Trail Angel

The third time I turned around I saw my sister waving at me through the thickening vegetation at the other end of the trail. I’d been expecting her but it was still a shock and I needed to collect myself before I said goodbye. The thrill of the moment quickly turned to a realization this was a fleeting visit and I wouldn’t be able to prolong it by standing there staring. Wiping tears from my eyes I nodded my head and with a flick of my wrist turned away to walk down the hill trying to make sense of it all. 

My little sister’s name was Ginger. She had emergency surgery in January of 2005 that she never woke up from. I stayed by her bedside for days afterward, but I knew she was gone already. It’s haunted me ever since because I wasn’t there to say goodbye before the doctors began the operation to try and save her life. I had the chance to follow her the night before as she was whisked down Interstate 40 by ambulance to UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill, but I mistakenly decided to wait until the next morning, and I was too late. So finally, after all this time she was giving me another chance.


We surprisingly found Thirsty Bear and friends waiting for us behind the Mount Roger’s visitor center a few miles outside the town of Marion, VA. Sapling and I were 15 minutes early and after the craziness of Trail Days I’d have understood if they’d been a bit late. We’d parked the red Hyundai in a small pull-off area across the road because when I’d called to ask the Ranger, she said to put it there since there’s no long-term parking in their lot. Thirsty Bear hastily rearranged the bed of his pick-up truck and asked for two volunteers to ride back there since there were seven of us. Star Waffle and First Class eagerly accepted that mission and off we went.

The plan was simple. After saying our heartfelt goodbyes to Thirsty Bear and the gang Sapling and I had fifty-two trail miles to cover before we’d see her car again. At the end of the quarter mile blue blaze from the road to the AT we turned left and almost immediately were starting at the last place I’d camped, known as Stagnant Pond on FarOut. It was a strange feeling because while I’d spent 20 days at home recuperating the muscle injury to my lower left leg most of my trail friends had hiked nearly 300 miles north.

In their place I had Sapling temporarily back but also a whole lot of uncertainty. Had my leg really healed? The doctor had said it would take two to eight weeks and twenty days is much closer to two. Who would be in the new group of hikers I’d be falling in with? This was my third start including: the Approach Trail, the restart after nine days of Norovirus, and now getting going after the leg injury. Including some of the faster people I’d met early on, such as Wendy the walking mail carrier from Nova Scotia, I’d have trail friends spread up and down the AT for 500 miles!

One thing I wasn’t worried about this time around was Sapling. Her hike of 300 miles had been pretty rough to say the least and she discovered that though she loved hiking and the Appalachian Trail, she did not love the grind of thru-hiking. But this week we’d take our time as we eased ourselves, and specifically my leg, back into it. We’d planned on covering the 52 miles in a leisurely four or five days and I was determined to play it safe and honor that timeline.

The next few days turned out to be magical. Everything went right and the idyllic notions I initially had in mind for our thru-hike were realized during this time together. We had beautiful sunny weather every day. The campsites we stayed in were picture postcard worthy. The people we met were friendly and genuine. And Sapling was strong, very strong.

It isn’t worth psychoanalyzing why she was so much more physically capable during those days as she’d been able to make peace with herself for not being able to continue her Thru beyond Tennessee. I was proud of how she handled her 300 miles, especially given the many challenges she endured, and even more proud of how she’d mentally bounced back after going home. In her own words her body had been completely broken down by the challenge, the elements, and the injuries and in the weeks since she’d healed up. Simple as that.

Our first day out took us just shy of the peak on Virginia’s second highest mountain, Whitetop. It’s a bald, meaning the trees have been cleared from the top leaving a 360-degree vista on a clear day like the one we were fortunate enough to have had. You’d need to take a Blue Blaze to reach the actual summit but the views from where the trail did pass were so spectacular we didn’t feel the urge to climb Whitetop any further.

On FarOut there was a wayside near the top for a geologic formation known as Buzzard Rock, a nondescript outcropping of slate grey stone that made for a good place to sit and stare. We shared those views with family and friends via FaceTime before retiring to our tents for what was the windiest night I’ve experienced yet on trail. One of my tent stakes pulled up around midnight as the wind buffeted the fabric around me and I had to reanchor it from within because I was worried the whole thing might blow off the mountain without my body weight holding the tent in place.

Day two was full of fun. A short while into the hike we came upon two brothers in their 60s, Hogpen and Countryboy. They had thru-hiked the whole trail in 2021 and were back to hike most of the Virginia section this time. They were a regular comedy act and their bond was so strong they could just play off one another with their jokes or finish each other’s sentences. Their energy was infectious and luckily it was only the first of many times we’d come across them that week.

