Triumph and Disaster

I was getting punch drunk atop the Rocksplosion known as Northern Pennsylvania. Jagged stones were piled everywhere, their sharp edges jutting tenaciously in all directions and I imagined them as the trail’s crooked teeth chewing on my feet like bubblegum with each and every step. It was past noon and I’d been going at it in the hot July sun for five hours already. My concentration was beginning to ebb and in its place a stream of random thoughts were spilling. I thought about: every dog I’ve ever owned and their differences; all the presidents and their vice presidents from my lifetime; how many miles I had left to Katahdin; the plot of the Charlie’s Angels movie with Cameron Diaz in it; my old Farrah Fawcett poster from the 1970s; how many miles a day I needed to average to get to Katahdin; the morality of Trail Magic for well-off hikers while homeless people abound; how many miles were left to get out of Pennsylvania… you get the picture.

One loose thread of thought stuck with me long enough that I drew a strange yet striking connection to my experience on the Appalachian Trail- Wimbledon. I’ve been a tennis fan since the days of McEnroe and Bjorg, Sampras and Agassi, Navratilova and Evert, the Williams sisters and vintage Roger vs Rafa. Every summer I spend hours of guilty pleasure in front of the tv watching matches play out at the All England Lawn Tennis club in the suburbs of London. But it’s not the game itself that was tumbling through my mind as my feet surfed wobbly waves of talus on the mountainside. Instead it’s the inscription long ago written upon the wall, right above the spot where the tournament’s final two players leave the locker room and walk onto center court for the title match.

The line is from the poem “If” written in 1895 by Rudyard Kipling and spelled out in all caps is, “IF YOU CAN MEET WITH TRIUMPH AND DISASTER AND TREAT THOSE TWO IMPOSTERS JUST THE SAME.”

I know of another wall where that quote would be suited perfectly, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harper’s Ferry, WV. I was there a few weeks back to log in at the trail’s headquarters, the close-but-not-exactly midpoint of the whole AT. As I entered the small stone building its flimsy white storm door caught on my backpack and with a clatter I made my presence known to all three people inside. One was the only employee on duty, a rather short fellow by the name of David who immediately jumped from behind his desk and redirected me back outside to take a picture for the official “scrapbook-style” archive of 2023 Thru-Hikers.

After some trail chit chat David had me fill out a short info card about my hike. As he returned to his desk I impulsively asked how many people ended up registering their Thru-Hike attempt this year. He answered around 2,600 and that I was the 947th hiker to arrive so far. He also estimated half of those that registered have already quit, and that another half of those that made it to Harper’s Ferry would throw in the towel before climbing Katahdin. Hearing his statistics didn’t surprise me as I’ve known for a while that only 20 to 25 percent of people that try to hike the full distance in a calendar year will make it. But now that I’ve befriended so many hikers within the past several months it’s still shocking news every time I learn someone’s gone home and I always wonder why? What injury or mental hurdle could they not overcome?

The Kipling quote is both advice and a warning to the greatest players in the world as they’re about to step onto the most important court in tennis and either achieve their lifelong dream or realize their opponent is taking it from them. It’s a poetic personification of Life’s greatest and worst moments requiring the same reaction in response to both. It implies balance being necessary to soothe the sting of defeat and quell the over-intoxicating stupor of success. Simply put I read it as, “Don’t let your Highs be too High or your Lows be too Low.”

On an epic six month quest like the Appalachian Trail it should have come as no surprise that I’d cross paths with Triumph and Disaster. In fact I’d met them both several times already and lived to fight another day.

Here’s the story of our latest encounters.


I hadn’t slept much due to the barking of a distant dog and the cracking of sticks and twigs as some sort of animal walked about the woods surrounding my tent for much of the night. But I was still happy and excited because at that same moment my wife Lori was probably climbing into the car and setting off on a seven hour drive to visit me. All I had to do was hike a relatively short 12 miles to the trail town of Boiling Springs, Pa. and wait for her at Cafe 101. While I broke down my campsite I imagined myself sipping on coffee with real half-n-half in it for a couple hours that afternoon and just sitting there doing nothing. No walking, no backpack to hoist and a chair with a back on it to lean against. Civilization.

