I first heard about Grandma Gatewood several months ago on Sharon King’s blog, Midlife Moments. Emma Gatewood, better known as Grandma Gatewood, was the first woman to thru-hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (AT), alone, in one continous journey. In 1955, at the age of 67, she hiked 2,050 miles wearing canvas shoes and carrying a small sack of sparse supplies over her shoulder. I immediately had to know more about this remarkable story and so began my journey down into the Grandma Gatewood rabbit hole.
A little internet research revealed some basic background information about the remarkable woman who came to be known as Grandma Gatewood. Emma Gatewood was born in Ohio in 1887, one of 15 children. She was married at the age of 19 to PC Gatewood and had 11 children of her own.
Unfortunately Emma was a victim of violent abuse at the hands of her husband. She would retreat to the woods to find solace and healing after the abusive episodes. She eventually divorced PC in 1940. The book goes into a lot more detail about her years before she tackled the trail.
Digging a little deeper into the internet leads me to the documentary about her which was recently released. Here’s a trailer for Trail Magic: The Grandma Gatewood Story.
In an emotional essay, author Ben Montgomery tells about the year he spent working on the Grandma Gatewood story and how deeply connected he felt to her. His strong feelings for her made me want to read the book. I wanted to know more about her too. My local library had the book but all the copies were already checked out so I had to put my name on the hold list. Finally, it was my turn. I brought the book with me on my trip to Utah but I just wasn’t feeling inspired to start it. Too much first-ever-college-drop-off stress going on. On the return flight, college drop-off complete, I was ready for a distraction and I started reading. By the time I landed in Dallas, I had finished over 100 pages. Before I landed back in Virginia, I had finished the entire book. Such a great story. So well-written and absorbing. It made me briefly consider hiking the AT or a similar long trail (a notion I occasionally entertain). Then I remembered how much I hated backpacking at Girl Scout camp one summer and I once again reconsider such a notion. (Don’t get me wrong – I loved Girl Scout camp and was lucky to go every summer until eventually I became a counselor. But I did not particularly enjoy the backpacking unit. Can you see why?)
What did I find in the book?
Emma Gatewood was a remarkable woman for many reasons. Her life wasn’t easy and her marital situation was awful. But she didn’t let this stop her. She took care of herself and taught her children how to do the same. She followed her dreams despite setbacks and experienced many things along the way. A famous quote of hers is “Because I wanted to.” There’s a lesson to be learned there. Grandma Gatewood didn’t have special equipment or training but she had desire in spades and that’s all we really need in a lot of cases.
Walking is a lost art
In the 1950s, the popularity of cars rose rapidly. Walking consequently decreased significantly. Doctors and scientists began to see a correlation between the rise of cars and the decline in the general health of the nation’s children. The nation began to transition from a pedestrian society to one of automobiles. Suburban development and highways continued this trend away from walking towards driving. Things were built to suit automobile travel and pedestrians were left to fend for themselves.
Reading about the trend toward development for automobiles reminded me of an article I read a few years ago about a man who walked from Washington, DC to his home in Fairfax County along Highway 50. This road had originally been a Native American footpath so many years ago. His experience along the same route was quite different. Noisy, lonely, and dangerous, he faced automobiles, litter, and saw hardly another soul along the path. Eight hours later he arrived home. Despite the less-than-optimal conditions of his trip, his takeaway was that “Walking brings us back to our senses.” I have driven on this road and definitely wouldn’t want to attempt the same walk. It’s true, though, that walking has many benefits and we would be wise to do more of it.
The other person I thought of when reading about how cars have taken over was John Sears, also known as Mule. I saw Mule and his mules walking down the sidewalk in Arroyo Grande one day. AG is a more rural area so it’s not unusual to see an occasional horse here and there but the mules had a website on their packs so I looked them up. 3 Mules live outside. They migrate north and south through California following the seasons. Mule brings his manifesto to every city hall that he passes, dedicated to his message that the Megatropolis has grown out of control and is interefering with man’s right to walk freely on the earth. Look him up. He knows what he believes and he lives it. While I don’t see myself following his path, I absolutely agree with some of his views on the Megatropolis. You can follow him on Facebook for regular updates. Just a simple guy living his beliefs day in and day out. Inspiring.
A few other famous pedestrians through the years:
- Old Leatherman – In the late 1800s, an old man began walking clockwise on a 365-mile route that took exactly 34 days to complete. He walked the route continuously for more than 30 years.
- Edward Payson Weston – He lost a bet and walked 500 miles from New York to Washington, DC for President Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861. His pro walking career began soon afterwards and he earned money and fame with many long cross-country walks.
- Random Texan – found walking backwards in Berlin in 1932 in an attempt to walk around the world backwards.
- America’s Walkingest Couple – in 1951 they claimed to have walked thousands of miles covering every street in the 5 boroughs of New York City as well as several other Eastern cities.
Attitude is everything
“Because I wanted to.”
Attitude is one of the most important factors in getting through life’s highs and lows. Your attitude determines your coping ability and ultimately your success. There are many ways that Grandma Gatewood’s life could have gone differently if her attitude had been less positive and determined.
An article by Dr. Travis Bradbury gives the following 7 ways to maintain a positive attitude, also called a growth mindset.
- Don’t stay helpless.
- Be passionate.
- Take action.
- Then go the extra mile(s).
- Expect results.
- Be flexible.
- Don’t complain when things don’t go your way.
A recent study by Stanford Research Institure found that success is 88% attitude and 12% education. In other words, a good attitude is priceless. Grandma Gatewood’s good attitude propelled her to become the country’s most famous pedestrian. She hiked the Appalachian Trail multiple times; she also walked the nearly 2,000-mile Oregon Trail one summer. Grandma Gatewood walked more than 14,000 miles all because she just wanted to.
An unexpected personal connection
On our trip last summer we hiked to Ash Cave in Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. After reading Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, I realized that the cave we hiked to is the same cave that she hiked to during the annual winter hike that she started. It’s like a brush with celebrity and it also brings the book even more to life knowing that I have walked through some of the same woods hiked by Grandma Gatewood.
Every January, starting in 1967, Grandma Gatewood donned her red beret and led a six-mile hike through Hocking Hills, down by Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave. The tradition contines even today. 2019 will be the 54th Annual Winter Hike.
Full disclosure – because Hocking Hills was only one of several stops for the day we opted for the much shorter 1 mile loop to Ash Cave from the parking lot. It was a beautiful place though and it was Bella’s favorite stop on the entire trip. Hocking Hills is a nice park and I would definitely return if given the opportunity.
She’s a folk hero and a legend.
A line from the book that made me laugh was about Grandma Gatewood’s decision to walk the Oregon Trail. She said, “I was looking for something to do this summer and a walk to Oregon seemed like the best thing.” The reaction I had to that was similar to the reactions I get from people when I tell them that I like to drive thousands of miles around the country with my kids every summer. It’s crazy.
But, it’s not crazy to us.
Follow her lead…
Want to follow in the inspirational footsteps of Grandma Gatewood and find the magic of being outside? Even if it’s only a few minutes a day, going outside has many positive effects — reduced stress, better mood, and improved cognitive performance for starters. Sounds good, right? Click the banner to join my one-week challenge to get outside.
Spread the word…
Would you like to share the story with a younger audience? There are two children’s books written about her. My library only had one of them and it was a good introduction to her story.
Montgomery, Ben. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: the Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail. Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, 2016.
Houts, Michelle, and Erica Magnus. When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike. Ohio University Press, 2016.