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Book Review

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk

The inspiring story of the woman who saved the Appalachian Trail

by Ben Montgomery

Before Women’s Lib, before today’s slick designer hiking gear, and way before GPS, there was Grandma Gatewood. This strong-minded mother of 11 with 23 grandkids knew who she was and what she wanted. She wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail from beginning to end. All by herself.  And nothing was going to stop her.

Between here and there lurked wild boar, black bears, wolves, bobcats, coyotes, backwater outlaws, and lawless hillbillies. Poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. Anthills and black flies and deer ticks and rabid skunks, squirrels and raccoons. And snakes. Black snakes, water moccasins and copperheads. And rattlers…

It all started in a doctor’s office in Ohio when Emma Gatewood picked up an old 1949 National Geographic describing the new Appalachian Trail as a “soul cheering, foot-tempting trail… wide as a mack truck, that food was easy to come by and that trailside shelters where plentiful and spaced within a day’s walk from one another.”

Grandma Gatewood decided then and there she’d give it a shot one day. Well, that shot came at the age of 67, after she finished raising her 11 children and divorcing a brutal husband. She was a tough old bird; a hard-working Ohio farm girl with a robust constitution who could do almost anything she put her mind to. 

One spring day in 1955  Emma decided to “take a walk.” She got herself from Ohio by bus and train to the start of the AT in north Georgia.  Little did she know when she started that in addition to all the ordinary hiking challenges she’d face, a couple of back-to-back hurricanes would scrape up the east coast, swelling rivers and dumping tons of rain in her path, forcing her to cross a raging 40-foot wide gorge, tied between  two young Navy hikers. Emma couldn’t swim.

The water inched past their knees, then their waists, then up to their chests, beating hard against their bodies. They strained against the current. Emma closed her eyes, feeling the stone riverbed with her feet, trying for all she was worth to hold on. Step by slippery, precarious step.

Five months, 2050 miles, 13 states and seven worn-out pairs of sneakers later-- and 30 pounds lighter--she summited Maine’s Mount Katahdin at the trail’s craggy end, the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Just a month short of her 68th birthday. “I did it,” she said. “I said I’d do it and I’ve done it.”

This energetic, gray-haired  grandmother hiked the whole AT with just a sack over her shoulder, a walking stick, tennis shoes, her dentures and her glasses. When there was no shelter to be found, she spent nights in the open under the stars, on top of a pile of leaves, on top of picnic tables, on top of stones she’d heated over a fire to keep herself warm.

She narrowly avoided rattlers, roasted a porcupine liver that gave her a “bad taste for days,” ate roots and berries and wild lettuce, asked for shelter from total strangers, some of whom refused her and many more who became lifelong friends, struck up conversations with all kinds of people, and found herself a bit of a celebrity at the end of it all.

In the newspaper interviews and TV appearances she did afterwards, Emma’s complaints about the overgrown paths, the missing blazes and the run-down shelters helped to bring much needed funding to the infant  Appalachian Trail, which bore little resemblance to the rosy picture painted by the National Geographic article she’d read in Ohio.

When asked by reporters over and over why she did it, this woman who would hike the AT two more times and come to be known as Queen of the Appalachian Trail, had several answers: “It sounded like a nice lark.” “Because it was there.” “Just for the heck of it.” And, maybe most intriguing of all: “Because I wanted to.”

“Because I wanted to,” made up for a past filled with duty and obligation, of rarely having time for herself, of putting up with a crazy husband until she could take no more, finally divorcing him at a time when divorce was not the norm. Maybe she’d always hankered for freedom.  And once she got out from under her husband’s iron fist, she took that freedom and ran--or more to the point – walked with it.

This absorbing account of what most folks would call grueling hardships, and what Emma would take in stride, literally, is a testimony to her courageous, iron-willed determination. She said if she’d known it was going to be so hard, she’d probably never have started. But once she was under way her stubborn pride, pioneer spirit and unflagging health kept her going.

Based on Emma’s letters and diaries, newspaper articles and testimonies from people who knew her, I found this NY Times bestseller to be an inspiring read. I recommend it to anyone who loves hiking, adventure, nature, women’s survival stories, or who just wants to read what it’s like to hike the Appalachian Trail, so you don’t have to do it yourself! 

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