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, whose 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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