Extreme Hiker

Emma “Grandma” Gatewood near Fontana Dam in 1970. Courtesy of Lucy Gatewood Seeds.

She didn’t have high-tech gear or a degree in outdoor education. In fact, she didn’t even have a backpack or a sleeping bag. All that Emma Rowena “Grandma” Gatewood needed was an army blanket, a shower curtain to keep dry, and 2,100 miles of rocky willpower. The first woman “thru-hiker” of the 14-states-long Appalachian Trail, and the first person to complete the feat multiple times, Grandma Gatewood was a brutalized farmer’s wife who successfully divorced her husband after being almost fatally beaten numerous times.

When all of her 11 children were grown, she set out on her “lark” at age 67, in 1955, flying from her home in Ohio so she could start at the trailhead in Georgia. Her idea, gleaned from magazines, was that the AT was clearly marked, well-kept, and equipped with cabins at the end of each day’s trek — a path to serenity.

What she found instead was a menacing, utterly neglected wilderness trail. But despite wearing only Keds sneakers with her old shirt and dungarees, and after weathering two hurricanes and surviving a rattlesnake attack, she made it to Maine’s Mount Katahdin triumphantly alive. The ensuing press brought attention to the disintegrating trail, arguably rescuing it from extinction and inspiring enthusiastic new generations of hikers.

Tampa Bay Times’ Ben Montgomery, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting, plumbed sources close to Gatewood and had access to her diary while he wrote Grandma Gatewoods Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail. (The biography snagged the 2014 National Outdoor Book Awards for History/Biography.)

Ben Montgomery, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, dug deep to tell the full, fascinating tale of Grandma Gatewood’s legendary hike.

Reached recently in Washington, D.C., on assignment for a news story, Montgomery noted to Bold Life, “She gave the reporters a bunch of different reasons for why she did this at her age.” She said she “wanted to see what was over the hill.” She offered that she didn’t have anything better to do.

But given the details he uncovered about her 30-year marriage — even after the divorce, her husband tried to control her via threats of institutionalization — “I came to believe that her motivation was more complicated,” says Montgomery. “The woods were her refuge. She walked away from him in the 1940s, and just kept walking.”

Her impact, too, was manifold. “I argue that the media attention she garnered was unprecedented,” says Montgomery. “She made the achievement of thru-hiking accessible to anybody in moderate physical condition … her criticism of the unmarked or poorly maintained portions of the trail in the national press went a long way toward bolstered maintenance. I think there’s a case to be made that the trail wouldn’t be the same today were it not for Grandma Gatewood’s hiking.”

Other aspects of her influence were less intentional. “Among serious hikers, she’s known as a pioneer of the ultra-light hiking movement, but she never thought of herself in that respect,” notes Montgomery. Gatewood’s minimalist approach makes the efforts of the fully loaded trailhound look a bit overwrought. She toted no 100-pound pack, no camp stove, no waterproof tent. “She simply took only what she needed to survive on the trail,” says Montgomery. Besides the blanket and shower curtain, that meant some basic first-aid items (band-aids and Vick’s salve along them). As far as food, she only took raisins, peanuts, powdered milk, “and bouillon cubes to suck on for the sodium.”

This complicated maverick veered around expectations every time. Down-home as she was, “she also brought a gingham dress that she’d slip on when she hiked through towns,” says Montgomery, “which is hilarious to me.”

Ben Montgomery discusses his book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, as part of a tour that brings him to Transylvania County Library on Thursday, April 28, 6:30-7:30pm. 221 Gaston St. in Brevard. Free. 828-884-3151.

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