Cristen Conger

Grandma Gatewood: The Domestic Violence Survivor Who Became an Appalachain Trail Heroine Alone

Grandma Gatewood.
Grandma Gatewood.
Courtesy: Appalachian Trails

A daredevil side of me longs to take a sabbatical and thru hike the Appalachian Trail. As in, start in Georgia and end in Maine without stopping. I've day hiked all my life (relevant Stuff Mom Never Told You fact: my mom took my siblings and me hiking every fall) and have always felt a writerly romance with the mountains. Plus I'm a bit of a Cheryl Strayed fangirl -- go figure.

But if I ever manage to walk those 2,189 miles I'll certainly do it more comfortably than Emma Gatewood did; it would be near impossible not to. In 1955, Emma "Grandma" Gatewood became the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail solo. A mother of 11 children and 23 grandchildren, she was 67 years old when a cab dropped her off in Jasper, Ga., and she set out for Mount Katahdin.

In Ben Montgomery's biography Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, he itemizes the bare essentials she took along:

- Vienna sausages - raisins - peanuts - bouillon cubes - powdered milk - Band Aids - iodine - bobby pins (of course.) - Vicks salve - coat - shower curtain (to protect her from rain) - drinking water - Swiss Army knife - candied mints - umbrella - notebook and pen - flashlight

No tent, no sleeping bag. The umbrella would later come in handy to scare away a black bear, Montgomery reported from the trail journals Gatewood kept. She also survived two hurricanes and went on to become the first person, man or woman, to thru hike the Appalachian a second and a third time.

After seeing a National Geographic feature on the trail that noted how no woman had completed it on her own, Gatewood who was living in Ohio at the time got an itch to make history. Her unconventional hiker profile attracted a flurry of media coverage, which The Washington Post reports brought much-needed attention to trail's upkeep as well as a new crop of hikers following in Gatewood's Keds-shaped footprints. Her historic hike, therefore, helped revive the iconic pathway.

What Ben Montgomery discovered about his great aunt Gatewood's backstory makes her many hikes even more astonishing. She survived both a horrifically abusive childhood and marriage. Her husband regularly beat her, and as was the custom in that era when the terms "domestic violence" and "spousal abuse" didn't exist, she was the one who once spent a night in jail when police came to her home and assumed she must've done something to provoke her bruises and broken ribs. Finally, she obtained a divorce and raised her youngest three children on her own, and once everyone was grown with children of their own, she saved her money and set out for the mountains. In interviews about her triumphant hike, Gatewood told reporters she was widowed.

Gatewood's legacy resonates with what I adored so much about Strayed's runaway hit Wild, which chronicles the author's Pacific Crest Trail thru hike: women literally walking away from poisonous pasts and discovering self-redemption and strength. Her age also exemplifies how you're never too late to find your own path. So you can bet that if I ever make it to my Appalachian sabbatical, I'll be dedicating it to Grandma.

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