Kori “Rocket” Feener is a thru-hiker and filmmaker from Massachusetts. She hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012, and made a film, Hard Way Home, about the challenges she faced on the trail and in her life before the trail.
I met her briefly on the trail in Pennsylvania in 2012 and had no idea she was making a movie. Interestingly enough, we started our hikes in Georgia several days apart, but it took several months for us to actually run into each other. Her Appalachian Trail documentary is now complete, and she happily agreed to an interview with Appalachian Trail Girl.
AT Girl: What made you want to do the trail in the first place? Did you consider hiking solo an important part of the journey, or was in because of a lack of a willing hiking partner?
Kori: In the film I reveal why I ventured out there and the primary reason had to do with a troubled relationship. The irony of it all is that it was originally his dream to hike the Appalachian Trail and through that introduced me to hiking and the footpath. It felt like something I had to do, ultimately as a way to survive a tough point in my life.
Hiking solo was one hundred percent my intention. I used to not be a solo hiker, but on a training hike in the Whites of New Hampshire I went alone and the experience was so spiritual and meditative that I was hooked on it. Every weekend the summer before my thru-hike I hiked solo. It was an escape for sure.
AT Girl: Do you think there were any difficulties that you faced as a solo woman that a guy hiking solo might not have to face?
Kori: I didn’t really feel like I faced any difficulties as a solo woman thru-hiker that a male solo thru-hiker wouldn’t experience. Loneliness is universal, and that was my most constant battle when I had to camp alone. I think no matter your gender or race, road crossings are the only time any solo thru-hiker felt serious concern because the outside world can easily meet you there, and that was where most of the incidents in 2012 occurred with fellow hikers being harassed.
AT Girl: You sustained several feet injuries during your hike. Tell us about those. Did those injuries make you want to quit or did they make you more determined to finish?
Kori: I honestly think my feet will never be the same. I had blisters at the start of my hike and later on I developed trench foot. There were times when I was on the verge of quitting and though my feet were a part of it, usually it was because of many factors: rain, loneliness, bugs. I think to some extent we all as thru-hikers love to hate those things, and there are days when we can handle them more than others.
My foot injuries took their toll, especially when I had trench foot in Vermont and had to take a full week off trail. It was agonizing, both in the physical pain, but also because I desperately wanted to still be in the woods. It had become home, and there was no way I was going to quit my walk at that point. I just needed to take time to heal.
AT Girl: In the film, you talk a lot about your ex-boyfriend and your stagnant career. Were those factors that pushed you toward the trail? How did the trail help you get over your ex? Did you make a drastic career change?
Kori: My ex was a huge factor in pursuing the trail and the stagnant career is more of a commentary on what I thought was an acceptable reason. The film later on reveals some of the details as to why I felt I needed to walk over 2,000 miles, and it certainly comes down to it being a form of letting go of the past, my ex being a main part of that. The trail helped me realize that I am worthwhile.
Through the people I met on the A.T. and the experiences I had alone, I began to realize that relationships, and life itself, is fleeting. The point is to cherish what exists in the present moment and let it go. But cherishing people and moments need to have reciprocal value. If you spend too much time with someone that minimizes your worth, then you are allowing yourself to be worthless. The trail helped me regain my worth.
In terms of my career, I set out to make a personal documentary and I am still a documentarian. I continue to put pieces of me in my films, but I experiment with other forms of the genre.
AT Girl: What is the advice you would offer to a woman who wants to successfully thru-hike the AT?
Kori: My advice to a woman who wants to thru-hike the A.T. is to not listen to anyone’s advice. Your parents, spouse, friends, boyfriend, girlfriend, whoever they are will think they are entitled to offer an opinion on how successful you will be, your safety, and what you should bring. They mean well, they all do. Between the positive and negative advice, know that this is your decision. Your safety and your success rests solely on your shoulders. You can do anything you put your mind to and it will be worth all the physical, mental, and emotional trials if you pull it off.
AT Girl: What is the biggest life lesson you took away from the trail?
Kori: The biggest life lesson the trail taught me is to let things go. That can be taken literally: don’t carry what you don’t need, i.e. a pillow (yes, I had a pillow when I started). But it can also be taken in a larger, spiritual way. Let go of what happened before you arrived here. This step, this present step is the most important because it will directly affect your future. I now try daily to keep that in mind. My miles are now days, and each day I aim to be present and not worry about what happened yesterday. It has made for a much easier transition into the “real world” post hike.