I’d done some big days already that week and consequently felt sluggish as I set off hiking, those previous efforts and my sleepless night bogging down my attempts to get going. After an hour or so I decided to call and check in with my mother-in-law since I figured she’d be worried about her daughter on that long drive. We had a nice conversation and she seemed surprised when I told her she’d helped distract me through almost three miles of walking in the hour we’d been talking. Somewhere during that time I’d heard voices approaching from a side trail and caught a curious glimpse of a child’s head sticking out of a blanket while riding on his father’s back. I kept my pace pretty high so I could speak freely on the phone but incredulously even after ten minutes I hadn’t pulled much farther ahead of them.

Eventually I found myself alone again and decided to stop for a break and a quick snack. I rested on a large fallen log that had been sawn in half to clear it from the trail. Immediately I heard the same voices and wondered how in the world a day hiker carrying a child could walk so fast! Not long later they spotted me and a second man with a daypack said aloud, “There he is!” to the little fellow on his dad’s back. They stopped and introduced themselves as Dan, Rob and Bash. We hung out for a long time and I learned these were two brothers, the oldest and the youngest, from a pretty large family. Dan’s son Bash stared quietly while his father and uncle peppered me with questions about my thru hike. Turns out Dan had successfully thru hiked the AT about fifteen years ago and Rob does a lot of section hiking and Trail Angeling. That partially explained their strength of pace and definitely explained their enthusiasm to introduce Bash, short for Sebastian, to a thru hiker.

We departed and hiked middle Pennsylvania’s short punchy climbs together before arriving at some tricky and technical bouldering sections that finally slowed Dan and Bash down. I told them it was fun getting to know each other and goodbye but then Rob made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He said they were heading to Cafe 101 and offered to buy me lunch if I’d wait around for them to arrive. Since I was going there to wait for Lori anyway I gladly accepted.

Once I was off the final mountain of the day there was a two mile walk through flat cornfields into Boiling Springs. It was a cute little historic town but the juxtaposition between modern life and 200 year old buildings seemed strange, such as the convenience store with crooked gas pumps sitting uneasily next to a tavern I could have imagined civil war soldiers drinking in.

I found Cafe 101 in plain view and when the hostess asked where I wanted to sit I made the obvious choice of outside as I was self-conscious of my lack of a shower in days and the resulting thru-hiker fumes. I had no idea how far my new friends were behind but since they were hikers I figured they’d understand my ravenous appetite and not be upset if I went ahead and ordered. It felt good to just sit, people-watch and occasionally check my wife’s location via the iPhone. She was still far south and I assumed the July 4th weekend traffic was slowing her down.

My chicken quesadilla and caesar salad arrived and I made quick work of them. By this point I’d been in town over an hour and decided that Dan must have finally worn down from carrying Bash. I ordered a cappuccino and sipped on it as I wrote the last blog, intermittently checking my wife’s location. I was deep into some high brow literary concentration when I heard “Captain Fantastic!” and looked up to see Bash as he charged into me with abandon. He gave me the most authentically joyful hug and looked at me like I was some sort of hiker rock star. I stood up to greet Dan and Rob and when I looked back down Bash was handing me a purple flower his uncle said he’d been planning to give me for an hour. That was truly one of my top moments on trail.

Though I’d polished off my lunch already my new buddies insisted I move to their table for a milkshake. When they realized I still hadn’t paid they collected my tab from the waiter. We had a wonderful time hanging out that day and I got to meet a really cool family. I heard all about their hiking, family and work lives and I shared mine with them. I’ll never forget the sweetness and excitement Bash had when he finally found me, or the enthusiasm the guys had for my thru-hike. Now that’s what I call meeting Triumph. Thanks Bash, Dan and Rob!

