Before Earl Shaffer walked the Appalachian Trail in 1948 in a single trip, no one believed it could be done. Shaffer came back from World War II "confused and depressed" and walked off the war.
Emma "Grandma" Gatewood was not the first woman to thru-hike the A.T., but she was the first woman to do it by herself, and she was also the first thru-hiker to attract a great deal of national publicity. When reporters asked Emma why she was walking the A.T., she kept saying, "I did it as a lark." Her reasons may have been deeper and darker. She inspired the next generation of A.T. hikers, including me.
Now, in the first biography of this famous A.T. icon, Ben Montgomery, a staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times, examines Emma Gatewood's life on and off the A.T. It turns out that Emma Gatewood was the author's great-great aunt; he had heard a few stories about Emma from his mother.
Emma grew up on a farm in southwest Ohio, one of 15 children. Life was hard and schooling was short. At 18, she married P.C. Gatewood, an older schoolteacher who beat her regularly. She raised 11 children and finally divorced P.C.
She first heard of the A.T. when she picked up a National Geographic magazine in a doctor's office. "Planned for the enjoyment of anyone in good health...," the article said. It piqued her interest. After an unfortunate attempt in Maine when she got so lost that she went home in embarrassment, she started again the next year at Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia. At the time, Mt. Oglethorpe was the start of the A.T., before the southern end was moved to Springer Mountain. In 1955, Emma walked 2,050 miles in 146 days. She was 67 years old.
The book goes back and forth between the details of Emma's first hike and her life before she took off for the A.T. -- backstory, as they call it. The author discusses famous pedestrians before Emma, such as Edward Payson Weston, who walked from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in 26 days. After her famous feat, Emma hiked the A.T. twice more, becoming the first person to walk it twice and then three times.
Grandma Gatewood hiked the A.T. before lightweight equipment, freeze-dried foods, and water purifiers.
Her clothes were stuffed inside a pasteboard box and lugged it up the road to the summit, a few minutes away by foot.... She pulled from the box a drawstring sack she'd made back home from a yard of denim, her wrinkled fingers doing the stitching and opened it wide. She filled the sack with ... Vienna Sausage, raisins, peanuts, bouillon cubes, powdered milk. .. She stuffed in a warm coat, a shower curtain to keep the rain off, some drinking water, a Swiss Army knife, a flashlight, candy mints, and her pen and a little Royal Vernon Line memo book that she had bought for twenty-five cents at Murphy's back home.
Details on Emma's hike, health, and reflections on the times make this book a compelling, fast read. It's peppered with maps and photographs of Emma Gatewood. Mr. Montgomery also added Emma's flowery poems and bits from her diary.
Did Emma Gatewood save the Appalachian Trail? She certainly was not shy in publicizing her walk. She appeared with celebrities like Groucho Marx and Art Linkletter and brought attention to the trail. She also brought attention to all the places on the A.T. which could use some maintenance and better blazing. But "saving it from extinction" as the press release states is a bit of a stretch.
The author found surviving family members including her daughter, Lucy Gatewood Seeds, the keeper of the Grandma Gatewood legacy. Ms. Seeds, in her 80, along with the author attended the induction of her mother at the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame. She also keeps track of where her mother is mentioned. When Bill Bryson said that Grandma Gatewood was forever getting lost, her daughter fired off a letter and pointed out that he only finished 39.5 percent of the trail.
As Emma got older, she realized how much she loved Ohio, and the Buckeye State loved her as well. The state is quite good at taking care of its own; witness that the tallest mountain in the United States is still called Mt. McKinley after President William McKinley from Ohio, even though there is so much outcry to change it to Mt. Denali.
In her final years, Emma led a six-mile hike, down by Old Man's Cave, a sandstone gorge in Ohio's Hocking Hills State Park, not far from where she lived. It's now known as the Grandma Gatewood Memorial Trail. Though Emma died in 1973, the January hike has turned into a tradition and festival. When the author visited in 2013, he reported that 4,305 people had shown up to do the Grandma Gatewood hike.
After I finished the A.T. in 1998 and went on to other hiking challenges, I put Grandma Gatewood in the back of my mind. About ten years ago, my son and his family moved to Athens, the "big town" in southeastern Ohio. Old Man's Cave is the closest park with entertaining features such as caves and falls to take my two granddaughters. As I tell the children what Grandma Gatewood accomplished, I hope to personally pass on the legacy of this feisty, active, and brave woman.
I'm now the same age as Grandma Gatewood. Having hiked since my early 20s with the best equipment available, could I rewalk the A.T. like Emma did?
My feet wouldn't last a day on the trail in the thin sneakers she wore. Emma broke her glasses several times and was nearly blind without them. On a multi-day trip, I carry an extra pair of glasses. And I've always treated my drinking water. Grandma Gatewood was right when she said, Most people today are pantywaists.