Emma Rowena Gatewood was born in Guyan Township, Ohio to a farm family of 15 children. She was married at 19 to a 27-year-old primary school teacher.
During their life together, Emma raised their eleven children while her husband worked as a tobacco farmer.
Unfortunately, their life together was far from idyllic. From the outset of their marriage, Emma found herself in a domestically violent relationship, surviving broken ribs, broken teeth, and other life-threatening injuries. It was in the woods where she found refuge, a certain kind of salvation where she often escaped to when her husband wanted to hurt her.
Luckily, in 1940 she managed to divorce her husband who was sent to an asylum. She peacefully spent the rest of her days with all her children and grandchildren. She was 67-years-old when she left the house telling her children that she was going for a walk. Nobody had suspected that she had a longer walk in mind.
She wore Keds sneakers and carried an army blanket, a raincoat, and a plastic shower curtain in a homemade denim bag slung over one shoulder. She set out to hike the Appalachian Trail that, by then, no woman and only five men had ever completed.
She hiked from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Later she recalled reading an article in “National Geographic” which wrote that “it would be a nice lark” , but after the experience, she concluded that she would had never started if only she knew how tough it was going to be.
But not only that she didn’t give up, she hiked the Appalachian Trail two more times, in 1960 and 1963, which made her the first and the oldest woman to do that. At least until 2007, when Nancy Gowler did so at the age of 71. When Gatewood walked the trail for the first time in 1955, she had 23 grandchildren which earned her the nickname Grandma Gatewood.
Besides the Appalachian Trail, Grandma Gatewood had walked 2,000 miles of the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon and had traveled to every state of the continental United States.
In 1970, at the age of 83, while visiting Appalachian Outfitters in Oakton, Virginia, she was asked about her view on the latest lightweight backpacking gear. Emma advised: “Make a rain cape, take an over-the-shoulder sling bag and buy a sturdy pair of Keds tennis shoes. Stop at local groceries and pick up Vienna sausages… Any other food can be found beside the trail… And by the way, those wild onions are not to be called ‘Ramps’… They are ‘Rampions’…A ramp is an inclined plane”.
Gatewood was a life member of the National Campers and Hikers Association and the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club.
She was a Director Emeritus and a lifetime member of the Buckeye Trail Association. She died in 1973, at the age of 85.