The Real Grandma Gatewood

Grandma Gatewood

Grandma Gatewood

Grandma Gatewood is often cited at the first ultralight backpacker because she thru-hiked hiked the Appalachian Trail using a shower curtain as a shelter with only 12 pounds of gear. I doubt that’s the reason for her success. More than anything, she was a survivor, who’s story has lessons for us all.

The real Grandma Gatewood was a domestic abuse survivor whose husband forced himself on her three times a day. She bore eleven children, and led a hardscrabble farming life that none of us can even imagine.

While she was the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (finishing in 1955) and only the fifth hiker to thru-hike it from end to end, you really need to understand the historical context in which she lived to understand what the Appalachian Trail was like in the mid-1950’s and her strength of character to thru-hike it.

That story is told in Ben Montgomery’s book Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, which does a good job of telling the true story of Emma Gatewood’s life before her hike and what it was like to hike the Appalachian Trail before it was fully formed.

After enduring years of beatings, Emma divorced her husband gaining custody of her children and half of the farm that the family lived in. She was awarded the rest of the property from the court after her husband refused to pay his alimony. The divorce occurred in 1941, which was rare, considering the era.

She’d read an article about the newly formed Appalachian Trail in National Geographic and decided that she wanted to be the first woman to hike it so that she’d be remembered for something after she’d died. That’s the story we’re told, although I don’t think we’ll ever know her true motivations.

In 1955, the Appalachian Trail written about in National Geographic was a far cry from the trail today. It was more vision than reality, a patchwork of trail systems maintained by different regional hiking clubs without any federal protection or recognition. When the media got hold of the story of a 67 year old grandmother hiking the trail, Emma became a national celebrity, and her comments about the terrible condition of the trail are thought to have motivated to its cleanup and completion.

The most remarkable thing about Emma’s first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail is how she coped with the rigors of the hike and the people who help her along the way. Emma didn’t have any backpacking gear. She’d sewn a denim sack to carry her clothes and food, and slept on piles of leaves or picnic tables most nights when other shelter was unavailable.

But the most compelling aspect of her journey, was the “trail magic” she received from strangers along the trail, before trail magic became the institution it is today. At night, Emma would often walk to nearby homes and ask people for a meal and a place to sleep at night. She’s explain that she was hiking the Appalachian Trail and people who open their homes to her, feeding her and giving her a dry and warm bed for the night.

That’s the part of Grandma Gatewood’s story that resonates the most with me, where common folk would take a stranger into their homes and share what little they had to help a pilgrim on her way.

Disclosure: Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) received a free copy of Grandma Gatewood’s Walk from the Chicago Review Press for this book review. 

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13 Responses to The Real Grandma Gatewood

  1. Dan Smith April 17, 2014 at 6:26 am #

    An inspiration any way you look at Grandma Gatewood, Philip. Thank you for reviewing Ben Montgomery’s book and for telling the bold and hard truths of Grandma Gatewood’s life and struggles. As you indicate, the joy of her pilgrimage came in the generosity of the people at her wayposts.

  2. Matt April 17, 2014 at 6:54 am #

    Not sure I’d say the thru-hiker aspect of Grandma Gatewood’s life is “BS.” Rather it’s just an incomplete accounting of her life and her motivations for hiking the AT. Seems to me that people today are much more comfortable about sharing the details of their private lives than they used to be, and we look for those details whereas before we used to look away. My two cents.

    • Philip Werner April 17, 2014 at 7:36 am #

      You’ve misread. People who claim the gatewood was an ultralight backpacker are twisting her legacy. She was dirt poor, not trying to advocate lightweight gear.

      • Chris G April 17, 2014 at 10:08 am #

        As someone unfamiliar with her story until now it does read that way. The following paragraphs make it clear but the opening reads like you are calling BS on trail hike. Great read otherwise, I liked the article

        • Philip Werner April 17, 2014 at 11:03 am #

          Hmmm. Resphrased it to be clearer. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Jen English April 17, 2014 at 8:25 am #

    This is a book right up my alley. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  4. Mike Spalding April 17, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    Thanks for the review. I just put in a hold request at our regional library system – there’s one copy, and 13 hold requests ahead of mine. I wonder how backed-up they need to be before they buy more copies??

    • Liz April 17, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

      Guess you live in the wrong library system, Mike. I was surprised to find nine copies in my library system, so I’m hoping my hold request will be filled soon. Looks like a good read.

  5. Bette Lou Higgins April 17, 2014 at 11:11 am #

    Like any other story about someone’s life, we can never get at the WHOLE story — especially if they’re no longer with us. (I’m not even sure that any of us even understand our own stories!). The best we can do is interpret it. Ben’s book is just that and he does an amazing job. I, too, have been working on “interpreting” Emma’s life. Eden Valley Enterprises, WGTE, and FilmAffects are making a documentary about her which should be completed some tme next year in time for the 60th anniversary of her hike. (The film clip above is from our interview with her daughter, Lucy Seeds). You can get more information about our project at http://edenvalleyenterprises.org/progdesc/gatewood/gtwdinf.htm

  6. Eddie s. April 17, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

    I am glad some one is finally setting this all straight about this wonderful women. I’ve heard so many “trail” stories going back to the 70’s about her from Hikers who have claimed to have met her. It will be refreshing and mind clearing to know the truth..I definitely will be adding this to my extentsive collection…thanks for bringing it to the forefront..

  7. Matt April 18, 2014 at 7:46 am #

    Your revision does the trick. Looks like a wonderful book and thank you for spotlighting it in Section Hiker. Interesting that so many people turn to a trail to help move ahead with their lives.

  8. Pete M April 18, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    My local library has this book and I put a hold on it.

  9. Liz April 27, 2014 at 8:23 pm #

    Just finished reading it. Great book. Thanks for the recommendation, Philip.

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