Grandma Gatewood

In 1955, a 67-year-old woman decided to hike the Appalachian Trail alone.

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I recently interviewed a famous sports photographer for another publication, and he said something that kind of struck me: that part of his job was to make the athletes he shot look like heroes. In a way, that’s all of our jobs. So much of the sports media industrial complex depends on our collective ability to turn athletes into symbols, even as we are ostensibly humanizing them.

The bigger they come, the harder they fall. The bigger they come, the bigger they win. The bigger they come, the more people watch and read and open their wallets. So we inflate them until they stop being human beings and start to exist merely as symbols. LeBron James is as much of a tall tale as Paul Bunyan ever was. 

This week’s subject is Grandma Gatewood, whose life at first glance looks like mythology; like a story that was told and retold over generations and only then found its true form. But Grandma Gatewood was as real as you or me, and her achievements -- though much more contemporary -- hearken back to the frontier past that gave us Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. 

Even just the one-line description sounds like a folktale. The grandmother who walked the length of the Appalachian Trail alone, carrying only a small drawstring sack; who then kept walking and walking all across the country, gathering followers and well-wishers and supporters everywhere she went. It sounds like something from 1855, not 1955. 

Emma Gatewood was born in 1887 in Southern Ohio farm country, and that’s where she was raised.  Her father was an ornery veteran of the Union Army, who had lost a leg in the war but gained an appetite for whiskey and gambling. She had 14 brothers and sisters. From a young age, she knew what it was to work and to suffer. When she needed peace and quiet, she found it in the woods. She liked to read poetry.  

She married a schoolteacher when she was just 19. He was a bad person. He beat her frequently and mercilessly, and abused her sexually. He put her to work endless hours even as she bore him 11 children and took care of the home. She still had the woods to escape to, but that was no real escape. It took her decades to get away for good. By the time she did, it was 1941. Emma Gatewood was 54 years old. 

But in a sense, her life was just beginning. In 1949, while sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room, she read an article about the Appalachian Trail in National Geographic. The article made the trail (which runs all the way from Georgia to Maine) sound easy. “Planned for the enjoyment of anyone in good health, the A.T. doesn’t demand special skill or training to traverse.” 

It is worth mentioning here that this story was told beautifully in a book called Grandma Gatewood’s Walk written by a newspaper reporter named Ben Montgromery who also happens to be one of Emma Gatewood’s descendants. It was Montgomery who dug up that old National Geographic story, and who placed her in that doctor’s office, and even chose that particular passage to highlight. 

Anyway, as he put it “the old woman had been captivated.” 

She didn’t tell anybody of her plans. She simply started walking, ten miles a day. She did a few overnight trips on her own in the Ohio wilderness, just to see how she could survive. But surviving was her specialty. She had been doing it her whole life. In 1954, she set out for Maine, with a plan to hike south to Georgia. But she broke her glasses, and had to be helped back home to Ohio. The following year, she decided to try again. She told her kids she was going for a walk, and took off: this time to start in Georgia and make her way up north. 

She woke with the sun and walked each day until she couldn’t anymore. Only one person had ever thru-hiked all 2,040 miles of the Appalachian Trail before, and he was a soldier in his twenties. Grandma Gatewood presented quite the contrast. She carried only her small homemade sack stuffed with the barest essentials: a coat, a shower curtain for protection from the rain, a Swiss Army knife, some water, a flashlight, band-aids, Vienna sausages. It took her 146 days. By the time she reached Maine, she was famous.

“This is no trail. This is a nightmare,”  she told a reporter after she had finished. “I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was,” she added, “but I couldn’t and wouldn’t quit.” 

She did the opposite of quitting. She hiked it two more times. She also walked the length of the Oregon Trail, from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon. She was written up in magazines and featured on television. She became Johnny Appleseed without the appleseeds, just a regular person doing something mythical and inspiring and also very intuitive: something anybody could understand. She didn’t talk about the years of abuse. She didn’t talk about why exactly she had to keep going. But the simple act of walking, of surviving each day, of pressing onward and onward and onward resonated with her fellow Americans. It still does.

Related Reading

Emma Gatewood is one of those people who is very famous to people whose life may revolve in some way around the Appalachian Trail. If that’s you, then you know that material about her life is everywhere. But if that’s not you, I’d recommend starting with the aforementioned Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery. It’s a very readable book with a clever structure and a lot of poignant lyrical moments in it.

The New York Times also recently dedicated one of its “Overlooked No More” obituaries to Grandma Gatewood. I’m a fan of that series.

If you are interested in tall tales, or Americana, or mythologies specific to Ohio, or just really great books in general, please check out Pete Beatty’s novel Cuyahoga.

Finally, there was a film about Grandma Gatewood called Trail Magic. I have not seen it, but it is available for rental on Vimeo and features interviews with lots of her family members. Here’s a preview:

Thanks for reading Sports Stories. We’ll see you next week.