I get faster as I get older
— Emma Gatewood
In 1955, Emma Gatewood (1887-1973) became the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. She was 67. The AT was then 2,050 miles long, and she averaged 17 miles per day. By the end of the trip she had lost 24 pounds. Grandma Gatewood went solo, dressed in jeans and sneakers, and didn’t carry a tent, stove, or sleeping bag, but rather slung a sack with food and gear over one shoulder. She picked berries along the side of the trail and relied on the kindness of strangers. She’d sleep “anywhere I could lay my bones.”
The media called her “Queen of the Forest.” She came across to some as a “wild tramp.” According to one hiker who met her on the trail, “She was one tough old bird.” Grizzled Maine outdoorsmen lauded her for having “pioneer guts.” A Native American told her, “I’ve seen lots of things in the woods but you’re the most unusual sight I’ve ever come across.”
Two years later she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail again. She completed it a third time in 1963 at the age of seventy-five. She also walked the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail, averaging 22 miles per day. For these accomplishments, she was described as a “living legend among hikers” and America’s “most celebrated pedestrian.”
She climbed mountains, crossed raging streams, endured rain and cold, slept outdoors, sidestepped snakes, killed and roasted a porcupine. All the while, “I kept putting one foot ahead of the other.”
In her eighties, she split her time between managing a trailer park, traveling the country as a celebrity, and blazing new trails in southeastern Ohio, where she lived. She received the Ohio State Conservation Award and the Governor’s Community Action Award for her “outstanding contributions to outdoor recreation.” After she died, a six-mile stretch of Ohio’s Buckeye trail was named the “Grandma Gatewood Trail.”
She thought people relied too much on cars and needed more exercise. “Most people today are pantywaist.”
Ben Montgomery tells her story in an interesting and well-researched new book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail (Chicago Review Press, 2014)
The book opens with a description of her hardscrabble background, growing up on a family farm in southeastern Ohio, one of 15 siblings. She married and raised 11 children of her own. Her husband was abusive. She endured his beatings for twenty years before divorcing him in 1941 and obtaining custody of the children.
She had read about the AT in a discarded issue of National Geographic magazine and it had caught her imagination. But she didn’t tell anyone. In preparation, she made overnight expeditions in the local Ohio forests to test equipment, food, and first aid supplies. Her first trip to the Appalachian Trail ended in disaster: she started in Maine but quickly lost the trail and had to be rescued by park rangers. When she came back the next year, she started in Georgia and headed north. Maine was still a challenge, but she persisted despite bad weather, rough terrain, the loss of her glasses, which left her nearly blind, and a sore knee. Upon reaching the northern terminus of the AT on the summit of Mt. Katahdin, she sang “America the Beautiful.”
“I did it,” she said. “I said I’d do it and I’ve done it.”
People wanted to know why she undertook this challenge.
At first her answers were flippant: “I took it up as kind of a lark,” she said.
With time she provided more insight into her motivations. “After 20 years of hanging diapers and seeing my children grow up and go their own way, I decided to take a walk— one I always wanted to take.”
But why the Appalachian Trail?
“I’m a great lover of the outdoors,” she explained. “I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill, then what’s beyond that”.
“Some people think it’s crazy,” she told a reporter. “But I find a restfulness— something that satisfies my type of nature. The woods make me feel more contented.” Not only are the forests beautiful and quiet, but on the trail “the petty entanglements of life are brushed aside like cobwebs.”
Another reason: she wasn’t ready to slow down. “I don’t want to sit and rock. I want to do something.”
But why did she really want to do this? According to the author Ben Montgomery, the hike was a response to the abusive relationship she had so long endured, which included frequent and severe beatings. Montgomery speculates that her hike was a form of “walking away” from that experience as much as it was “walking towards” a specific goal.
Her daughter, Lucy, tells a different story. “Mama” was determined to do something notable.
One can speculate, but at the end of the day, the why may not matter. When one reporter asked why, she simply stated: “Because I wanted to.”
And that’s what’s so inspiring about her story: that she set out and accomplished her goal, no matter how improbable it seemed to others.
What did she think of the experience?
I thought it would be a nice lark. It wasn’t. There were terrible blowdowns, burnt-over areas that were never re-marked, gravel and sand washouts, weeds and brush to your neck, and most of the shelters were blown down, burned down, or so filthy I chose to sleep out of doors. This is no trail. This is a nightmare. For some fool reason they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find. I’ve seen every fire station between here and Georgia. Why, an Indian would die laughing his head off if he saw those trails. I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t quit.
These observations spurred local hiking clubs to improve maintenance of the trail. As her fame spread, more people began to thru-hike the AT.
Upon further reflection, however, she acknowledged, “After the hard life I have lived, this trail isn’t so bad.”
Despite all the challenges, or maybe because of them, it seems to me that Grandma Gatewood had a hoot on the trail. On her second thru-hike of the AT, she wrote to her daughters, “I am fine and having the time of my young life.”
I slept wherever I could pile down. Course, sometimes they weren’t the most desirable places in the world, but I always managed. A pile of leaves makes a fine bed, and if you’re tired enough, mountain tops, abandoned sheds, porches, and overturned boats can be tolerated. I even had a sleeping companion. A porcupine tried to curl up next to me one night while I slept on a cabin floor. I decided there wasn’t room for both of us.
On one of her hikes, she killed a porcupine, roasted it, and tried to eat it. She took a bite of the liver and immediately spat it out. “It took me two or three days to get that taste out of my mouth.”
A reporter asked her what part of the AT she liked the best. ‘Going downhill, Sonny,’ she replied.
She was audacious, unflappable, purposeful, practical, tireless, blunt, friendly, tough as grit, and public-spirited. And she had a sly sense of humor.
Emma Gatewood was inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame in 2012.