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Grandma Gatewood: A Long Walk Into Hiking History

Chicago Review Press

In the spring of 1955, 67-year-old Emma Gatewood left her home in Ohio, telling her children she was going for a walk.

What she didn't tell them was she was going for a walk on the Appalachian Trail - all 2050 miles from Georgia to Maine.  

When she finished the following fall, she became the first woman ever to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, or "the AT," as hikers refer to it.

She did it with a homemade sort of backpack, wearing tennis shoes and with about 200 dollars in spending money.

She is forever known as "Grandma Gatewood," through appearances on the Today Show, the Groucho Marx Show, the Art Linkletter Show and in articles in dozens of local newspapers and Sports Illustrated.

And she is revered in hiking circles as the grandmother who helped save the AT by generating much needed publicity through her exploits on the trail.

But, in researching his new book, "Grandma Gatewood's Walk," Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery learned that Emma Gatewood's life before her hiking adventure was far from a walk in the park.

Gatewood had spent 30 years in a physically abusive marriage before she tackled the Appalachian Trail.

"What I came to understand about her is that I don't necessarily think she was walked towards something, walking toward a goal," explained Montgomery. "I think just as much she was walking away from 30 years of abuse. And saying 'Look, I'm an independent woman and I have legs.'" Her children think that she wanted to be the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. I'm not sure there's evidence to suggest that's the case.  I think that she was just walkin' and she just happened to be 67 years old."

And Emma Gatewood just happened to be part of the last generation that walked - instead of drove - pretty much everywhere.

"She never drove a car. so it was nothing for her to walk 13, 14, 15 miles to visit a friend and she did that all the time," Montgomery said. "So it wasn't all that unusual for someone like her to always be on foot."

At the time Gatewood first set foot on the Appalachian Trail though, America's love affair with the automobile was coming into full bloom.

And "Grandma Gatewood's Walk" is a reminder of all the physical, mental and spiritual benefits we miss when we choose four wheels over two feet.

"It's our first nature to hop into a car and drive somewhere," Montgomery pointed out. "I think there's something missing in this lifestyle where we're so dependent on the automobile.  We're missing this slice of American where you test yourself against the earth, where you just get out - you and your own two feet - and take a walk."

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