Fame, Romance, and a Second Chance on the PCT
Cory McDonald's main goal was to restore his health on the Pacific Crest Trail. Becoming a YouTube star, getting stalked, and meeting the perfect girl were just exhilarating extras.
It was Valentine’s Day 2019 on the Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California, just a few dozen miles north of the Mexican border. This stretch of the PCT runs through the Laguna Mountains, 6,000 feet above sea level, and the high-desert scrub that spreads in every direction was blanketed with snow. Pretty much nobody was thru-hiking it this early in the year, but 33-year-old Cory McDonald was already underway. As he trudged along on a thin layer of frost, weighed down by a backpack, he heard a voice behind him say, “Hey, Second Chance!”
Cory froze. He turned to see an older man he didn’t recognize, who somehow knew his trail name. “I saw you on YouTube,” the man said.
The stranger, standing trailside, didn’t look like a thru-hiker. Of course, people thought Cory didn’t either—thanks to his shaved head, baby face, and a weight of nearly 400 pounds. But at least Cory had a backpack. This man wasn’t carrying one, and he made Cory very uneasy when he said, “I followed your footsteps through the snow.”
This wasn’t the first instance of somebody tracking Cory down in the wilderness. Don’t murder me, he thought as the man came closer. How many more times is this going to happen?
Cory’s decision to attempt the PCT dated back to March 2018. He was living by himself in Fort Myers, Florida, definitely not loving his existence. He’d recently given up trying to make a living as a day trader, which was stressful and volatile. Before that he’d quit a job selling soft drinks to gas stations, and before that he’d worked at Target and Pizza Hut. He was bored. He also doubted that he’d ever find love.
“I was very depressed, very unhappy, miserable with everything,” Cory told me when I first interviewed him by phone last summer. “My life wasn’t going in the direction I wanted. I couldn’t get a girlfriend. I was very lonely, and I kept sitting around, dreaming that one day I’d have this awesome life.”
Cory blamed his weight. “I tried different diet plans, but none of them were working,” he recalled. “I kept gaining weight every year.” Heart disease runs in his family, so he visited a cardiologist, who studied the results of an echocardiogram and told Cory his heart looked mostly healthy. But the doctor scared him with stories about former patients who had dropped dead from a heart attack in their late thirties.
“That was a big eye-opener,” Cory said. “I just felt like I hit rock bottom.”
Not long after, while surfing YouTube on his couch, Cory came across a channel called Homemade Wanderlust, where he discovered a series of hiking videos made by a woman named Jessica Mills, a 33-year-old from Alabama who used the trail nickname Dixie. Dixie was a vision: charming, fun, outdoorsy, and doing a solo long-distance hike on a trail that Cory knew little about, the PCT. It was far away from Florida, in the romantic-sounding West.
One video led to another, and Cory soon discovered an entire ecosystem of thru-hikers who were vlogging about their adventures. They shot videos as they went, releasing episodes on their YouTube channels maybe once a week. Cory and thousands of others could vicariously experience a thru-hiker’s journey as the hikers lived it.
“I was blown away by Dixie, Darwin, Jay Wanders Out, Whimsical Woman, all the YouTube hikers,” said Cory, ticking off the names of other thru-hiking stars. “I started binge-watching them and said, ‘I want to do this, too. I want to go hiking.’”
Cory had some experience camping and hiking in Missouri and Florida, and he researched what he needed to know about taking on the PCT. He didn’t train, but he spent more than a hundred hours rounding up equipment. “It was next to impossible to find gear that would fit me, ultralight or otherwise,” he said. In November, he sold his house. Cory knew he’d be slower than most thru-hikers, so he booked a ticket to San Diego for the end of January 2019, months before anybody else would begin the northbound transit.
As for YouTube, Cory was interested in becoming a star himself—but not until after his thru-hike, when he’d lost some weight. He decided to bring a GoPro with him anyway, for practice. Before long, a friend in Florida encouraged him to go ahead and start making episodes, sending her his footage so she could edit and upload it. He gave in, and episode one on the Second Chance Hiker channel debuted on February 6. In it you watch Cory at home in Florida, stepping onto a scale. Then he’s on the jet ride to California, asking for a seat-belt extension. Finally, you see him standing next to the southern terminus of the PCT, goofily waving at Border Patrol agents as they drive past.
“I’m Second Chance Hiker, and I’m starting the Pacific Crest Trail on January 30 to drop 200 pounds,” Cory announces. It’s windy, and the sky is overcast, but he’s giggling and smiling. “I’m just trying to get my life back on track.”
Thousands of thru-hikers tackle the country’s longest trails every year. And hundreds of thousands, if not millions, watch them on screens. I watched some myself in early 2018, as I prepared for my own thru-hike of the PCT that summer.
