Just when you begin to think you’re a hot shit outdoorsperson, someone comes along to put you in your place. Today’s antidote to ego and chest thumping is an elderly grandmother from Ohio. More accurately: an elderly grandmother who had more than 20 grandchildren and who put in more miles in her golden years than most people will in a lifetime.
That Emma Rowena Gatewood was sassy as the day is long, a housewife and mother of 11, and that she began her most notable hike at 67 years old does not a badass make. The reason “Grandma Gatewood” has trails named in her honor and is respected in hiking circles far and wide is because she lived the “just do it” mentality long before Nike made it a thing.
Gatewood was a pioneering thru-hiker back when it was just considered “finishing” the trail. In 1955, she hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail because, in her words, “I thought it would be a nice lark.” She was 67 at the time, the sixth person to finish the full trail and the first woman to do so. Apparently, it wasn’t such a lark. Her story was picked up by the national news outlets, including Sports Illustrated, to whom she said, “I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t quit.”
She didn’t quit then…or ever. She hiked the full Appalachian Trail two more times, finishing her last attempt (in several segments) at 75 years old. When tackling 2,000 miles of the Oregon Trail, she logged an average of 22 miles per day. In her home state of Ohio, she led an annual route along 12 miles of the Buckeye Trail. A six-mile stretch of it is named in her honor.
Many credit Gatewood’s spartan approach with championing ultralight backpacking. Famously, her kit was comprised of a rain cape, an over-the-shoulder sling of some sort, an army blanket, and a pair of Keds sneakers. Her forage-based diet was bolstered only by a couple of tins of Vienna sausages.
Gatewood was inspired to hike the Appalachian Trail by an article in National Geographic. The images and tales of travel lit her spark for adventure just like they have for so many. There are easy takeaways from her experiences of hitting the trails: don’t overdo it, plan ahead but don’t overthink it, and just get out there and put one foot in front of the other. But perhaps the biggest lesson Gatewood taught was that age, indeed, ain’t nothing but a number.
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