At the age of 67, Emma Rowena Gatewood told her adult children she was going out for a walk. Little did they know that her “walk” would make her the first woman to hike the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine solo, and in one season. She was a farmer’s wife from Ohio, a mother to 11 children who gave her 24 grandchildren, and a survivor of domestic violence.
In 1950, Emma had read an article in the National Geographic about the famous trail, which she would later find out had greatly exaggerated the ease of the hike, giving her the impression of leisurely walks and clean cabins at the end of each stretch. In 1955, when she decided to embark on her little impromptu stroll, she wore Keds tennis shoes and packed barely any hiking gear normally required except for a blanket, raincoat and a plastic shower curtain.
As people began spotting the 67 year-old grandmother making her way alone through forests and wild lands on the longest hiking-only trail in the world, local newspapers picked up on the story. Nicknamed “Grandma Gatewood”, by the time she had reached Connecticut, Sports Illustrated had done an article on her and she became a celebrity before the hike was even over.
There’s a tradition along the Appalachian Trail for some hikers to receive “trail magic”, assistance from strangers living along the route in the form of anonymous kind actions, gifts, food or places to sleep. As Grandma Gatewood’s celebrity grew with every state she conquered, more strangers encouraged her with “trail magic”.
This remarkable farmer’s wife from Ohio had always found solace in nature, ever since her husband began physically beating her on a regular basis just a few weeks into their marriage. On more than one occasion, he had nearly beaten her to death, breaking her ribs and teeth, threatening to have her committed to an insane asylum if she tried to leave him.
When she needed to escape their marital home, Emma often ran into the woods to find peace. Eventually, she was able to get a divorce, but never re-married, content in her solitude and confident she could take care of herself.
When she completed her 14-state two thousand-mile hike, Mrs. Gatewood was invited on the Today Show to speak about her experience. “For some fool reason, they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find”.
When asked for hiking tips, she said, “Make a rain cape, and an over the shoulder sling bag, and buy a sturdy pair of Keds tennis shoes. Stop at local groceries and pick up Vienna sausages… most everything else to eat you can find beside the trail”.
By the age of 75, she had hiked the Appalachian Trail three times, making her the first person to do so. She also walked the 2,000 mile Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon averaging 22 miles a day and traveled to every state in the country during her lifetime.
Personally, I think Keds should dedicate their next campaign to the story of Grandma Gatewood!