascus.
Louise Fortune Hall, the town's 94-year-old local historian, tells us that Damascus got its name from Confederate Brig. Gen. John Imboden, who was seeking fortune after the Civil War. When he saw the iron ore in surrounding hills, he believed steel production would make the place as famous as its ancient namesake.
When iron deposits proved superficial, venture capitalists looked to the area's more obvious resource -- vast stands of virgin timber. The Virginia-Carolina Railway, constructed to transport the enormous trees, was nicknamed the Virginia Creeper for its plodding pace as it crawled up into the mountains.
"But they weren't very smart about over-cutting," says Hall. The lumber boom lasted about 25 years, until the mountains were all but denuded.
The train chugged along until 1977, carrying passengers, freight and mail to dwindling mountain communities. A few years later the towns of Damascus and Abingdon converted the defunct railway into a recreational trail. "But the Virginia Creeper Trail really didn't start gaining in popularity until the early '90s. Then it really surged in the late '90s," says Tom Horsch, owner of Adventure Damascus, a shop offering shuttle rides up the mountain.
On Saturday, after a scrumptious breakfast of baked French toast, peach cobbler, cheese grits and bacon at Montgomery Homestead, Bee and I cram into one of Horsch's shuttle vans. We ride past numerous Christmas tree farms up to Whitetop Station, the trail's mountaintop terminus. We jump on our bikes and begin the 17-mile descent down to Damascus, a smooth off-road ride weaving through a hardwood forest, and past an old homestead, creeks and lush meadows.
After about an hour of coasting, we come to Green Cove Station, an old passenger station and general store. Shoes, canning supplies and old bottles of cough syrup sit on the shelves next to Virginia Creeper Trail shirts and hats. The place seems vaguely familiar, and Skip Blackburn, the exuberant volunteer behind the worn oak counter, explains why: O. Winston Link shot some of his most famous photographs here. "This was one of his favorite locations. He even got married right there behind that scale," Blackburn says. I refresh my memory gazing at Link's luxuriant black-and-white prints on display in the freight room.
Back on the trail, we glide past fly fishermen teasing trout out of Whitetop Laurel Creek, a twisting, tumbling mountain stream spanned repeatedly by the Creeper Trail's many trestle bridges. We stop to baptize ourselves briefly in the frigid water.
That evening we walk a few blocks to Dot's Inn. A big, glossy banner reads "Welcome Hikers" but should also say "Welcome Bikers." Big men with long beards and dirty jeans drink beer at the bar; the jukebox plays Hank Williams Jr. and Black Sabbath. Dot's sister Brenda delivers a hulking T-bone steak, crispy fried fish, salad and baked potatoes.
Sunday morning we defy the sausage biscuits and gravy in our bellies and hike out along the Appalachian Trial. After a steady climb through thick rhododendron and hefty oaks, we reach an overlook, with the Virginia Creeper Trail far below. Distant chords of a church organ reach our ears even up here.
A little farther along, the AT crosses the Iron Mountain Trail, which we follow back down along a churning stream shaded by hemlocks. It's hard to miss the orange rocks that give this trail its name, shedding iron oxide over the rust-colored soil. After a five-mile hike, the trail returns us to the back of Damascus, where we stroll past tar-paper-sided bungalows, barking dogs and dilapidated sheds.
Although this neighborhood shows that not all of Damascus is thriving from the recent eco-tourism boom, the town has successfully shifted its economy from the extraction of its natural resources to the appreciation of them. By embracing its trail travelers, this crossroads town has created a lively atmosphere where people from different walks of life mix freely. As Suzy Montgomery, our hostess at the Montgomery Homestead, says, "Damascus evens people out. The trails even people out. Everyone dresses down when they come here, and they just enjoy the beauty of the place."