The highlight of the day, honestly the trip, was always going to be the wild ponies of the Grayson Highlands. But right before crossing the road and passing through the gate to the park we encountered dueling Trail Magic. I felt kind of bad because if it had really been a duel one of the groups brought a knife to a gunfight. Walking up you had a choice to either sit down and choose from donuts, Crumble Cookie, soda, sandwiches, beer, chips, etc., or else you could have water and peanut butter. Of course, everyone was opting for the smorgasbord and the other Trail Magic stood there awkwardly watching on. But then Hogpen and Countryboy appeared and saved the day by enjoying the pb sandwiches and making those folks feel like a million bucks with their kindness and banter.

The ponies did not disappoint though it took a while to find any that wanted to interact with us. Grayson Highlands looks different than the other mountains I’ve seen on the east coast. The best comparison is it reminds me of the background scenery from the Roadrunner cartoons. The whole area was devoid of trees and the path became difficult to discern. When we came to the three horses it was clear that one was in labor. She stood there with legs splayed and an immense belly looking miserable. After gawking for five minutes, it became clear nothing was going to happen anytime soon, so we wished her good luck and searched the way we’d come.

We finally scored forty-five minutes later when a dozen horses, including one that couldn’t have been a month old, magically appeared before us in one of the prettiest places in the park. They were quite comfortable letting us wind through them on the AT and snap photographs as they grazed on grass, thus earning their keep as they maintain the mountains’ “bald” status. It was an amazing experience I won’t soon forget.

We shared our horse time with three other hikers we’d met during the Trail Magic and would get to know in the coming days. Hootie Hoo and her husband Cheesecake are around my age and are hiking the trail as a second attempt since their first one in 2018 ended prematurely. Hootie Hoo’s foot had developed a stress fracture which caused her to throw in the towel at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. She told me it’s gnawed at her for five years that she couldn’t finish and she’s determined to go all the way in 2023. I admire the way she started back at the beginning in Georgia. She’s gonna make it this time, I’m sure.

We also had a lot of fun getting to know another member of their tramily, Voices. He comes off as a gentle giant with his physical size and long untamed beard which he proudly boasts hasn’t been cut or trimmed in over three years. Sapling noticed several rocks in the faint outline of the number 500 that another hiker had fashioned to commemorate this trail milestone. Voices wanted to put it onto the daily YouTube video he creates for family and friends, so he asked us to bring him more rocks to bolden up the number for the camera. We enjoyed posing and being included in the video for our fifteen minutes of fame.

That evening Sapling and I were scouting for a place to make Camp. I could see far off trail there appeared to be a clearing beneath some large trees. We fought our way to it through a thicket of undergrowth and it was clear this was a nicely maintained property with a large fire circle and a bench. We couldn’t resist, though it didn’t take long to notice there were around a dozen depressions in the grass across the whole of the area. A sinking feeling, pun intended, came over me that this was a 100-year-old graveyard sans the headstones. But unlike back at Stagnant Pond this place had positive energy and I really wasn’t frightened. Sapling noticed the ground too and said maybe it was from pilings that held up a house. Later she admitted she also thought it was a graveyard. We built a fire, my favorite activity when I’m spooked in the woods, and enjoyed a beautiful sunset once again.

Days three was all about Pirate and niCole Slaw. These two weren’t together and couldn’t have been more opposite, but the trail worked its voodoo again and saw fit to put a father and daughter, a recently retired detective, and a redheaded traveling minstrel into close proximity to see what would happen.

We all met at a trail magic. It was the same folks from the day before with the peanut butter and water. They’d apparently moved twenty miles up the trail to try again. Funny how when you’re hungry and thirsty and there’s no Crumble Cookie around that a plain pb sandwich can taste so good. While scarfing down my third one a tall thin guy named Pirate in his 20s animatedly told everyone the story of his past hour. While crossing through some of the many pastures we’d all been in that day he pulled out his guitar and began playing and singing. This enraged a nearby bull that angrily charged him. Pirate immediately threw down his guitar, ripped off his pack and climbed the nearest tree. He waited on pins and needles as the bull tromped about, hoping it wouldn’t smash his prized possession, the guitar.

In the end the bull wandered off and left Pirate to get back at it. After the trail magic we walked with him the rest of the afternoon. We all sat at Laurel Falls and soaked our tired feet for an hour as Pirate peppered us with questions and told his stories. He’s a large-and-in-charge kind of personality but he’s a good guy and we enjoyed being with him.

The three of us set up camp that evening near a stream as it was getting kind of late. I saw niCole Slaw pass by and invited her to join us since we were near a road crossing and there’s safety in numbers in that situation. She recognized us from earlier and put up her tent next to mine. Pirate was busy putting the finishing touches over his hammock, a giant black and white Jolly Roger that doubled as his rain fly. We built a fire and all four of us sat around it. We ate supper together while Pirate played and sang songs and in between we all talked. It was another great AT night.

Day four turned out to be the last of our trip. Sapling had been hiking so strong and my leg held up so well as I fell in behind her each day that we were on our fastest anticipated schedule. It was so fun to talk and make jokes and just be together that I was bummed as we made it back to the car around 4:30 p.m. The wheels were still on it and so was the license plate which we were thankful for as I’d heard those incidents weren’t uncommon in the area.

