An Abusive Marriage, a Bear and a Rattle Snake Couldn’t Stop This 67-Year-Old Woman From Becoming the First to Solo-Hike the Appalachian Trail
Grandma Gatewood loved nature, her family and proving people wrong. It's no surprise the author of her biography couldn't help but fall in love and mourn a woman he never met. You will too.
Grandma Gatewood, otherwise known as Emma Rowena Gatewood, became the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail alone at 67-years young. For her first journey, very few people knew where she was headed. She simply left her home one day telling her family she was going for a walk. Technically, it wasn't exactly a lie.
With no supplies, she was able to complete the hike in one season and would go on to do it two more times. Her treck caught the attention of journalists and media across the country and she would eventually be featured in multiple publications and newscasts, including the cover of Sports Illustrated. Gatewood was a woman beyond her years, born in October 1887 and passed in June 1973, but few were able to get the full details of her life and motivation to take on the trail. For years, she insisted it was because she simply could and wanted to.
With just five years in between her life-span and the birth of the man who would eventually pen her story, Grandma Gatewood's Walk, writer Ben Montgomery is most proud to have been able to create a source of connection and inspiration for readers and Gatewood's life. Armed with piles of research and just as many hours of interviews, there's likely few people who know Gatewood and her story and the intimate details as well as he.
All to finally determine what so many journalists desperately wanted to know years ago: WHY DID SHE DO IT.
Photo courtesy of author Ben Montgomery
How did you learn about Grandma Gatewood and her journey?
BM: I first heard of Emma from my mama, the woman to whom I’ve dedicated this book. Emma was my mama’s great aunt, and although the two never met, my mama inherited some family stories about Emma’s wild adventures, about scaring off a bear with her umbrella and fighting off rattlesnakes with her cane.
What inspired you to write a book about Grandma Gatewood?
BM: I did a big story for the Tampa Bay Times that got a lot of attention and made its way into the hand of a fantastic literary agent in New York. She contacted me and asked if I had any book ideas, and she offered to represent me and try to sell them. I quickly thought of Emma Gatewood, who I knew relatively little about. No one had done a serious biography on her, and she seemed like a worthy subject. I was pleased to learn that four of her eleven children were alive, and that her youngest had done a wonderful job of preserving Emma’s personal records.
What is something a potential reader would be surprised to learn about Grandma Gatewood and her journey?
Easy -- she failed miserably on her first attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. She got lost and nearly died within about fifty miles of the trail’s northern terminus. Had it ended there, no one would have ever known about Grandma Gatewood, and the trail would not be what it is today.
What fascinates you most about Grandma Gatewood and her walk?
She brought so little gear. Today, if we’re setting out to thru-hike, we’d bring a slew of gear in the best pack -- tents, sleeping bags, hammocks, stoves, implements. She had none of that stuff when she set out in 1955. And when she did it again two years later, she brought along essentially the same gear.
Why do you think the general population is so fascinated by strong women who take such extreme journeys on their own?
BM: think women are burdened by unfair social expectations, leftovers from an earlier era. And in Emma we find a woman who just didn’t care what others thought she should be doing. On the contrary, she seemed to thrive on shattering expectations.
Photo courtesy of author Ben Montgomery
What about Grandma Gatewood and her story inspires you – or the reader – the most?
BM: She put in 14,000 miles on foot, starting at age 67. That blows my mind. If we shared her ambition the world would be a better place.
What was the biggest hurdle or challenge for you while writing the book?
BM: We missed each other by five years -- she died in 1973 and I was born in 1978. I wish I had the chance to ask her some questions.
What is your favorite sentence in the book?
BM: “She stood, finally, her canvas Keds tied tight, on May 3, 1955, atop the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world, facing the peaks on the blue-black horizon that stretched toward heaven and unfurled before her for days.”
Photo courtesy of author Ben Montgomery
What is your favorite Grandma Gatewood quote?
BM: When she was up in years, a man spotted her walking in the woods. He knew right off who she was, for her legend had grown. He sheepishly begged to ask her a question, and she agreed, and he asked what her favorite thing about hiking was.
“Going downhill,” she said.
What is the best question you’ve ever been asked about the book, Grandma Gatewood or your process to write it?
BM: Someone once asked me if the process had taken a personal toll on me. It did. Near the end of the writing, I felt like I knew her, and I loved her, and all the while I was writing her toward death. I spent a few days mourning a woman who died five years before I was born.
Were there any parts of the story or your writing that you had to leave out but love to share?
BM: I didn’t have to leave this story out, but I didn’t hear it until after the book had already published. Emma went to Florida to visit a nephew, and the nephew took her to eat at a seafood buffet. They loaded their plates with peel-and-eat shrimp and he put his head down and went to town, discarding the shells and tails in a little bowl on the table. When he finished, he looked up and she had cleaned her plate; not a shell or tail in sight. She had eaten them whole.
