Emma Gatewood had lived a rough life. Born in 1887, she was married at 19. Her husband started beating her during their honeymoon and he beat her many times – sometimes almost to death – through 35 years of marriage and 11 children.
After her divorce in 1940, she was looking for something to keep fit. She saw an article about the Appalachian trail in a copy of National Geographic magazine (August 1949). So she decided to walk it.
Her story is an incredible one of determination and just plain toughness. Ben Montgomery tells Grandma Gatewood’s tale exceedingly well, so I’ll just give you the highlights.
How She Walked
Emma started her walk on May 3, 1955, at the top of a mountain in Jasper, South Carolina. She was 67 years old and a great-grandmother! No one knew she was there except the taxi driver who brought her to the top of the mountain and her cousin Myrtle in Atlanta. She told her children she was going for a walk.
She had attempted the trail the year before (1954), starting in Maine, but she lost her way, broke her glasses, and ran out of food; she was ordered by Park Rangers to leave. She told no one about this aborted trip. This time she was determined to go the whole way.
She had no map, no sleeping bag, and no tent, and only a little money for food. She wore tennis shoes and carried a backpack with some essentials, including a shower curtain to use as a rain poncho. She had been preparing for her walk by walking, and she had gotten up to 10 miles a day by the time she started.
At the time she started, the official 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail was used mostly by day walkers or hikers; only a few men (and no women) had walked the entire trail. The trail was still in its infancy, still being developed, and only portions of it were marked. There were only a few shelters, and no one really knew much about it. So when Emma started walking, she was literally blazing a trail.
Her father had always told her, “Pick up your feet,” so that’s what she did. She just started walking. At the end of each day, she would start looking for a place to stay, asking politely. Sometimes she was refused, sometimes welcomed. When she was refused shelter, she slept on the trail. When she ran out of money, she would work for a few days. She would accept rides to nearby towns for food and a place to sleep, always requesting that she be returned to the trail where she left it. Most trail walkers today follow this requirement if they want to claim to have walked the entire trail.
The trail, from Mt. Oglethorpe in South Carolina to Mt. Katahdin in Main, held many dangers. There were mountains to climb, rivers with rapids to cross, and stretches of unmarked pasture land to get lost in. Many dangerous animals – mountain lions, black bears, and rattlesnakes to name a few – and people roamed around. (This was still the time of hillbillies and moonshiners.) Towns were few and far between.
When she began her trip in May, it was cold and snow was still on the mountains. Many days it rained and stormed. As she got further north, the hot summer sun beat down on her and the humidity brought out mosquitoes. And don’t forget the poison plants – dangerous to eat or to get close to. As Ben Montgomery said,
“There were a million heavenly things to see and a million spectacular ways to die.
But she was inspired by the beauty of the sights she had seen and her interactions with the kind people she met. She said,
“The forest is a quiet place and nature is beatiful. I don’t want to sit and rock. I want to do something.”
The Public Begins to Notice
In early June, near Roanoke, Virginia, Emma was approached by two Appalachian trail club members who wanted to tell her story. She was reluctant to let them publish anything about her because she still hadn’t told her family about her journey. She finally agreed to a picture and a story.
Word spread “like wood smoke” and soon she found that local reporters were joining her on her walk just to talk with her and get her story for their newspaper. She was welcomed in some towns and treated like a visiting dignitary, which annoyed her; she just wanted to keep moving.
Emma Gets Addicted to Walking
Grandma Gatewood didn’t stop with one more trip through the Appalachian Trail. She made the trip two more times, the third time completing her first attempted trip. Then she walked across the country, from Ohio to Portland, Oregon. And she did more trips, climbing six mountains in the Adirondack Range,
At age 71, she walked the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon. Everywhere she went, reporters and crowds followed and she was asked to appear on television, including the Groucho Marx show. She said she was starting to feel like a “sideshow freak.”
Back at home, Emma set out to encourage hiking but working to establish hiking trails in Ohio. She often walked around her home in Ohio, where she would set off on walks on a whim, covering 20 miles in a day.
Her lifetime of walking counted up to 14,000 miles. In the spring of 1973, she bought a bus ticket and visited 48 states and 3 Canadian provinces. shortly after her return, on June 4, she collapsed and died. (As I reviewed my notes before writing this article, I thought I’d made an error in the date, assuming that she couldn’t have made such a long trip so shortly before her death. But she did.)
Honors and awards followed, including her 2012 induction into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame. Emma (Grandma) Gatewood’s story was inspirational to me. She survived a brutal husband, had many children and grandchildren, and she was tough enough to start on her dream later in life. She never stopped walking and encouraging others to walk.
Pick up your feet, Jean!
Sources and more information
The quotes and most of the information in this article is from Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery. In 2018, the New York Times included Grandma Gatewood in their Overlooked series of people who should have had NYT obituaries.
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