In 30 minutes of recent searching, I found more than 60 YouTube channels devoted to thru-hiking. The most well-known belong to Dixie and a hiker called Darwin, who asked that I not share his real name. Both Dixie and Darwin have more than 200,000 subscribers. Dixie has posted nearly 350 videos, which have collectively gotten more than 31 million views. Rates vary, but for every thousand views a channel receives, its creator earns a few bucks through advertising. That can add up quickly, and it’s fair to say that YouTubers like Dixie are the biggest names in thru-hiking right now.
“YouTube’s influence is enormous,” said Scott Wilkinson, director of communications at the Pacific Crest Trail Association, which is based in Sacramento, California. “With good reason. People like Dixie and Darwin are so popular, because they are authentic and they care. There is nothing crass or commercial or enterprising about what they do.”
Not long ago, Wilkinson said, Cheryl Strayed was the biggest trail celebrity—her 2012 book Wild, along with the 2014 film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon, brought more people to the PCT than ever before. But Wilkinson said that YouTube and social media may have surpassed Wild as “the leading drivers of growth on the trail.”
Dixie is the queen of the medium. Young, blonde, friendly, with an easy-listening accent and scraped-up limbs, she’s part southern belle and part hardcore adventurer. Her videos have the unusual ability to make thru-hiking seem both approachable and epic.
“I want to bring the experience to people’s living rooms,” Dixie told me. “If I’m freezing cold and miserable, how do I let other people feel that, without just telling them that I feel cold? How do I have somebody else get as close to that experience without doing it themselves?”
Alas, the online thru-hiking community is also rife with cyberbullies, trolls, and argumentative jerks, many of whom aren’t thru-hikers but seem to think they know all about it. Dixie has had some unsettling experiences. One time she blocked a man from her YouTube channel after he cursed out other viewers in the comments section. He found her email address and wrote: “I can’t wait to find you on the trail this year, where you can’t silence my voice.” After Dixie posted a video about whether thru-hikers should carry a gun on trail—she doesn’t think it’s necessary—one person commented, “I’m going to put a bullet in your skull.” Equally chilling, a few fans discovered her home address in Alabama and visited her house unprompted.
For Dixie and others who get targeted, the online vitriol comes in all forms: body shaming, gear shaming, charges of egotism and self-promotion. The most successful YouTube thru-hikers, like Dixie and Darwin, make enough money from their online presence to support what is basically a never-ending journey. Darwin, who hit the trail in 2015, says he can make anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 a month off views of his YouTube videos—not a fortune, but enough to keep him going. Dixie says she makes twice as much from the crowdfunding platform Patreon as she does from YouTube; there, 900 monthly donors get access to private Q and A’s with her, and some use Dixie as a consultant to help them plan their own thru-hikes.
Darwin and Dixie both said that people's skepticism about their authenticity and motives can sting. Running a successful YouTube channel is harder work than it appears, and there are easier ways to make a living, but they do it anyway because they love it. Neither has been tracked down on the trail, but they don’t doubt it could happen.
“If people were willing to show up at my house uninvited,” Dixie said, “they’d absolutely be willing to find me on trail.”
Because of the exertion he put himself through on his first day, Cory ran out of water that night. There are few water sources along the initial stretch of the PCT—just a sea of muted-green, drought-tolerant shrubs stretching across khaki-colored mountains that characterize much of the first 700 miles. Fortunately, a storm rolled inland, and the next day Cory collected rainwater running off his tent.
By his fourth day, Cory had walked a total of 7.3 miles. Slow starts aren’t unusual, but most thru-hikers on the PCT aim to cover around 20 miles per day.
Still, Cory remained inexplicably, infectiously happy. He’d sing silly songs to the camera. He’d laugh like a little kid at his own jokes. Cory confides his thoughts and feelings to viewers, as if he’s speaking to good friends on FaceTime. It’s endearing, which is probably why his YouTube channel took off and people started watching and cheering him on. “I’m very proud of you for just getting out there and giving it a shot,” wrote a viewer. “Sending love and support from Australia,” wrote another. A fan group launched on Facebook; its members uploaded photos of themselves hiking. One of them posted watercolors he’d painted based on stills from Cory’s videos.
But not everybody approved of Cory’s quest, and some believed he shouldn’t have been attempting it because of his weight. He was a danger to himself and others, they said.
“You need to take the black capsule,” one troll suggested, a reference to committing suicide. Another, writing on a popular forum for Appalachian Trail hikers called White Blaze, said: “If more people Fat Shamed others (which should probably be compulsory), then perhaps the 39.8% of obesity amongst the 99.3 million US adults could be seriously reduced and SAVE LIVES, instead of being concerned about ‘hurty feelings’!”
