When you’ve spent years enduring the kind of hardship Emma “Grandma” Gatewood did, physically, and emotionally, a 2,000-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail with virtually nothing but the clothes on your back seems a reprieve. Not easy, maybe, but nothing you can’t deal with. For Gatewood, many years the wife of an abusive husband, the forest had already been a sanctuary. An escape from the horrors of home.
So when she set out to hike the whole damn thing in 1955, the first woman to do so, 67 years old, a mother of 11, and a great-grandmother even, she was ready. Even if she wasn’t exactly a hiker when she set out. She was hardened by the fires of real struggle.
Gatewood traveled without compass or a map, relying instead on her own wits, maybe a helpful tip from a local out strolling the trail in the afternoon.
Gatewood’s tale of being the first woman, and a grandmother at that, to hike the AT had already established her in the annals of Important Outdoorspeople. She’s often credited with being a kind of pioneer of women’s thru-hiking, and, because she hiked with just a pair of Keds on her feet and a tarp over her head, the ultralight movement too. Though she wouldn’t have understood either of those terms then. She set out to hike the trail because, as she later remarked, “I thought it would be a nice lark.”
But what wasn’t known about Gatewood until 2014 was how she’d suffered at the hands of an abusive husband for many years. And that may have been the motivation for her to take on the challenge.
Her great-great nephew, a reporter in Florida named Ben Montgomery, decided to write a book about Gatewood’s remarkable hike. He read scrapbooks and journals she’d kept, which revealed the extent of the domestic abuse she’d suffered. The book he wrote, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, was published in 2014 and told Gatewood’s real story for the first time.
She married at 19, and immediately was put to work on her husband’s ranch performing hard labor. If her husband was displeased, he took it out on her.
At one point in 1939, the beatings and mental abuse drove Gatewood to leave her husband and their two daughters. She moved to California, for a time, before the pain of separation from her children grew too intense to bear and she returned to her Ohio home and the abuse.
The abuse continued until the couple divorced in 1941. Gatewood was 54 years old and for the first time in her adult life, relatively free to do what she liked.
A 1949 article in National Geographic about the Appalachian Trail sparked a flame in Gatewood. She wasn’t a hiker, or a dedicated explorer of nature, but she was used to hiding out from her husband in the woods, and taking walks as a kind of solace. Plus, she’d learned to be resourceful, working on a farm, was accustomed to pushing through physical pain, and she certainly wasn’t afraid of hard work.
Gatewood first attempted to hike the AT in 1954. She told no one of her plans. It didn’t go well. She was lost soon after setting out from the trailhead in Maine and eventually rescued by rangers and sent back to Ohio.
That was just a setback, Gatewood thought. Not indicative of the trail being too much for her.
So in 1955, again without telling her family where she was headed (her children were long since grown and living on their own), Gatewood headed out for a second attempt. This time, from Georgia, heading north. 146 days later, she’d finished. Carrying only her shower curtain tarp, a blanket, some dried fruit, sausages, and nuts, a self-sewn rucksack, and wearing her canvas Keds, Gatewood pushed through the pain, the boredom, the hunger, the exhaustion, all of it, perhaps to walk the trials and tribulations and abuse of her past out of her life forever.
She walked fast, 14 miles per day. This was a 67-year-old woman with no real hiking experience, in canvas shoes, in the early decades of the AT, mind you. A Boy Scout troop that occasionally encountered Gatewood on the trail reported that they were consistently unable to match her pace.
Her story during the first successful hike had made rounds in the news media. Reporters would travel ahead to meet her on the trail to cover her remarkable push. Strangers knew Grandma Gatewood was out there putting in big mile days and would open their homes to her for rest at night. Sports Illustrated, among other national news outlets, reported on her achievement when she finally reached Mount Katahdin, in Maine. “I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was,” Gatewood said to SI. “But I couldn’t and wouldn’t quit.”
She also didn’t quit hiking the AT.
Gatewood thru-hiked the trail again a few years later, making her the first person to hike it twice. Then she section hiked it a final time when she was 75 years old. She also took on the Oregon Trail in 1959, another 2,000 miles of solo hiking, from Missouri to Oregon. Once back in Ohio, she was instrumental in helping to create the Buckeye Trail, now well more than 1,000 miles long, a chunk of which is named for her.
Imagine what Gatewood would think today, seeing scores of hikers with brightly colored backpacks stuffed with dozens of pounds of rain gear, clothes, food, lanterns, and electronic gizmos. Gatewood traveled without compass or a map, relying instead on her own wits, maybe a helpful tip from a local out strolling the trail in the afternoon.
Yes, it was tough, but she knew toughness. It was uncomfortable, but she knew pain. It was lonesome but she knew loneliness. It was though, indeed a lark, and that was what she’d needed and lacked most in her life. She deserved to find that kind of breezy adventure out there on the trail.
You of course want to know more about Gatewood’s story, so check out Montgomery’s book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail.
Sure, there are some cornball elements to Bill Bryson’s writing, but A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, is still a great read even for the seasoned thru-hiker.