It was a chilly day in the April of 1955 when Emma Gatewood told her family she was going for a walk and shut the door behind her. The rest of this event became history that Emma created herself, leaving her small Ohio hometown with just a few pieces of clothing and less than $200. Aged 67, the stepped out that day to become the first woman, and only the fifth person, who solo hiked the Appalachian Trail of 2,050 miles. Today, even six decades later, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood’s story continues to resonate and inspire people around the world.
Grandma Gatewood, as reporters called her, was born and raised in the foothills of Appalachia. Although being an avid reader from a young age, she went to school up to the eighth grade, and then repeated the same grade until she was 18 years old.
She was a mother of 11 children, however her marital life was harrowing as her brutal husband allegedly beat her repeatedly during their 30 years of marriage. At the time she hiked the trail she was a grandmother to 23.
According to the author Ben Montgomery, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and reporter who wrote Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, the story of Grandma Gatewood illustrates the power of human spirit and determination, and is one of a person who finds herself and her inner peace through overcoming obstacles. Of course, many would wonder “Why did she do it?” and although there are possible answers and interpretations to this question, one thing is certain–it was a personal dare that challenged and inspired many.
Lucy Seeds, Gatewood’s daughter, described her as an extraordinary yet ordinary person who, due to the great amount of physical work that needed to be done, never had much time to be lonely. According to Lucy, Gatewood’s idea for the Appalachian trail was inspired by an article in National Geographic that said no woman yet had hiked the trail. So Gatewood thought, “Why not me? Why couldn’t I be the first one? I’ve walked places all my life, so how hard could it be?” Since she didn’t want anyone to tell her that it was a foolish idea, she kept quiet about her plan. “Mamma was a hard worker, I’ve seen her working the fields for hours. She did more heavy work in her lifetime than probably 90 percent of the men. No woman had walked the trail from one end to another and not in the same season. She inspired many people because when she was on a national television talking about the Appalachian Trail and that was probably news to a lot of people and I’m quite sure that it inspired a lot of them, particularly young people. I think that it was an important part of her personality, character and strength and the way her self-confidence prevailed.”
Modern hikers would be surprised to learn that, contrary to modern standards and necessities, Gatewood didn’t take any sleeping bag and tent, nor a compass or map, but instead relied on her own independence and the hospitable strangers she met along the way. She carried a homemade knapsack and wore out six pairs of basic trainers in 156 days from April to September. Her light gear also included a woolen blanket and a plastic shower curtain brought along to protect herself from harsh weather conditions. She didn’t bother much about accommodation and during her adventurous journey slept under a picnic table, in a front-porch swing, and on a bed of leaves. Her diet included peanuts, raisins, canned Vienna sausages, and greens she found along the trail, as well as meals offered by some of the strangers she met.
Understandably, hardships were an unavoidable part of Grandma’s bold adventure. Finally, in September 1955, after a rattlesnake encounter, surviving two hurricanes and a confrontation with criminals from New York City, Grandma reached the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine, singing from the top of her lungs the song “America, the Beautiful” and as she later reported, whispering to herself “I said I’ll do it, and I’ve done it.”
The Appalachian Trail female victor became a hiking celebrity and appeared on national TV and in the pages of Sports Illustrated. She draw public attention to the little-known trail and, with her criticism of the difficult stretches, she reinforced maintenance and saved the trail from extinction.
Gatewood’s great-granddaughter, Marjorie Gilliam Wood, said in an interview that her grandmother was a very strong-willed, straight-forward woman who was well ahead of her time. She described her personal experience with Gatewood, “I don’t ever remember Grandma being afraid of anything. She scared a bear off and when the reporters said that to her, she said well, after having a herd like she raised, an old bear was nothing. She was a really strong, independent woman who did what she wanted to do and let no one else bring her down or tell her that she couldn’t do it. I learned from her that if you want to do something, go for it! You don’t have to wait for somebody else to tell you that you can do it.”
Grandma’s story didn’t stop with that 1955 hike. Two years later, she returned to hike straight through once again, becoming the first person to pass the Appalachian Trail twice. She reported that she decided to take the second turn so that she could really enjoy the surroundings. However, she didn’t stop there. In 1964, she completed the trail for the third time, this time doing it in sections.
As another of her great achievements, in her home state of Ohio, Gatewood established the Buckeye Trail. In 1959 it began with a 20-mile stretch and in time grew to over 1,444 miles. In her honor, one of the sections was named after her. She died in 1973 at the age of 85, leaving an invaluable legacy of a fearless heroine who proved to the world that age is just a number, and that life starts and is happening today, at this very moment. So what are we waiting for?