Grandma Gatewood Hiked Into Appalachian Trail History at Age 67

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 
Emma Gatewood
Emma "Grandma" Gatewood, shown in 1955 with her bandanna and hiking stick, walked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, for the first time at age 67. Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Sometimes you've had enough and you just need to go for a walk. It's understandable — a walk can clear the mind — and it's possible the extent to which your mind needs to be cleared should determine the length of the walk. There's no scientific evidence to support this, but the story of Emma Gatewood provides anecdotal evidence that this might be true.

Emma Gatewood — called "Grandma Gatewood" by her family and, later, the world — was one of the early thru-hikers of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), the longest walking-only footpath in the world. When she left Ohio in 1955, she told her family she was going "for a walk in the woods," so it was surprising to her 11 children and 23 grandchildren that the 67-year-old matriarch of their family had undertaken the hike from Georgia to Maine on the 2,193-mile (3,529-kilometer) trail. They found out when one of them stumbled across a newspaper feature about their mother's trek.

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The Big Hike

Gatewood was not the first person — or even the first woman — to hike the trail. In 1948, 29-year-old Earl Shaffer was the first person to hike the entire trail by himself. In 1952, Mildred Norman Ryder, in her mid-40s at the time, completed the entire trail with a companion. Gatewood's hike was notable because of her advanced age, and because she was the first woman ever to complete the trail in a single season.

Emma Gatewood
Grandma Gatewood traveled light, carrying little more than a rucksack and a hiking stick.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

"When Grandma Gatewood did her first thru-hike in 1955 there were few hikers and it was hard to follow the trail," Larry Luxenberg, president of the Appalachian Trail Museum in Gardners, Pennsylvania, says in an email. "There were also many fewer resources for hikers — fewer stores near the trail and much less information available about the trail. She saw very few hikers along the A.T."

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But still, Gatewood hiked it alone, wearing canvas sneakers (she walked through seven pairs of them that summer), carrying a denim duffle bag over one shoulder. This bag contained a change of clothes, a blanket, a plastic shower curtain for shelter at night, a Swiss Army knife, a canteen, a flashlight, a length of rope and a few other essentials. She ate a lot of vienna sausages and trail mix. Sometimes she ran out of food and ate berries she recognized in the forest.

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A Hard Life

By the time Gatewood began her career as a famous hiker, she had lived the kind of life it would take a few thousand miles to walk off. Born in Ohio in 1887, Gatewood's father had lost his leg in the Civil War, and her mother singlehandedly raised 15 children in a small log cabin, sleeping four children to a bed. Gatewood completed school only through the eighth grade, but she loved reading and writing poetry and walking in the woods.

In 1907, she married primary school teacher, and later tobacco farmer, P.C. Gatewood at the age of 19. For the next 30 years she endured constant beatings and sexual assault from her husband, while spending her days doing strenuous farm work and raising their 11 children.

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She tried to escape a few times, but it's hard to disappear with multiple children in tow. In 1939, after being nearly beaten to death by her husband, Gatewood was arrested for throwing a sack of flour at him. She spent the night in jail before the mayor of the town saw her cracked teeth, bruised face and broken ribs, and took her into his own home. She stayed there until she healed, at which point she filed for divorce — a difficult thing to obtain at that time. Her divorce was granted in 1941, and she was given custody of the three children who still remained at home.

In 1951, after all her children were out in the world, Gatewood found a back issue of National Geographic, which included photos and a story about the Appalachian Trail. Gatewood was intrigued, and decided she wanted to be the first woman to hike it alone.

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This Is No Trail. This Is a Nightmare

Gatewood's first attempt at hiking the entire trail was unsuccessful. In 1954 she tried hiking from Maine to Georgia, but she broke her glasses, lost her way and was rescued by rangers.

The next year she tried again, and successfully hiked an average of 14 miles (22 kilometers) a day from Georgia to Maine, fueled mainly by vienna sausages, raisins, peanuts and bouillon cubes. She didn't necessarily enjoy her experience, either. After her 1955 hike, Gatewood was interviewed by Sports Illustrated, and had this to say about the trail:

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I thought it would be a nice lark. It wasn't. There were terrible blow downs, burnt-over areas that were never re-marked, gravel and sand washouts, weeds and brush to your neck, and most of the shelters were blown down, burned down or so filthy I chose to sleep out of doors. This is no trail. This is a nightmare. I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn't and I wouldn't quit.

All things considered, the only thing more improbable than Emma Gatewood's completing the trail from Georgia to Maine in a single summer under these conditions at the age of 67, is that she turned around and did it again. Twice — once in 1957 and again in 1964, at the age of 76, but this time in sections.

In 1959, at the age of 71, Gatewood also walked 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) of the Oregon Trail, inspired by the pioneer women who walked from Missouri to Oregon 100 years before her.

"Gatewood inspired many hikers over the years," says Luxenberg. "People think, 'if this elderly woman could do the trail by herself, then I should be able to.'"

Emma Gatewood
A pair of worn sneakers Grandma Gatewood wore while hiking the Appalachian Trail are mute testimony to the difficulty of her travels.
Appalachian Trail Conservancy

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