Emma Gatewood stands in history as the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Known as “Grandma Gatewood,” she was immortalized in Ben Montgomery’s 2014 Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. Gatewood has long been well-known in Appalachian Trail circles. She holds numerous accolades: the first woman to thru-hike the trail, the first person to thru-hike the trail twice and the first person to hike the trail three times.
While Gatewood is known for groundbreaking treks, her earlier life often goes uncovered. Thru-hiking was just one of the feats Gatewood conquered during her long life. She raised eleven children, three of them alone.
Gatewood also endured years of domestic violence. She left her husband more than once but, in times nearly impossible for a woman to divorce, she returned. The abuse culminated with Gatewood suffering broken teeth and ribs. Finally, she left her husband once and for all and successfully divorced him. Talk about trailblazing.
To understand the extent to which Gatewood pioneered women’s independence and hiking, her experience must be historicized.
Gatewood was born in 1887 in Ohio, where she spent the majority of her life. Although she grew up during the Gilded Age, Gatewood spent her days completing hard physical labor.
At 19 years of age, she married. In the face of violent attacks from her husband, Gatewood took to the woods. She found solace outside; her children recount memories of her showing them the lands around their farm. She knew the names of animals, which plants were edible and easily found her way across the landscape.
In 1949, Gatewood read a feature on the new Appalachian Trail in The National Geographic Magazine. She spent her life dreaming of immense time spent walking, but had responsibilities she could not walk out on, mostly consisting of farmwork and childcare. Now in her 60s, Gatewood was finally free to do as she pleased.
In July of 1954, she headed to Maine to hike the Appalachian Trail south to Georgia. Gatewood did not even make it out of Maine. After becoming lost and found in the wilderness, she headed back to Ohio.
A failed hiking jaunt being perhaps the least difficult experience of Gatewood’s life, she was back on the trail in 1955, this time heading north from Georgia. Gatewood did not tell her daughters or sons her plans, nor a friend or newspaper. She lacked any semblance of proper gear, hiked in keds and carried along a sack without even a tent inside. Gatewood trusted herself and others to keep safe along the trail. Gatewood was quickly out of Georgia and into North Carolina. From there, her tromp north never seemed to slow.
Across the 2,160-mile trail, Gatewood hardly met an unkind stranger. Most folks were more than happy to take her in for the night and prepare food. Although Gatewood spent many nights outside, she was comfortably indoors more nights than one might imagine for a wilderness journey. Eventually, the press began to hear of her story. Local newspapers suddenly seemed to have a reporter waiting for Gatewood at every trail crossing. Immensely patient with the questioning journalists, Gatewood grew concerned that all of the inquiries were beginning to slow her progress north. The northernmost portions of the Appalachian Trail are arguably the most difficult. With summer over, temperatures were becoming uncomfortably cold for sleeping bag-less Gatewood.
On September 25, 1955, Emma Gatewood, 67, became the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. By all accounts, it does not seem she completed the journey to make a feminist statement. Instead, she quite simply enjoyed being outside.
That being said, Gatewood was undoubtedly aware of the growing feminist and civil rights movements across the United States. In 1950s America, women were relegated to the roles of housewife, mother and caretaker, leading to Betty Friedan’s 1963 publishing of The Feminine Mystique. As a survivor of domestic violence, Gatewood was intimately aware of the particular challenges women faced.
Unsurprisingly, Gatewood was not done. Two years later, she again set out from Georgia. This time, people along the trail knew exactly who she was; the hospitality she received was unprecedented. Gatewood had become nationally known as “everyone’s Grandma.” Gatewood seemed happy and willing to take on this role.
However, the nomenclature is reflective of America’s attitude towards women at the time. Unable to classify Gatewood as a hiker, the press deemed her “Grandma.” Of course, she was so much more: Hiker Gatewood, Pioneer Gatewood, Mother Gatewood, Leader Gatewood, Sister Gatewood, Friend Gatewood.
As Gatewood walked north from Georgia a second time, she embodied all of these personas. She summited Mount Katahdin on September 17th, 1957. Gatewood went on to walk the length of the Oregon Trail and complete Vermont’s Long Trail. In 1964, Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail a third time. This time, Gatewood hiked the trail in sections. She was the first person to complete the route three times.
Unbenounced to Gatewood, she is also known as a founder of the ultralight backpacking movement. As recreational backpacking took root, people brought more and more gear along, unsurprising in the age of American consumerism. At a certain point, stuff defeats the purpose of a simple outdoor experience. Thus, many began to make a concerted effort to bring less and lower the weight of what they did bring.
Gatewood is often cited as an example of what little gear is actually required to thru-hike. Further, hikers do not need specialized clothing or shoes. After all, Keds will do just fine.
Gatewood extended her passion for the trail through advocacy. She worked to create trails in Ohio, often being the person to first clear the trail and mark it, even at over 80 years of age. Gatewood also attended events by the National Campers and Hikers Association. There is a Grandma Gatewood Memorial Trail in Ohio celebrating one of Gatewood’s favorite hikes. She adored spending time among the natural water features of so-called Old Man’s Cave. For years, Gatewood led an annual hike amongst Hockingwood Hills. Today, the hike is held in her honor.
Gatewood passed on June 4, 1973, in Ohio with family at her side. Her gravestone reads: “Emma R. Gatewood: Grandma.”