Grandma Gatewood: The Celebrated Woman Who made History Hiking the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail Three Times in Her Old Age
The Appalachian Trail is a 3,500 km hiking trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine. It started as a dream idea by Benton Mackaye and cuts across 14 states of the United States. In 1921, then a regional planner, Mackaye envisioned a hiking trail to be used as a utopia by city dwellers. After drumming up enough support, he presented his ideas to Appalachian Trail Conference. However, Mackaye abandoned the project after a disagreement with the ATC chair, Myron.H.Avery. The trail came to completion in 1937 under the leadership of Myron.H.Avery.
However, the trail was devastated by hurricanes and WW2. In 1948, Earl Shaffer, a WW2 veteran, breathed life into the closed trail by claiming to have hiked it clear through from both ends. Earl Shaffer’s success story of hiking the trail from both sides reached Grandma Emma in 1949 through an article in National Geographic. She challenged herself that if a man did it, she could too. Due to the nature of the trail, a high number of men “thru-hiking” it was recorded than that of women. Before Emma set foot on the trail, two male hikers had made it onto the list of solo thru-hikers.
At the age of 67, Grandma Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail covering 2,050 miles in 146 days. She became the first person to thru-hike the trail three times.
Born Emma Rowena Gladwell, “Grandma Gatewood” was born on 25 October 1887 in Ohio to a farmer. At the age of 19, she traded her farm life for marriage to a school teacher named Perry Clayton Gatewood. They were blessed with 11 children and 23 grandchildren. Throughout her entire life, Emma worked on farms and found solace in the woods. Her abusive husband forced her to file for a divorce which was granted in 1941.
Emma’s hiking career started in 1953 when she attempted the Appalachian Trail but got lost. In July 1954, Gatewood attempted to hike the Appalachian Trail again, but broke her glasses and got lost in the Maine woods. She was found by forest service wardens who had a hard time convincing her to abandon the hike. Emma finally agreed to abandon the hike and went home to prepare for another epic attempt. She thru-hiked alone in 1955 at the age of 67, a hike that sparked nationwide attention about her. She covered the whole trail distance in 146 days.
Before the Historic trek, Grandma Gatewood walked 10 miles a day to exercise and put her weak legs to the test. At that time, she was staying at one of her son’s place in Ohio.
Grandma Gatewood had never hiked before but knew how to work herself to the bone. Working in the fields all day every day was part of her life growing up. With 11 children to care for, Emma was a hardworking and determined woman. Before her historical hike, the only exercise she did was walk 10 miles her day. While living with her son in Ohio, Grandma Gatewood would walk around the neighborhood every day, increasing the pace until she felt ready for the journey. Also, Emma saved the little she earned while working at a nursing home. The money helped her during the hiking. Additionally, she hand-sewed her slingback that made her the pioneer of the lightweight backpacking for hikers.
Grandma Gatewood carried with her only an army blanket, a shower cape, an army knife, a flashlight, a candy mint, a pen, and a notebook. She relied mostly on strangers for food and water.
Unlike any other trail hikers, the sixty-seven-year-old Emma carried with her a few items to help her during the trek. She wanted to keep the weight of her luggage as little as possible. Inside her homemade backpack were band-aids, iodine, an army knife, flashlight, a blanket, Keds shoes, Vienna sausages, shower curtains, and a pen and notebook. She didn’t carry a tent, a map, or a compass and relied mostly on strangers for food and shelter. Luckily, Grandma Gatewood was able to get the help she needed because people learned about her through the media. According to a memoir written by Ben Montgomery, Gatewood was treated to roast beef and pie while at the Rainbow Lake by a family based there. Also, Ked’s Shoe Company supplied her with more pairs to last her throughout the journey.
Emma’s hiking story spread like wildfire and was picked up by the press, making her a celebrity. Her story was first picked by the local reporters in the southern states and was later invited to be on the Today Show when she completed the hiking.
A 67-year-old mother of 11 and a grandma of 23 hiking the 2,000-mile Appalachian trail bewildered many. Grandma Gatewood’s hiking captured the attention of the media. She first appeared in a local newspaper when she was in the southern states. Later on in the journey, the associated press covered her journey while in Maryland. Sports Illustrated gave her a spot in their article section while she was in Connecticut. Finally, she was invited to the Today Show. The only thing the press was looking for from her was why she was hiking at that age, and all she could answer was because the trail was there.
The media knew Grandma Gatewood as a widow. However, the reality is that she was a domestic-violence survivor. She often found solitude in the woods. Her husband often used to abuse her and made her overwork both in the fields and at home.
Journalists did not know that Emma was a domestic-violence survivor. They knew her as a widow because that’s how she described herself to them. Emma got married to Perry Clayton Gatewood who mistreated her almost immediately in their marriage. He would beat her senseless and work her to the core. Grandma Gatewood took refuge in the woods to escape her husband. The constant abuse forced her to file for a divorce which was granted in 1940. Emma moved on and raised her last three children alone.
Grandma Gatewood’s bravery and determination to hike the over 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail inspired many to conserve the trail.
The wide media coverage of Grandma Gatewood breathed life into the Appalachian Trail. She told the press how the trail was terrible, and how the shelters along the trail were uninhabitable. She was able to shed light on the poor condition of the trail which drew the attention of politicians and the ATC. The trail was renovated and opened to the public. The politicians took up the trail’s matters, and in 1968, a National Trail System was enacted to protect the trail. Also, Emma’s hiking stirred a new generation of hikers, including women. She hiked the trail again in 1957 and 1964, making her the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail three times.
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