Reviewed by Jeanne
When 1950 dawned, only eight people were known to have walked the entire Appalachian Trail. By the end of the decade, 14 more people had made the trek. One of these was a grandmother from Ohio who set out with a gunny sack, a plastic shower curtain to keep off the rain, some bouillon cubes and raisins, a small notebook, and a pair of Keds sneakers. She told her children she was “going to take a walk.” It was a month before they found out just how long that walk was.
Emma’s infatuation with the trail was born when she read an article in a magazine in a doctor’s office. The article described the trail as broad and well-marked, ideal for hikers of almost any ability. The idea took hold, and she became quietly obsessed with the idea of walking the entire trail. Her first attempt was in 1954, but after only a few days she was forced to go home in defeat. But she wasn’t dissuaded. Instead, she realized she was going to have to make better plans for the next attempt. She began by initiating a walking regime to build up her stamina, and carefully planned her route. By the next year, she was ready. Instead of starting in Maine, she went by bus south to Georgia.
She was 67 years old.
In many ways, she was uniquely qualified to walk the Trail. Born in 1887, she had learned her way about the woods. She lived during hard times, including the Great Depression, and knew about wild foods and wild animals. She knew about setting up camps and how to survive. Most of all, she was strong and resilient, with the will to succeed. She’d need that strength: far from the broad, well-marked path promised by the article, the Trail was in disrepair. Sections had been rerouted without being marked (in one notable incident Emma crossed a barbed wire fence and ended up on a military base, much to the surprise of the soldiers), parts were damaged so as to be impassable, and promised shelters so dilapidated that they offered no protection. Many times she covered herself in leaves or grass to sleep. The weather was another factor: two major storms hit while she was attempting the trail, causing flooding. Emma didn’t know how to swim.
Author Ben Montgomery had heard stories about Emma from his mother, an Ohio native. He contacted Lucy, one of Emma’s surviving children and discovered that not only had no book been written about her, but that the daughter had a collection which included Emma’s journals of her journeys. Montgomery learned that not only was “Grandma Gatewood” the first solo woman thru hiker, she was also one of the first to walk the trail multiple times and that she had walked other famous trails. Lucy also told him about a family secret, confirmed by other family members, which gave the book a whole new angle.
I confess I had never heard of Emma Gatewood before the book Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. By the book’s end, I was eager to recommend the book to others. Emma Gatewood’s story is compelling and the way that it’s told is a good reflection of Emma herself. If you’re looking for soul searching, look elsewhere: Emma was a straightforward, no nonsense sort of person. She was certainly literate, and wrote poetry on occasion, but she didn’t need to go to the wilderness to find herself. Emma Gatewood knew who she was.