AT Girl: It’s been two years since you started your hike. Do you think that doing the trail has had a lingering effect on you and your life, and if so, what is the effect?
Kori: Two years. Sometimes it is hard to believe it has been two years since my thru-hike. Honestly, as cliche as it sounds, it feels like yesterday. To say that the trail has a lingering effect would be a complete understatement. The trail still feels like my home. I frequently get nostalgic for it, and when I do get the opportunity to go on it in the summer months, I feel instantly at peace.
AT Girl: Did you have any film-making experience before you started this hike? Do you think that someone with no experience could successfully do a project of this scale?
Kori: I had a lot of experience making films before I completed Hard Way Home. I did the film as a part of my MFA thesis at Emerson College, but had worked on other documentary projects before that time. I also had a lot of experience as a camera operator and took that technical knowledge with me during the hike. My story structure was present before I left and, as with most documentaries, a lot of new arcs were made in the process of making the film, but the central theme of the hero’s journey never changed from pre-production to post. I think the scale of which my film was produced and made would be very difficult for someone without any filmmaking experience, but I am a full believer in people trying to attain their dreams.
AT Girl: What extra equipment did you bring for the film, and how much weight did it add to your pack?
Kori: My filmmaking gear was 8 pounds. At first I had 3 GoPros, an H4n Zoom audio recorder, and tons of camera mounts. I ended up quickly reducing my GoPro count to two just because of lack of use. I also had SD cards in a waterproof container, a still camera for personal use, an iPhone 4, and bubble mailers to mail the SD cards to my assistant editor in Boston.
AT Girl: How often did you actually film? Did you just record the exciting stuff or were you filming all the time?
Kori: I can’t say specifically how often I actually filmed, other than I ended up with 700 hours of footage. Unfortunately, the camera batteries would only last 3 hours tops, even though I had extras I was pretty conservative with the gear. I also often times would wait to film certain people until they got to know me a little bit better because a lot of people in general are adverse to being filmed. There were so many times I wish I had pulled out the camera and didn’t either because I was in the moment, or the battery had died, or I couldn’t get it out of my pack in time. But ultimately, I filmed when the moment seemed relevant to my story. It was less about the exciting moment and more about the transitional moments of growth or setbacks.
AT Girl: A thru-hike is difficult enough without trying to make a full-length film in the process. What was the most difficult part about filming while hiking?
Kori: The most difficult part about filming while hiking is the added pressure. I was doing this as a part of my graduate thesis and had only a certain number of days until I was required to be back in class, and that was very nerve-racking. I had had some publicity before I left and that fear of failure drove some of my hiking for a little while.
AT Girl: Which was harder: hiking the whole trail or sorting through 700 hours of footage to make a film, and why?
Kori: That is a good question! I honestly can say that trail was the hardest challenge I have ever done, but yet I would do it again because the trail taught me so much and that hardship has shaped me. At the same time, sorting through 700 hours of footage was so difficult because I was literally sitting on my tail after 6 months of constant movement. I was fortunate in the fact that my days were spent revisiting my experience rather than at a traditional job or surrounded by tons of people. Adjusting from the woods to a city was a difficult task for me and to have that time to myself to look through footage and remember those moments made the transition off trail a lot easier than I imagine it was for some other people.
AT Girl: I once had a thru-hiker tell me that now that he knows how difficult the trail actually is, there’s no way he would be able to do it again. What about you? Given the difficulty of the trail, making the film, and everything that goes with it, would you do it again?
Kori: When I left, I said I would never do it again. I was done. That was enough. And each year, in spring, I feel this need to go. It pulls you toward it regardless of how hard it is. I can honestly say, everyday I think about doing it again and I know one day I will. I think I would probably try to do it faster though and not carry any camera gear, just to experience it without another purpose.
There will be a screening of Hard Way Home at the Chattanooga Film Festival on Friday, April 4th at 3:15 pm. It will also be screened at Trail Days in Damascus, VA on May 17th. Be sure to check the website for Hard Way Home for updates as to when the film will be available for purchase.