We decided to go into the town of Marion to have a zero day together before Sapling returned to Raleigh and I moved on. On the day off we stayed at a beaten down Red Roof Inn with a cheap hiker rate. Our room was next to an extremely active set of train tracks that rumbled and roared at least every other hour throughout the day and night. We had Blueberry pancakes at Sister’s Cafe, ate Pizza Hut for lunch and Mi Puerto’s amazing tacos for supper. In between meals I blogged and washed clothes while Sapling shuttled a couple hikers we met along the way, Masters and Lego Man, back on trail.

The next day it was time to part ways again. After the 15-minute drive from Marion we arrived at the trailhead on a crisp and sunny late May morning. Since Sapling was still buzzing on a hiker-high she decided to follow along with me for exactly two miles before returning to the car for the long drive home. It was bittersweet as we purposely walked slowly and recounted many of the fun moments we’d shared from both Trail Days and the hike, and I sadly watched the tenths of a mile add up too quickly as we reached Sapling’s turnaround point conveniently located at the top of a short climb that began a ridge walk into the lush Springtime forest. We hugged goodbye and Sapling became emotional. I reassured my daughter before walking away, turning to look back twice to see her still standing in the same spot watching me grow smaller in the distance.


Sometimes I lay awake in the dark of night and hope to see a ghost. I’ve tried to will my sister into paying me a visit letting me know she’s okay and still part of my life. Growing up we’d fought like cats and dogs and since she was three and a half years younger we’d been somewhat close, but not overly. But after I had kids and she became an aunt something changed and we had a stronger and more loving connection. 

It’s been almost twenty years since she passed away, but I think about Ginger several times a week. When times have been tough I’ve felt her presence and I’ve been able to use her short lifespan to put my trying times into better perspective. But while I can feel she’s by my side, I’ve always wanted to see her again. To apologize for not being there to provide love and comfort as she was being prepared to be taken into the operating room. It’s selfish in that it’s something I’ve wanted more for me than for her. I just wanted to say it in person.


When I turned around atop the ridge that third time I stared in disbelief. In Sapling’s place from moments before stood my sister waving the palm of her hand slowly back and forth with a broad smile upon her fair-skinned face. She looked peaceful. She looked protective. She looked reassuring.

I felt forgiven.


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Comments 10

  • thetentman : Jun 8th

    Nice post.


    • George Preiss : Jun 15th

      Thanks for your ever-present support Tentman…

  • Rudolph W Brondsema : Jun 8th

    Wow George, you can write! I can feel it all and know what you’re feeling. God Bless you. The picture of Madeline with the pony, priceless! We will have lots to talk about, when the journey ends, and we can share our love of a beer. Thinking of you, giving you a hug! Thank you.

    • George Preiss : Jun 15th

      I appreciate the compliment Rudy! The blog has been a nice creative outlet and a fun to stay connected with family, friends and hiking enthusiasts. I’ll hold you to your word on that beer!

  • Jan Sherman : Jun 9th

    Thank you for sharing the intimate details of your journey. Amazing!

    • George Preiss : Jun 15th

      Always fun to hear from you Jan! Thanks for the positive energy

  • Jeff Greene : Jun 10th

    Great stuff! I’m sure you’ll miss your daughter, but glad you got to share the adventure.

    • George Preiss : Jun 15th

      I do miss her Jeff but luckily she’s just joined me again for the next week as a Father’s Day present!

  • Kim Schliep Underwood : Jun 16th

    Hi, George aka Captain Fantastic!

    I am in awe of your writing skills as I’ve been catching your posts every few weeks. Your hiking and survival skills are also impressive. I’ve laughed and cried every time I spend time here catching up. Your description of Ginger allowed me to picture her so clearly waving at you. All the childhood years came flooding back and made me wish I’d gotten to know her as an Aunt and your adult sister. It’s wonderful that you’ve healed so quickly and that Sapling got to rejoin you for a bit. Your photos always leave me, and probably your other followers, wanting more…well, except for maybe those death-defying stunt-type ones. Haha! The descriptions of all the people you encounter along the trail are fantastic. Your description of the Trail Magic made me want to go support the peanut butter and water folks, too.

    Thanks so much for taking all of us along on your adventure that so few people get to do. You are an inspiration and just an all-round wonderful human whom I’m honored to call my friend. It’s such a heartwarming image to picture you FaceTiming with Lori and the kids from all these gorgeous spots.

    Stay strong and safe and know how many people are cheering you on.

    Lots of love and well wishes to reach your October 1st goal,

    • George Preiss : Jul 2nd

      Oh Kim, your comment was soooooo appreciated! It makes me happy to know you’re following this craziness, enjoying the blog and cheering me on! I’m determined to make it and your kind words add more fuel to the fire. Hope your summer is going well with the kids and that y’all have some fun things planned!


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