Book Review – Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved The Appalachian Trail, by Ben Montgomery
I began hearing of Grandma Gatewood, the first woman to solo thru-hike the Appalachian Trail while I was still in Georgia, a newbie to backpacking & inching my way north on some very sore hiking legs. It was the first of the 14 states on my journey toward Mt Katahdin in Maine and like all great tales of triumph, I wasn’t sure yet what was fact and what was fable…she hiked the trail in Keds, didn’t bother with a tent, carried her gear in a denim shoulder sack that she sewed herself…
Even without knowing much about her, Emma Gatewood’s 1955 journey became a beacon for me out on trail, especially on the tough days – if a lone 67-year old woman, mother and great-grandmother of many could walk this path with canvas sneakers on her feet and a shower curtain to keep out the rain, when relatively few had even heard of the Appalachian Trail, what the heck did I have to complain about?! It wasn’t until I read Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved The Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery that I learned how truly resilient and badass she was.
Ben Montgomery seamlessly weaves the history of Emma Gatewood’s early life and family hardships alongside the trials she faced on trail in 1955. Born in 1887 on a small farm near Mercerville, Ohio, daughter of a Civil War veteran and sibling to 14, Emma learned quickly how to endure whatever life threw at her and to make due with what surrounded her. That rugged farm life, which kept her from pursuing a formal education past the 8th grade, may have been de rigueur for the time, but it is not a way of life that many could recognize today. Yet it was that very foundation of strength, industriousness and curiosity to know the world around her that kept her moving forward, both on trail and throughout her abusive marriage.
Of all the tales I heard about Grandma Gatewood’s toughness over the years, it wasn’t until reading this book that I learned of the nearly 30 years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse Emma faced at the hands of her husband, P.C. Gatewood. Despite bruises, smashed teeth and broken ribs, Emma endured. She raised 11 children, kept the household running and worked in the fields to keep the farm afloat. At a time when divorce was not yet an option for her, she took her solace in the woods of Gallia County. She would go for long walks in order to escape his moods, sometimes toting her children along, teaching them about the names of the flora and fauna and instilling in them an appreciation for nature. It must have felt like a cakewalk by the time she set foot on the AT.
By including quotes from the newspaper articles written about her hikes in the 1950’s and beyond, Ben Montgomery not only paints an incredible portrait of Emma Gatewood, female hiking pioneer, but also of a time lost to modern technology, when the world could get wrapped up in the saga of a backpacking great-grandmother, one newspaper clipping at a time. With all the blogs, websites, movies and instagram posts of today, you’d be hard pressed to find an American who hasn’t at least heard of the Appalachian Trail.
63 years ago, Emma slept on the porches of people who were previously unaware of the trail’s existence in their own backyards. As her story captured the audience of her day, it would still take Congress another 13 years to enact the National Trails Act, ensuring the future of the Appalachian Trail. If it wasn’t for the continued attention she gained as both a female-hiker and an active retired person on her two subsequent hikes of the AT, (as well as on the Oregon Trail and local trails in Ohio), the Appalachian Trail could have been lost and without her influence, hiking and backpacking may not have become the pastime enjoyed by so many today.