When she felt that her children were old enough to take care of themselves, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood left a note on the kitchen table saying, “I’m going for a walk.” She then disappeared, and the next thing anyone knew, she showed up on the Appalachian Trail. She left behind a brutally abusive husband and embarked on a life of adventure no other woman had ever dared to attempt. She became the
third person — after Earl Shaffer and my friend Gene Espy — to thru-hike the AT, as well as the first woman ever to do so. She suffered silently under the abuse of her husband. There was nowhere for her to turn for help. For that reason, I think every young woman today needs to know her story and to know that women of the World War II generation had to fend for themselves in ways that women do not have to today. The best source for all this is in Ben Montgomery’s fine biography, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, which provides an engaging look at how she became the amazing woman she was. She carried no pack, just an old cloth bag slung over her shoulder; no tent, just a shower curtain; no sophisticated hiking boots, just pair after pair of cheap sneakers. During her hike, she would sometimes approach a mountain farm house late in the day, knock on the front door and holler: “What’s for dinner?” Amazingly, she often received food and friendship as payment for her audacity. I feel a link to Emma. The day I began my southbound AT thru-hike in early June, 1973, was the day Emma Gatewood died. Perhaps I unwittingly carried a piece of her relentless spirit within me as I battled through mosquitos, bogs, endless climbs, brutal weather and unimaginable temperature extremes before finally reaching Springer Mtn. on Oct. 20. Although I had nothing comparable to the gear available today, I was much better equipped than Emma and a darn sight younger. I never met Grandma Gatewood, but I appreciate what she did for the AT and the way she blazed a trail for women in the outdoors. As a brash 21-year-old male, I had little regard for the physical abilities of women until that summer on the AT. There, I saw women of all ages who could match me stride for stride and frequently breeze right past me. So, thanks to the AT, I learned the lesson taught by the first woman to take on the AT alone and make it all the way. We love you Emma, and we will never forget your shining legacy.