So you’re thinking of going on a hike this summer. How long — 5 miles? 50? 150?
You aren’t fit to walk a mile in Grandma Gatewood’s sneakers.
Emma Gatewood is the subject of Ben Montgomery’s engrossing new book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. In 1955, at the age of 67, the great-grandmother became the first woman to hike the entire 2,050 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and she did so in tennis shoes (she wore through seven pairs).
Gatewood embarked on her journey with little fanfare — she told only a few people where she was going when she left her home in Ohio in May, 1955, and headed for Jasper, Georgia, where she would climb to the trail’s starting point at Mt. Oglethorpe.
And even though word spread of her odyssey as the months went by, making her something of a celebrity by the time she reached the end of the trail in September on Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, she never went into much detail about what prompted her to take on such a grueling challenge other than to say she felt like taking a walk.
What Montgomery suggests — backed up by interviews with Gatewood’s descendants, contemporary newspaper accounts, and Gatewood’s own journals — is that her most courageous journey may have taken place long before her conquest of the Appalachian Trail, and that was her escape from a brutally abusive marriage.
By the time she took those first steps in Georgia, she’d already raised 11 children, run a farm household, and endured regular beatings by her husband until she could take no more, leaving him to live in California on her own — so why would she fear a nice long walk in the woods? Besides, nature had always been a refuge for her, and she’d read that the trail would be relatively easy to hike.
Not true, of course, but as Montgomery tells us, her critiques of bad conditions along the way led eventually to the improved and much more manageable trails that hikers know today.
The book is a great adventure yarn (an “amazing story,” to borrow a phrase from Montgomery’s employer, the Tampa Bay Times), but it also explores the contradictory transitions that were taking place in American life at the time of Gatewood’s hike — like the push to build more roadways and automobiles vs. the increasing awareness of the need to conserve and exercise.
I finished Grandma Gatewood’s Walk during a flight from Tampa to Baltimore. When we landed, I thought about all those miles of American countryside we’d just flown over, oblivious — 842 miles, to be exact, or about 1,200 miles less than the distance walked by Gatewood on the A.T. — and wondered how much better we would comprehend our country’s rigorous beauty if, like her, we traveled to more places on our own two feet.
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, by Ben Montgomery, Chicago Review Press, $26.95.