On March 10, Elk Lake grad and Tunkhannock resident Corey Podminick was about to see a dream become reality as be started out on a 4-day hike into the Andes Mountains of Peru in search of Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage site built in the 1400s that reveals an Inca community little known until a century ago.
“It was so cool,” Podminick said a week later by phone, to imagine a civilization built that long ago in such rugged terrain.
But his wide-eyed wonder instantly plummeted, when his hiking party got the news around 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 14, when it was back in cell phone range, about 40 miles deep into the Andes.
The word was that because of the coronavirus pandemic being felt around the globe, the Peruvian president was contemplating shutting down the borders effectively limiting travel for him and hundreds like him to get home to the U.S. and elsewhere.
“Everyone in our hiking group was like freaking out,” Podminick said.
The 28-year-old graduate of Penn State’s Lehman campus who works as a technician at Cummins Systems near Center Moreland said he considers himself an avid hiker, who had been on journeys to the Bahamas and Mexico, “but nothing this far south.”
Although most who visit ‘the lost city’ - that was re-discovered by American Hiram Bingham in 1911- prefer a three and a half hour train ride with peak months for visitors in July and August. But not Podminick, who desired a more intimate journey at the end of the Peruvian rainy season. Spectacular views of the countryside took him from an elevation of 10,000 to 17,000 feet, and then ended at 9,000 feet. “It was quite a drop in the end,” he said
He and a friend, Vanessa Cheek of Long Island, decided to just join in a hiking group where tent-like accommodations were provided along the way for night-time sleeping.
Podminick said he traveled in layers as temperatures ranged from the 40s to the 70s, but he never minded any of it “for the pretty awesome views” that awaited him.
He said that on Sunday, March 15, in Lima, “We stayed up all night trying to find a flight.”
But to no avail.
The first day in, Podminick said, “We could walk the streets and could go to the grocery for food, but not any more.”
He said he and others were stranded in a Mariott Hotel where they could get something to eat in its restaurant.
How does it feel to be grounded in a foreign country?
“Not very fun,” he said by phone on Wednesday.
When they planned their journey, he and his friend had an idea they would visit the famous catacombs at a local cathedral on their last day out before expecting to go home.
“Now we can’t go anywhere,” he said with armed guards just outside his hotel, making sure its occupants stayed inside.
Podminick noted, however, that not once did he feel that his life was in any danger.
“The Peruvians are very nice,” he said. “The most trouble we’ve had is with the U.S. Embassy which hadn’t been much of a help.”
A website had been started on facebook to help the 300 or so Americans stranded in Peru trying to get back to the U.S.
National reporting believes the number in Peru is closer to 6,000.
Family members who asked not to be identified said on Thursday they had reached out to Sen. Pat Toomey’s office and Congressman Fred Keller’s office and said they were disappointed “that our elected leaders seem unwilling and uninterested in bringing Corey home.”
His luck turned Friday, however, and he finally returned to American soil driving to his home Monday.
“The stars aligned just right,” he said Tuesday morning.
Notified that United had opened a flight to Brazil from Lima on Friday, Podminick put his name on a waiting list, and seemed assured he would get on the flight.
When he got to the airport, however, he learned the flight was just for Brazilians and had a mild panic. He showed his American passport, and what he thought was his confirmation code to be on the flight.
As flight time neared he was told there were six seats open and they would take him.
“That was a joyous moment,” he said.
The next day he got a flight from Brazil to Miami.
Podminick said he’s tired but super happy to be on American soil.
He said the U.S. Embassy was “absolutely not helpful” in his getting home, and wishes his country could have done better.
Would he do it again?
Last Wednesday, Podminick said, “If I had known all of this was going to happen, I would have never come here.”
Asked yesterday, he said, “No way, would I put myself though that again.”
Steve Kelly, an aide to Sen. Toomey, said that his office reached out to Podminick. He noted, "Throughout the last week, Senator Toomey’s office was in constant contact with Corey and several members of his family - serving as a resource in the effort to bring Corey home. We received word, via a thank you note from a family member of Corey’s last Sunday evening, that he arrived safely in the United States which was the most important aspect of this ordeal.”