I’ve just been on a hiking tour of New England, which included the latter stages of the Appalachian Trail, but my fitness wasn’t up to the last leg, the summit of Mount Katahdin. This trail extends more than 2,000 miles and doesn’t involve just walking, but also climbing and negotiating boulders. Imagine my shame when I discovered that a great-grandmother completed the entire trail three times, the last time aged 75! Here’s her story.
Emma Gatewood was born in 1887 in Ohio, one of 15 children of a disabled Civil War veteran, and at 19 and became a farmer’s wife who eventually had 11 children of her own. Most of her life was unhappy: her husband was violent from the start of their marriage. Few people had sympathy for victims of domestic abuse at that time; on one occasion, after Emma’s husband broke her teeth and cracked a rib, a sheriff’s deputy arrested her, not her husband. When it all became too much, she’d run into the woods. At the time, divorce was near-impossible and when she tried, her husband threatened to have her committed to an asylum. But Emma eventually succeeded in being granted a divorce, raising her youngest three children alone.
In 1955, Emma, then 67 and a grandmother of 23, told her children that she was going for a walk, but didn’t tell them where. In fact, inspired by an article she’d read five years earlier, she’d decided to attempt the Appalachian Trail. This article had given her the idea that it would be a gentle stroll with cosy cabins at the end of each day, so she wore sneakers and took minimal supplies (her only shelter was a plastic shower curtain) in a denim bag she slung over her shoulder. It was hard to imagine a less well equipped person to undertake the trail: she was five foot two, almost blind without her glasses, and had false teeth and bunions. Over the previous year, she’d practiced hiking until she could manage ten miles a day. But this amounted to little when faced with the challenge of negotiating more than three hundred mountains.
When asked why she did it, Emma answered, ‘I thought it would be a nice lark. It wasn’t.’ But she refused to quit. Despite surviving a rattlesnake strike, two hurricanes, and a run-in with gangsters from Harlem, Emma found her joy among the tree-capped mountains. Soon, local media picked up on her story, and, known as Grandma Gatewood, she became a celebrity. One of her greatest pleasures was in the kindness of strangers she met along the way, something she termed ‘trail magic’. At night she would often walk to nearby homes, tell people she was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and always received food and shelter for the night. And so she completed the whole trip, the first woman to do so!
But Emma’s story doesn’t stop there. She completed the trail twice more. It wasn’t the only epic walk she achieved: she traveled to every state of the US, and had many more adventures, including scaring off a bear with an umbrella. She drew public attention to the poor maintenance of the Appalachian Trail, and many claim she saved it from falling into extinction, as well as inspiring many to hike. She also helped establish the Buckeye Trail in her home state of Ohio. It began as a 20-mile stretch in 1959 and now extends more than 1,444 miles; one section is named after her.
Emma died while humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in 1973, aged 85, and continues to inspire writers and filmmakers: her biography has recently being released.