In a telling scene from her documentary “Hard Way Home,” filmmaker Kori Feener, in the middle of an epic thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, stops to train her camera on a backwoods philosopher—known to her only as “Pops”—and lets him ramble.
“Fear, guilt, possessions, all these negative things are our rocks,” Pops says. “We cling to them. We were born on them. We were taught them. We live them. We die with them. All those great souls that have learned to let go, out here like us, we let go, we put on sacks, we hike through the mountains.
“We’ve let go of the TV, the illusions, the jobs, the ‘I’ve gotta have insurance,’ these other concepts that have been holding us in the man-made world instead of being lifted up into God’s creation and this life that we have,” he says. “So let go.”
If Pops’ diatribe sounds to some of us as though he had been partaking of a substance that grows naturally on God’s creation, for Feener, it was exactly what she needed to hear. And that scene was “Hard Way Home” in microcosm.
Feener didn’t just hike 2,200 miles because she thought it would be a cool thing to do. Her intention was to cleanse herself from the soul-crushing aftermath of escaping an abusive relationship. It had been the dream of her ex-boyfriend for the two of them to hike the A.T. By accomplishing the arduous task herself, Feener reasoned, she might be able to shed some painful memories and experience catharsis.
“I was in denial for so long that I spent years carrying that with me,” Feener, as narrator, says in “Hard Way Home.” “Now, I feel as though I could float away in the air. I am free. All I have to do is walk.”
Feener brings her film to Chattanooga next week to take part in the first Chattanooga Film Festival, an event that, over four days, will include 21 feature-length films and 30 submitted short films. Among those feature films, three were submitted. “Hard Way Home” grabbed the CFF’s selection committee and wouldn’t let go. It was a unanimous pick.
“In watching the film, I was instantly drawn to Kori, her story and the way she chose to tell her story,” CFF director Chris Dortch II said. “‘Hard Way Home’ is a great example of a filmmaker with a story she needed to tell. It created a catharsis for her.
“You go through that journey with Kori,” Dortch said. “I found that to be compelling. It’s a story I wanted to share with people by way of the Chattanooga Film Festival.”
Feener—who will conduct a question-and-answer session after the film, which will be shown April 4 at 3:15 p.m. at the Carmike Majestic—made “Hard Way Home” for her master’s thesis at Emerson College. But the film meant so much more to her than a degree. For Feener, it was the embodiment of what scholar Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey,” in which, as described by writer Christopher Vogler, one stage is when “the hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the world who gives him or her training, equipment or advice that will help on the journey.”
If Feener was the hero, Pops was that seasoned traveler.
“He kind of got me without even really talking to me,” Feener said. “He knew why I was there. He had worked in the prison system but had become sort of like a wanderer. But I felt like he was an uncle or a grandfather because he said exactly what I needed to hear, when I needed to hear it. And it was completely intuitive.”
Therein lies the magic of the Appalachian Trail, at least for Feener, who says that everyone she met during the six-month journey, she met at face value.
“The coolest thing is that you find people you probably wouldn’t give a second glance to in normal life,” Feener said. “Everyone is stripped down. It doesn’t matter your political affiliation or your religious belief. You can meet someone out there who can become your best friend.”
In fact, though Feener started the 2012 trip by herself and endured days of loneliness, she met several people with whom she eventually traveled and continues to correspond with to this day. Other people she literally crossed paths with weren’t hikers but, in the vernacular of the A.T., “trail angels” who offered rides, lodging and food.
“It kind of restores your faith in humanity a little bit,” Feener said. “People make it like a purpose, and they do it all throughout hiking season. Then, sometimes you just stumble on people who don’t normally do that but are considered a trail angel because they’re helping you in a moment of need.
“Some trail angels will leave things at road crossings—snacks or water. You never expect it. That’s called ‘trail magic,’ and when it happens, you’re connected with somebody you don’t even know that’s out there rooting for you.”