Imagine walking 2,050 miles along America’s Appalachian Trail, one of the most grueling hikes on the planet, enduring uneven mountainous trails, fallen trees and huge boulders, sleeping on the ground, and relying on the kindness of strangers along the way. It sounds like a rough trip.
Now imagine doing it at the age of sixty-seven.
Emma Gatewood became the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail solo and completed her journey in five months. It was 1955, and the trails were not as maintained as they are now and were sometimes not even connected.
She had no previous hiking experience other than when she hid from her abusive husband in the woods, but she educated herself on what she could eat in the wild. Growing up on a farm, she was no stranger to hard work.
Her first attempt, in 1953, starting in Mount Katahdin, Maine, was unsuccessful as she was not properly prepared, accidentally broke her glasses, and got lost almost immediately.
Park Rangers helped her find her way out. Not to be deterred, Emma started again two years later with a sack made from denim in which she carried her supplies. No sleeping bag, tent, backpack, or even a compass.
She took a shower curtain to keep dry, a blanket, a journal, first aid kits, small non-perishable food items such as nuts and raisins, cans of Vienna sausages, extra tennis shoes, and a few other items.
Starting at the opposite end, in Georgia this time, Emma averaged about fourteen miles a day; she bypassed a troop of Boy Scouts who were unable to hike at her pace. The media got wind of Emma’s extraordinary trek and “Grandma Gatewood” suddenly became a household name.
Newspapers reported her progress and took note of her complaints about the condition of the trails, which may have led to the improvements found today.
Her newfound fame also helped her get meals and sleeping quarters with fans who lived near the trails. When the tennis shoe company Keds found out they were her preferred brand, they took advantage of the publicity and supplied her with more shoes. She wore out six pairs on her lengthy walk.
After hiking through northern Georgia, across Tennessee, Maryland, and the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania into New York state and up through Vermont and New Hampshire, she finally reached northern Maine. Afterwards, she gave interviews to Sports Illustrated and appeared on television on the Today Show, You Bet Your Life, and the Tonight Show. According to a blog in the Washington Post, when asked why she did it, she replied, “Because I wanted to.”
Not one to sit idle, she made the trip again in 1957 “so she could enjoy it.” Emma hiked it a third time in 1964, but she did it in sections, becoming the first person to hike the trail three times.
In 1959 she hiked again, this time from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon, for Oregon’s Centennial celebration. An old-time covered wagon train had left several weeks before Emma, and she not only caught up to it but passed it, as they traveled through Idaho.
In 1959, in her home state of Ohio, Emma assisted in establishing The Buckeye Trail, which consists of twenty miles going north, beginning at Hocking Hills State Park in the southern section of the state and ending at Old Man’s Cave in Benton Township; it has a section named after Emma.
Emma Gatewood died in 1973, at the age of eighty-five, from what was believed to be a heart attack. She was buried in Ohio Valley Memory Gardens in Gallia County, Ohio.
Ben Montgomery wrote a book about Emma’s exploits called Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, and Ohio filmmaker, Peter Huston, produced an hour long documentary about Emma called Trail Magic. She was posthumously inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame in 2012.