What A Journey
Story: Kerri Regan Photos: Tommy Corey & courtesy of Joe Corey
THRU-HIKING THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL WITH REDDING'S JOE COREY
Zigzagging through deserts, forests and alpine country, the Pacific Crest Trail is an American jewel. Legions of people come from around the world to explore swatches of the picturesque trail, by horse or on foot.
But last year, 140 stalwart souls conquered the physical and mental feat of walking every one of those 2,654 miles, from Mexico to Canada. Redding’s Joe Corey and Jacob Corella are among that elite group. “I thought it was kind of a romantic idea to go hike a couple thousand miles,” says Corey, 28.
On April 23, 2011, they strapped on their backpacks at the trail’s southern end, near the Mexican border. The trek brought them through every variation of weather and terrain. They sweltered in Southern California, and “in the Sierras, it was the highest snow year in the 57 years since the trail was established,” Corey says. “We went from doing 25 or 30 miles a day down to 12 or 15. You’re sinking in snow up to your waist, and you’re at 10,000 to 14,000 feet of elevation, so you’re expending more energy. Our feet were wet constantly, and a 5 am water crossing in 35-degree water wears on you mentally.”
Day after day, they rose with the sun and hit the trail. They carried a little bit of cash for their periodic detours into a town to buy a soda or beer – a refreshing relief from the gallon-plus of water, Gatorade or Crystal Light they consumed daily. When they’d venture into civilization, Corey says, “I’d call my mom and tell her I was alive,” and he’d post a quick update on Facebook for his friends. They’d also stock up on supplies. He lost count of the number of socks he burned through, as he wore through a pair every three or four days. “I’d duct tape my socks when they got holes,” he says. “I went through six pairs of shoes. One pair I used for 1,000 miles.”
The scenic wonders they observed on this journey would fill many people’s lifetime vacation highlight reels. “The gem of the PCT is definitely the John Muir Trail through the Sierras, through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park,” Corey says. “The North Cascades through Washington were just as incredible. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness and Goat Rocks Wilderness were amazing. In Northern California, the Marble Mountains and Russian Wilderness were highlights… in Oregon, my favorite spot was Three Sisters Wilderness through Bend.”
The final two weeks in mid-September, however, as they approached the Canadian border, were “absolutely miserable. It rained all day,” Corey says. “It was cold and we got snowed on a couple times. It got to the point where we we’d just do 35 miles without stopping, because if you stop, you freeze. Everything is wet. Everything.”
But as the finish line approached, the hikers got reflective. “For the last four days, everybody was real quiet. There was a lot of deep thought - we were kind of on an emotional rollercoaster. When you think about how you’ve changed from the first four days to the last four days, it’s mind blowing,” he says.
On Oct. 2, more than five months after taking that first step, the men reached the monument marking the north end of the trail, alongside eight hikers they met along the way. “It was bittersweet,” Corey says. “You get so close with the people you’re with that you don’t ever want the experience to end.” In fact, Corey intends to earn the “triple crown” distinction by also conquering the Appalachian Trail (2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine) and the Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles from Canada to Mexico via the Rocky Mountains).
Thru-hikers – people who hike the entire length of a trail – have a unique, colorful subculture. Everyone gets a trail name, which is logged onto the register at the trail’s end right next to their legal name (Corey is Quake, and no, he won’t explain why; Corella is Unload).
Thru-hikers are also blessed by encounters with “trail angels” and “trail magic.” “Trail magic can be as simple a gesture as someone offering you a ride or giving you a soda,” Corey says. “Sometimes they’re more elaborate - some trail angels fill an ice chest with drinks and snacks and leave it on the trail. I’ve had strangers offer to let us stay in their houses - they even did our laundry and fed us.” One couple hosts up to 60 hikers at a time in their yard, cooking pancakes and tacos and providing rides back to the trail, Corey says.
“The last trail magic we got was from a guy and his 8-year-old son. It was terrible weather, and the guy had three tents set up so we could get out of the rain. He was outside making burgers, and he gave us 30-minute increments to sit in his truck and get warm. They’re perfect strangers and they’re just caring,” says Corey, who has created some trail magic himself since his return. “We get into their cars and we smell. We’re basically glorified bums. But people don’t care. It restores your faith in humanity.”
And yes, it changed Corey’s life. The 2002 Enterprise High School graduate had been working in music studios in Los Angeles for six years when he began the journey, and last month, he moved back to Redding.
“You have all this free time to think. You’re in your head so much that you just think about everything that’s ever happened to you. Every friendship, every relationship. Everything becomes so much clearer. Today, I put more energy into the really good friends that matter,” Corey says. “L.A. is the mecca of entertainment and music and movies and materialism and superficiality and all that. After being out there, you realize you don’t need all that stuff. You turn your phone off and you don’t think about checking text messages or Facebook or email. You focus on the necessities of life – shelter, water, warmth, food.”
He pauses, and concludes: “What a journey.”
Pacific Crest Trail Association www.pcta.org