A couple hours and a finished blog later I stood at the roadside in front of Cafe 101 to see my wife’s car coming over the hill. I’d been watching her progress in real time on the “Find My” app and couldn’t believe we were finally actually together again. We’ve been married since 1990 and this was the longest we’ve ever been apart. After hugs and kisses I sweet talked her back into the car where she’d been for the past nine hours with a promise to take over the driving. I was ready to leave Boiling Springs and Cafe 101! We’d booked a room for three nights at the Microtel in the nearby town of Carlisle. On our way over we stopped off at The Cracker Barrel where we ordered identical meals- Chicken Fried Chicken. I was making up for any weight loss quick.

Lori and I tossed around a few ideas for what we wanted to do in Pennsylvania but we didn’t end up doing any of them. Instead we just spent time being together and it was awesome. We did go out to eat a lot and did some shopping for hiking supplies and groceries but after all those FaceTime and phone calls it was great just to be next to each other. We found Carlisle to be a delightful town with good food and people, and the Microtel there was a big upgrade compared to the $70 dollar a night dives I’ve been staying in. But bless those places for being affordable and I’m back in one as I write this!

Time flies when you’re having fun and soon enough Lori had to go back home for work and I needed to get back on trail. I guess I drew the better end of that bargain! I felt nervous that morning as I finished packing and we hit the hotel’s breakfast buffet. It was the same anxiety I had back at Amicalola Lodge on March 11th when Sapling and I started, the common denominator between the two being my dear wife would be driving away as I walked a path in a different direction. We pulled back into where I’d exited the trail in Boiling Springs just as my friend Mantra was hiking up. She saw us trying to take a selfie and offered to snap it for us. Thanks Mantra.

After parting kisses and hugs my heart felt heavy as my best friend for the past 35 years drove up and over the hill and out of sight. I wanted to be in that car going home sooooo badly at that moment. I questioned my sanity before stumbling forward towards the next white blaze. Ugh. Disaster came to visit disguised as Homesickness.

Luckily the trail provides and twenty-five miles later I was feeling productive again. I’d met a couple ambitious young men named Chia and Link with great personalities and tight deadlines to get to Katahdin. We’d come into Duncanon together and had a blast cutting up in front of the 7-11 and drinking Slurpies while eating a convenience store supper of hot dogs, pizza, chips and the like.

That night we stayed at the Duncannon Assembly of God church hostel with around 20 friends and it dawned on me that there is such a good community of us out here that support each other… but they must all sometimes have the same feelings I’d had that very morning of why we’ve left our loved ones for so long to walk 2,200 miles? That made me feel less alone and as I sat in front of the church’s only shower waiting my turn and playing gatekeeper to who was up next I realized Anderson and Jessica were there too. They are the amazing young couple that my cousin and I had taken off trail back in April when Jess and I had developed similar leg issues. We’d stayed in touch by text but it was awesome to reunite. Then I saw Hootie Hoo and her husband Cheesecake that Sapling and I met back in the Grayson Highlands. When Chia joined our ever growing group it was like World’s Colliding! This day began with a visit from Disaster but ended on a high note with Triumph.

Walking out of Duncanon, Pa. takes you over a river, across train tracks, up a steep mountain and straight into HELL- Rocksylvania. It truly gets going there and the intensity going NOBO increases daily for a week all the way out of Pennsylvania at the small town of Delaware Water Gap, which confusingly borders New Jersey. The wearing down effect the rocks have in this eighty mile or so stretch is hard to put into words. They are relentless, their challenge to each footstep being ever-changing in crookedness, shape, size, sharpness, angle and stability.

In many respects this past week was both my best and worst week on trail, excluding my fun times in The Shennies with Sapling and Mr. IT. I finally made a couple friends, Billy Goat and Safari, that were doing the purist thing like me (in other words no slackpacking, no going south or skipping white blazes.) We were of similar mindsets in personality and I even began waking up 30 minutes earlier than normal so we could all walk out of camp at 7am together. I’d casually known Billy Goat for awhile but his usual hiking partner left trail a few weeks back and he’d been going solo ever since. By happenstance he and I ended up in the same campsite two nights in a row and struck up a friendship. We met Safari at a trail magic and I named him because of the hat he wears. I thought it was a Safari hat but turns out it’s his wife’s Sun hat! But he liked the name so it stuck. He’s section hiking Pennsylvania to Maine this year and had only been on trail five days when we came across him. That’s the Triumph side of the story.

