For my birthday, my youngest sister and her husband sent me a New York Times Bestseller titled GRANDMA GATEWOOD’S WALK; The inspiring story of the woman who saved the Appalachian Trail, by Ben Montgomery.
Appalachian Trail with another of my sisters and three of her teenage children when I was sixty years old. My sister and I had rad Bill Bryson's A WALK IN THE WOODS, and figured if he and his overweight out of shape friend Steven Katz could do it, we could, too. Especially since we had no intention of doing the whole trail only sections of it in Shenandoah National Park.
That first year I needed my tall nephew to lift my backpack from the ground and put it on me. I staggered out of the parking lot to follow my sister, nephew, two nieces and wondered how far I would actually be able to go. Unlike Grandma Gatewood, who had a canvas bag she made with very little in it except some essentials which did not include a tent, sleeping bag, self-inflating airbag, small stove, water filter, camera, extra clothes, or the food we were carrying. That first day the nieces and nephews were way ahead of my sister and me, although my sister, who was still in her early fifties moved faster than I did. When we met up with her children sitting on a large boulder playing cards. I slipped off my backpack. That day I needed help getting it back on, but by the second day I was able to swing it up in place myself. In six days with stops at the lodge to eat when we passed it, time spent setting up our tents, and the other things we were required to do like cooking and getting a large bag holding food, cooking utensils, toothpaste, etc. up in a high branch in a tree at night to keep it away from bears, we managed to cover twenty-six miles of the Appalachian Trail, The AT in Shenandoah National Park is 100 miles long.
I finished reading the book Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. What an amazing woman she was. She was the first woman to hike the whole 2050 mile Appalachian Trail in 1955 when the trail was not in good condition as it is today. Only a few men had done it prior to this.
Emma came from Callia County in southern Ohio. She grew up on a farm in a large family and didn’t go beyond 8th grade because she had younger siblings to care for. The saddest part is when as a seventeen-year-old girl, a man who was twenty-six, a teacher, and from a family that was much wealthier than her family kept nagging her to marry him, which she did. He bought a farm and she ended up not only doing far more work on the farm than he did, he was abusive and often blackened her eyes and left bruises all over her. She had 11 children by him, and loved her kids and was good to them. She often took off to the woods to walk just to get away from him. Eventually she divorced him.
In a doctor’s office one day, she read a National Geographic magazine about The Appalachian Trail and decided it was something she wanted to do. She held onto that dream until her eleven children were grown, married, and she had twenty-three grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. She was only five foot two inches tall, weighed a 150 pounds, was near-sighted. and had a mouth full of false teeth thanks to her ex-husband. The first year she went to Maine to start there, but wasn’t far into the trail when she got horribly lost in the Maine woods. When she was finally found by rangers looking for her, she flew home.
The next year, 1955, she headed south to start from the southern route. None of her children knew anything about it, but they didn’t worry about where she was because they knew she was a strong woman with a mind of her own. It wasn’t until they started getting postcards from her that they realized where she was, but they still weren’t alarmed or worried.
She only wore a pair of tennis shoes which wore out quickly, and she had blisters and bunions, but still she walked on. The trail wasn’t as well kept then and there weren’t as many lean-to sheltrs as there are today. Often, she slept on a pile of leaves with a thin blanket over her. She left the trail when she got close to a small town to stock up on food. Sometimes, especially when it was raining she asked someone if she could sleep on their porch. She met so many people while she was hiking. Some she shared the shelters with along the trail, and once she hiked along with a Boy Scout troop. She made a lot of friends along the trail, and then reporters in small towns heard about her and managed to meet her with photographers to interview her about why she was doing what she was doing. She gave short answers “Because I wanted to.” “I thought it would be a lark.” And others. Eventually, she was in newspapers all over the country, and one reporter from the New York Times, caught up with her more than once and she would take her out to eat, or pay for a place for her to stay before taking her back to the trail where she left off. Everyone wanted to know why she was doing this. She always gave them a short reply like “I like walking.” She became quite a celebrity in her own way. People figured out about when she’d be coming through their town on the trail near their town and would be waiting for her.
She made it to Mt. Katahdin and not in great shape. Her glasses were broke, her knee ached and back ached, but she made it to the top, and while there she sang “America the Beautiful.”
Emma Gatewood not only hiked the Appalachian Trail three times, but she hiked from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon where huge crowds waited to see her. She especially loved Hocking Hills State Park in southern Ohio, and did much to make the trails better that she enjoyed hiking. A trail in the park was named for her. I’ve been there and it is a beautiful place.
I had read about her in a book my sister and I had read about the Appalachian Trail before we decided to do it, but not the details of this book which was largely taken from the journal she kept. Even though I never wanted to do the whole trail, for five or six years my sister and I went back to the trail in Shenandoah National Park and finished the whole trail. Sometimes just this sister and I with her son or daughter, and twice with my Washington sister, a brother and four teenage nephews, and another time my sister from Washington brought her husband, too. Would I still like to go backpacking? I still have all my stuff, but I have to admit I doubt I could carry a pack these days, and I don’t have anyone willing to go with me. Unlike Grandma Gatewood, I would like a hiking partner.
Have you heard of Grandma Gatewood?
Have you ever gone backpacking?