“You would think some of these park rangers would intervene ... and [put] a stop to this freak show,” someone else wrote on the same forum. “I did call the PCT assoc. when I first saw this clown and gave them a ear full about it. I think if more people did they can pull his permit.”
Cory tried to ignore the nasty comments, but then something truly unexpected happened: strangers, fans and haters alike, started searching for him on the trail.
In Southern California, the PCT roller-coasters up forested mountains and down into desert-valley passes, crossing highways and back roads several times a day. By watching Cory’s videos and approximating his mileage, people could home in on him. Early on, a woman from the Facebook fan group announced her intention to help “rescue” Cory and get him off the trail. Shortly after, strangers started driving to various segments of the PCT to look for him. They would park along the road and start hiking until they saw their quarry. One man who showed up was homeless, and he told Cory that he would follow and “take care” of him.
If people weren’t trying to rescue Cory, they were often trying to manipulate him. One stranger demanded that Cory hire him as a “manager.” In Agua Dulce, a small trail town outside Los Angeles that’s been used as a location for dozens of Hollywood films, a woman impersonated a journalist to get access to a home where Cory was staying overnight, claiming that she had an appointment to speak with him. She then tried to physically intimidate him into accepting her brand of drinking water as his official sponsor.
“She said it cures cancer and snakebites,” said Cory, who doesn’t remember her name but calls her Water Lady. Other hikers hid Cory in the back of the property, but Water Lady parked out front and refused to leave. Cory’s friends had to sneak him out.
Two incidents frightened Cory more than any others. On a February morning at 6:30, still too early in the year for other thru-hikers to be on the trail, Cory was lying in his sleeping bag when he heard a voice outside his tent.
“Second Chance, is that you in there?” a man asked. “I’ve been searching for you. I’m here to help.” Cory freaked out. He was alone in the woods, and he hadn’t asked for assistance. “It’s very scary, because you don’t know what their intentions are,” Cory said. “Some of them have it in their mind that they’re here to save me and I should be grateful and thankful.” Not long after, another stranger showed up, the one who tracked Cory’s footsteps through the snow. In both cases, he hid his fear, politely refused their help, and excused himself before hurriedly hiking away.
After encountering the “stalkers,” as Cory called them, he messaged Darwin on Instagram, looking for advice on what to do about such people. Darwin shared a strategy that he and Dixie had used for years: Delay your social media. Don’t post YouTube videos, Instagram posts, or anything else until weeks after you’ve hiked through an area.
Cory started publishing videos on a monthlong delay, and for the most part, it worked. Strangers stopped finding him; nobody tried to rescue him. By April, as more and more people began thru-hiking the PCT, Cory discovered that many of them had been watching his early videos as they prepared for their own hikes. If they happened to catch up with him, they were thrilled.
“One day ten people in a row wanted a selfie with me,” Cory said. “I felt like the nerdy kid in the high school movie who becomes super popular, and everybody wants to talk to you and get your picture.”
Life was looking up. Cory kept posting videos, gaining 25,000 followers. And he’d met a girl in Agua Dulce: Nessa Pepp, a fellow YouTube thru-hiker from Germany. “She’s the perfect girl,” Cory said. “She’s really sweet, and she sells honey in Germany. When we first met, she didn’t know who I was, and she actually didn’t think I was a hiker, because she thought I was too fat. I thought that was really funny.” They started hiking together a few days later and after a few weeks became a couple.
Before long, Cory and Nessa ran into a problem that had nothing to do with YouTube or his weight. After weaving through the desert mountains, the PCT ascends into the glacial-carved Sierra Nevada. But 2019 was a record-breaking snow season, and the range’s famous mountain passes—the trail reaches its highest point at the 13,000-foot Forester Pass in California, near Mount Whitney—were snowbound and dangerous. When Cory arrived in the southern Sierra, he assessed the situation, then chose to do what many PCT hikers do: skip the Sierra and get back on the trail far to the north, in Ashland, Oregon. The plan was to do the California portion later that year, once the snow melted.
Though it was already June by this point, Oregon’s Cascades also hadn’t fully escaped the grasp of winter. On Devil’s Peak, not far north of Ashland, the trail disappeared beneath a sheet of snow. Faced with the option of pushing on or backtracking, Cory and Nessa decided to keep going. Cory strapped on his microspikes and followed a steep, trodden snow track that went down the mountain.
He didn’t get far. Nessa was filming when Cory started sliding out of control, grasping at the snow unsuccessfully. The images she shot, which can be seen near the end of episode 73 on YouTube, show him flailing and grunting loudly in discomfort.
