My Damascus

At a time when Damascus, the capital of Syria and ground zero for much of today’s political evil and social sadness, stands as a symbol for much of what is bad in our world, the Damascus I know is the polar opposite.

My Damascus is quiet and serene, surrounded by natural beauty, and filled with friendly people willing and able to share their piece of paradise with all those wanting a break from the politics and social disorders that seem to gnaw on the heartstrings of our world.

Damascus, Virginia is a small town in Southwest Virginia. Like its name-sake in The Middle East, my Damascus is a historic place and the crossroads for travelers. But unlike its namesake, my Damascus is a pressure point for hearty, adventure-seeking people walking the Appalachian Trail.

The roots of my Damascus extend back to the American War of Independence, when a 14 year old soldier in George Washington’s Continental Army was awarded a piece of the America he fought to found.

Too young to be given a land-grant, John Wright had the parcel of land, on which the current city of Damascus sits, deeded to his father, Jacob Wright.

When John Wright was 22 years old, he and his father left their home in Pennsylvania to settle on his land-grant in Southwest Virginia.

Drawn by the natural beauty of the ‘cove’, which sits along Laurel Creek, other pioneering families came to the area. In the early 1800’s, a grist mill was established by the Mock family and until 1886, the small community was called Mock’s Mill.

In the early 1900s, a 10-foot tall earthen dam was built across Laurel Creek to harness the roaring waters of the stream to turn the wooden augers that turned corn and wheat into corn meal and flour.

Today, the historic Old Mill Inn sits at the site of the original mill. Several of the original wooden augers from the mill are still a part of the restaurant at the Old Mill Inn. Also still available to visitors to the Inn are the incredible view of the mill pond, the rapidly moving waters of Laurel Creek, and the mystical beauty of the natural cove.

The Old Mill Inn, in the Damascus I know, is owned and operated by North Carolina businessman and entrepreneur Fred Leonard. It is a frequent resting place for hikers traveling the historic Appalachian Trail and tourists coming to enjoy the many natural and historical tourist sites that permeate the area.

Whether it be for weary hikers who have walked over 1,000 from the start at the north end of the Trail in Mount Katahdin, Maine, or virtual beginners, who started 272 miles away at the south end of the Trail at Springer Mountain, Georgia, the Old Mill Inn is a comfortable meeting place for the telling of endless stories of adventures ‘on The Trail’.

A short walk into town from the Appalachian Trail offers a brief respite in Damascus. The historic little town also offers a starting point for less ambitious hikers, who simply want to enjoy a day or two or three hiking along the many trails that branch away from the main trail.

A common sight at the Old Mill Inn Restaurant, Bobo McFarlane’s Eatery, and a number of other restaurants in Damascus, is a line of backpacks, left by hikers, while they enjoy food and drink in town. Inside any of these establishments exists a sense of camaraderie not found in many places in our world, as hikers old and young, experienced and novice, share their adventures from ‘The Trail.’

My Damascus also offers one of Mother Nature’s true treats. The Virginia Creeper Trail runs from the historic town of Abingdon to the west, through Damascus and criss-crosses the Appalachian Trail to the summit of White Top Mountain to the east of town.

Originally built along the one-time railroad tracks of the Virginia-Carolina Southern Railway for hikers and horseback riders, the slow bike ride down the mountain, along the roaring waters of Laurel Creek to Damascus has become a modern day mecca for bike riders.

While a 17 mile downhill bike ride may sound like an exhilarating rush, it is more like a slow descent through a postcard of beauty and tranquility. People of all ages and, literally, from all corners of the world come to Damascus to experience the Whitetop Mountain to Damascus segment of the Virginia Creeper Trail.

While our world is bombarded by information from digital technology of all kinds and real world problems of health care, political intrigue and millions of other mind staggering challenges, my Damascus remains a quiet, tranquil oasis from life’s every day drama.

Sure, fiber optics, at a technologically high level, connects Damascus to any place in the world, if the need arises. However, my Damascus is more about the historic past and the optimism of the future, and all in a more natural package.

The neighboring town of Abingdon offers culture comparable to any place in the World. The historic Barter Theatre, designated The State Theater of Virginia, offers a glimpse back to the founding days of American theater. With first-class plays produced in both great quantity and great quality, the modern day Barter Theater offers entertainment at the highest level of modern technology.

To the south of Damascus, and only 30 miles away, is the true birthplace of country music, Bristol, Virginia. From the Bristol Sessions in the summer of 1925 came the first high quality recordings of country and gospel music. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian Institute affiliate, offers a stunning recreation of early days of country music and provides both advanced and novice musicians a chance to try their hand at recording and mixing songs.

My Damascus is a place every American needs to experience. Whether it be gently coasting along Laurel Creek, on a bike, riding down White Top Mountain. Or, tasting world class wine from the Abingdon Winery or locally brewed beer from the Damascus Brewery. Or, visiting historic sites in neighboring cities and town, My Damascus is a place to be shared and treasured.

James ‘Roy’ Roberson is a career journalist and author of four novels. He writes about science, agriculture and travel from his home in Auburn, Alabama.