Unfortunately the rocks laid waste to the fascia on the bottom of my left foot, which is a thick ligament stretching from the heel to the toes and is informally known as the arch. It began hurting at the beginning of last week and though I couldn’t hike fast I could manage the pain by walking slowly. At least that way I was able to camp and hang out with Billy Goat and Safari each evening. I really wanted to keep together with them but after a tough bouldering session known as “the scramble” I was in so much pain I knew I needed help. Without telling my buddies I set up a doctor’s appointment in a town about 15 miles off trail known as Stroudsburg. I took an Uber over and checked into a hotel. Then I texted BG and Safari to let them know the deal. They understood.

Today was my appointment. Dr Hercules, and no that is not a trail name, of Saint Luke’s Orthopedic Clinic in Stroudsburg, Pa. diagnosed me with Plantar Fascitis. He put a big old needle in my foot and gave a steroid injection that he says will bring down the swelling and pain for a year on the high end and 2 months on the low end. Time will tell. I’m going to rest again tomorrow and start walking again Sunday. I’m currently at mile 1,281.4 of the trail.

Disaster may yet give way to Triumph once again . I’ve rebounded before… but even I have to wonder sometimes if I have what it takes. I’ll be back on my own with an uncertain future out here.

Stay tuned,

Captain Fantastic

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Comments 12

  • TaffyUK : Jul 15th

    Great shots of the rocks North of Duncannon.

    • George Preiss : Aug 10th

      Thanks for your reading and support!

  • CB : Jul 16th

    I’m keeping up with a lot of hiker’s posts and that is the best one I have read! That is including some you have written about you and Sapling. I appreciate your honesty and masterful use of the written word. I am pulling for you!

    • George Preiss : Aug 10th

      CB! Those are some really kind words. I truly appreciate the encouragement you provide. It helps motivate me to keep going and to chronicle the adventure.

  • Rudolph W Brondsema : Jul 16th

    You Got This! I was wondering if you had some good tunes to listen to, and keep the motivation up!

    • George Preiss : Aug 10th

      Hi Rudy… I only listen to music on a day that I’m going into a town and can recharge my phone. Most days I need to conserve my battery. But yeah, I have a playlist full of favorite tunes to Hike along to. And you know there’s a lot of Bluegrass on it!

  • thetentman : Jul 16th

    Plantar Fascitis. Try Superfeet insoles. The green ones worked for me and made the pain disappear instantly.

    Great post.


    • George Preiss : Aug 10th

      Hi Tentman… thanks for the advice. I went through 4 insoles before I found the best one for me- the Power Sole Pinnacle Max. It’s helped quite a bit but the only real cure is to stop hiking. Yeah right!

  • Mitch Herndon : Jul 16th

    Hi, George! Great to hear the challenges, accomplishments and experiences! You’re a talented writer.

    • George Preiss : Aug 10th

      Mitch… seeing your name brought a smile to my face! Thanks for the compliment and hope to see you sometime in the not too distant future.

  • Janet Richey : Oct 31st

    Your blogs are officially being binge-read! I followed you since the beginning and enjoyed hearing about your family off the trail. My husband and I had our 2nd date in Boiling Springs, so you picked a good spot to meet your wife. I cried at your happy reunion and your encounter with the sweet Bash. I hope you have a quick recovery off the trail. Thanks for giving me something worthwhile to read.

  • George Preiss : Oct 31st

    Hi Janet! Wow, it’s kinda wild that you’re reading through my blogs- but hey, it’s better to be binge than cringe so I appreciate it! I really did enjoy the scene of ya’ll’s budding romance. Boiling Springs was very cute and Bash was the most amazing little guy. The trail just gives you so many beautiful moments you never could have thought of or hoped for. I won’t spoil it for you if you still haven’t read the other blogs posted after that one. I’ll just say I’m home now and done hiking. Read on to find out if I made it! Thanks for your enthusiasm and letting me know about your connection to Boiling Springs.


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