In episode 74, Cory finally stops sliding, and he slowly makes his way back to the snow track and down the mountain. Shortly after, as the adrenaline rush fades, he stumbles and feels a sharp pain. Screaming and unable to get off the ground, Cory realizes that he’s badly hurt, and Nessa uses her InReach to call for emergency assistance. In due course, help arrives, and Cory is taken by helicopter and ambulance to Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
Cory’s story—inspirational, defiant, feel-good—was suddenly overshadowed by an uncomfortable question. The online critics and haters had doubted his ability. Were they right?
When an adventurer negligently wanders into the wilderness, it’s not just their livelihood at stake. Search and rescue missions are expensive, often billed to the public, and can distract personnel from other emergencies. Sometimes volunteers get hurt or die in a rescue attempt, which happened in California earlier this year.
The consequences are far-reaching, and Cory is aware of that. But he thinks the public does a poor job of determining who has acted negligently and who is capable but simply got into a jam that could have happened to anyone. Cory told me about a number of hikers he met who were rescued at some point but faced no consequences or judgment. Cory begged Nessa not to hit the SOS button, because he knew what the critics would say about a guy like him getting rescued.
“I went up there with all the right gear, I didn’t cross my limits,” Cory said. Accidents happen all the time, but there’s a double standard. “If you are attractive, they assume you know what you’re doing. But I’m a big fat guy, so I get judged much more harshly.”
Cory was right about the flak he’d get after posting the video of his rescue. “Pathetic,” one commenter said. “People like them should not be allowed in the mountains.”
“I swear you act like you’re so hurt to get … attention and sympathy,” wrote another.
“I tried to watch the rescue video, but it was too painful,” Cory said. “I didn’t like that day at all. It was an awful day.”
As Cory recuperated in a hospital bed in Klamath Falls, he learned that he’d likely sustained tissue and nerve damage in his back. His doctor said he would recover, but he had to stop hiking for at least three weeks. It’s not uncommon for thru-hikers to end their hike because of injuries, but Cory didn’t want that to be the end of his story.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said on YouTube. “I’m out here to accomplish something, and I haven’t accomplished it yet.” A hiker and fan living in Bend, Oregon, opened up his house to Cory, who rested, recovered, and plotted his return. Progress was slow—at first his back couldn’t even bear the weight of his pack. He decided to spend time hiking and camping in Oregon forests around the PCT, slowly building up his strength. But before he left for the woods, a surprise visitor showed up.
It was Dixie. Turns out Cory’s original inspiration to hike the PCT was a fan of his channel.
“I was completely blown away to meet Dixie,” Cory said. “Meeting her has been one of the greatest highlights of my hike.” The two had a long conversation, and Dixie helped Cory get back on the trail, carrying some of the gear to the campsite where Cory would spend the next five days.
After seven weeks of recovery, Cory got going again in August. The PCT in Washington is not as high as the Sierra, but it’s steeper and wetter, and winter can dump snow on the Cascades as early as mid-September. With his back still healing, Cory hiked sections of trail without a pack, occasionally skipping ahead by car so he could keep up with Nessa. They weren’t just racing the weather; they were racing Nessa’s six-month visa, which was set to expire on September 27. But they were determined to make it to Canada in time.
By this point, Cory had hiked significantly farther than his critics expected, but he would keep hearing hateful comments from people who doubted him. “You shouldn’t be hiking until you deal with your food addiction first,” a stranger in Washington told him on the trail. Cory had noticed a consistent pattern. “It’s always older white guys,” Cory told me. “Every time.”
But Cory didn’t care about any of that anymore. His back had healed and he was backpacking again. He didn’t care that he wasn’t a “purist” thru-hiker, choosing to cherry-pick the sections of trail he wanted to hike the most, meeting up with Nessa when he could. He hiked Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness twice, where the razor-thin crest of the Cascades dramatically slices through the alpine air, just because he found the scenery so moving. He had lost nearly a hundred pounds and felt healthier than he had in 10 or 15 years. His shaved head had grown wild with hair, his unruly beard a thru-hiking badge of honor. And Cory kept churning out YouTube videos, where fans loved him just as much as he loved them.
In his last video from the PCT, people who had watched his hike jammed the comment section with their affection. “I have followed you from day one and worried, laughed, cried, cheered with you in every video,” one wrote. “I’m so proud and happy for you, and deeply inspired,” said another.
Reinvigorated, Cory told me he is newly determined to keep hiking, to run toward life rather than hide from it. “The PCT has been a complete reset of my life,” he said. Not to mention, Cory reminded me, he found love. Nessa managed to renew her visa, and they’re now figuring out their future.
On September 20, Cory arrived at the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. In the final moments of his nine-month journey, he and Nessa slowly danced on the border of Canada.