In 1955 at the age of 67, Emma Gatewood told her eleven children she was going for a walk and then walked for 146 days. Her children weren’t worried about her. After all, she had done something like this many times and was completely capable of sustaining herself. A few years before, Emma read an article in the August 1949 edition of National Geographic about the Appalachian Trail that stretched from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia 2000 miles to Mount Katahdin in Maine and she decided she would give it a try. Her children were grown and she no longer considered her abusive husband’s opinions. She later told reporters that she thought it would be a lark and “I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill, then what’s beyond that.”
By 1955 only a handful of people had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and no woman had done it alone, but the National Geographic article made it sound easy to Emma. So she set out with her Keds sneakers, a blanket, and a raincoat wrapped up in a shower curtain and hit the trail. The ups and downs of the trails wore on her feet and she had to find food wherever she could. Most of the people she met along the way were kind to her and provided “trail magic” giving her food and a place to sleep, but others were not so nice and left her to sleep on the dirt. After a while she started to get some attention from local reporters and eventually she became a media sensation. Reporters met with her along the way and fans hiked the trail hoping they would meet the woman dubbed “Grandma Gatewood.”
After dealing with rattlesnakes, a porcupine, twisted ankles, a sprained knee and broken glasses she made the final push up Mt Katahdin. She lost 30 pounds and when asked about finishing she said, “I did it. I said I’d do it and I’ve done it.” She sang a verse from “America the Beautiful” at the summit. But this was not the last time she would reach that summit. She came back and thru-hiked the whole trail again in 1960 and then later a third time in 1963, this time in sections. She was then the first person to hike it three times and the oldest person to complete the trail at the age of 75. She also walked 2000 miles across the country retracing the route of The Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon. When back in her home state of Ohio she often visited the Hocking Hills State Park. She worked with the park to connect her favorite trails in the area to form a longer trail called the Buckeye Trail, and a portion of it now bears her name. Every year she would lead the first Winter Walk, a popular program for the State Park. People flocked from all over the country to take a short hike with the legendary hiker.
“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.” – Emma “Grandma” Gatewood
Emma’s story still resonates strongly with many hikers. If you ask modern thru-hikers about her they will often say they would think of her when the going got tough: if she could do it, anyone could do it. Although she didn’t come out and say so directly, it would seem that Emma looked to the outdoors for hope and healing from her abusive marriage and found respite from raising 11 children. Her inspiring story gives hope to those who are suffering at the hands of others. She reminds us that you can end the suffering and use that connection we all feel to the earth and nature to restore and heal.
Read more about Emma Gatewood (including info about the upcoming documentary about her called Trail Magic):
Bonus Camp Read!
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery
Ben Montgomery, a journalist for the Tampa Bay Times, put together a wonderful narrative about Emma Gatewood’s story. He was compelled to write about Gatewood after hearing stories about her from his parents growing up. Based mostly on the journals and correspondences she kept at the time, Montgomery weeds out the lore from the facts and even retraces her steps on the AT as she would have walked it and visits the trail dedicated to her in Ohio.
Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack? Day Hike
This hardback is the perfect companion for a day hike on the AT, but wait for the paperback release to pack it for your thru-hike.