“Why, aunt Emma,” he said, “we normally discard the shells and the tails.”
She replied: “We paid for ‘em, didn’t we?”
Photo courtesy of author Ben Montgomery
How would you describe Grandma Gatewood? What made her such a unique individual? Would you call her a heroine?
BM: She was a genteel, farm-reared woman, cut from sturdy cloth, who loved her family and also loved nature. She was tough as tacks, too, and came to learn the great reward of testing herself against the earth. What made her unique was her determination to do what she set out to do. I would not call her a heroine, and I don’t think she’d call herself one, either. She simply left us an example, a way to make the most out of life at any age.
How were you able to get such access to her personal life and family? Who gave the most compelling interview?
BM: Her youngest daughter, Lucy, lived in Jacksonville, Florida, and did a wonderful job over the years of preserving Emma’s papers: her correspondence, trail journals, personal essays, poetry, and scrapbooks. When Lucy gave me permission to explore that material I felt very blessed. Still do.
There were lots of great interviews, but one that stands out was with a gentleman who met Emma on the trail in 1955. He was only 19 then, on leave from the Navy, and he and a young friend helped her traverse a raging, flood-stage stream. When I asked him if he remembered that experience, he told me he couldn’t forget it. He still had nightmares about it.
The book not only highlights Gatewood’s journey, but also a shift into modern times, do you think her story would translate and make the same impact if she instead made her journey today?
BM: It’s not uncommon today to find thru-hikers her age. I met a woman a few years ago on the AT who was in her late 60s, and she’s walked it three times already. Emma’s treks were newsworthy in part because she was first, but also because she was a great quote. She had a twisted wit that kept reporters in stitches.
Why do you think walking – or hiking – has such a, sometimes spiritual, effect on human life or individuals?
BM: Early man walked some 20 miles a day. For six million years we were primarily bipedal. Just in the past 100 years or so have we opted to sit and ride to get from one place to another. So, in my mind, we’ve lost something big, some prehistoric connection to the earth and movement that is liberating and rewarding. True pedestrians and hikers know the feeling, but they’re few and far between anymore. We’ve become a lazy, sedentary culture, living life in recline. And we’re more obese and mentally ill now than we’ve ever been. Walking is healthful, natural. It helps blood flow and digestion and prompts, in the right environment, a certain cathartic meditation, and those who do it with any kind of frequency know the benefits.
Why do you think Gatewood’s hike made such an impact on the public and the wellbeing of the trails? What about her and her journey made the public stop and listen?
BM: Three things. First, she brought unprecedented attention to the Appalachian Trail. No hiker before her garnered the same intensity of newspaper coverage. Second, she was critical in the media of the difficult portions of the trail, which led to bolstered maintenance. Third, she broke any barriers that might have existed in the minds of Americans about what it took to walk through the wilderness for 2,000 miles. If she could do it, everyone could.
Americans noticed her, and some remembered her because she was easy to cheer. She had spunk, stamina, determination, a sharp wit, a pioneering spirit … all those characteristics we Americans cherish.
How/Has the book and her story impacted your life or outlook?
BM: I walk far more now than I ever did before. I’ve become a sort of evangelist for walking. Not running; walking. We don’t do enough of it. And in keeping with that, I’ve been fortunate to have an active role in several organizations that advocate safer cities for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Photo courtesy of author Ben Montgomery.
If Grandma Gatewood were still alive as you wrote the book, do you think the narrative would have changed? If you could ask her one question, what would it be?
BM: Oh, absolutely. I would’ve spent as much time with her as I could. I’d ask her a million questions, but if I had only one: Does porcupine taste at all like chicken?
What was your process for writing the book? How did it challenge your writing or approach?
BM: I had a full-time newspaper job, and the contract gave me about 14 months to report and write the book, so I fit the reporting trips in when I could. By the time I had collected the material I needed, I had about 90 days to write. I’d come home from work, have dinner with my kids, then slip into my office to write from about 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., trying to get about a thousand good words a day on paper. I stayed pretty close to target and turned in a manuscript of about 70,000 words just a few weeks past deadline. The challenge was finding the time and trying to tap into creative energy every single evening, when writing is also my day job.
What is your biggest piece of advice for young writers aspiring to become feature writers or novelists?
BM: Three words: Butt. In. Seat. So many people think they can write a book. I hear from them all the time. The only difference from those who do and those who don’t is those who do actually put their rear in a chair every day until they’re done.
What about your own accomplishment makes you the proudest? Do you think Gatewood herself would’ve been proud, as well?
BM: The book continues to sell well, four years after publication. That makes me very proud. I also love hearing from people who have connected to Emma’s story and have been motivated to take a walk. One great moment was when a reader emailed me to say she hadn’t walked around the block in ten years, but after finishing the book she got off the couch and walked around the block. And she planned to do it again. It seems so simple, but that’s very fulfilling to me.
I hope Emma would’ve been proud. Odds are she would’ve made a bunch of notes in the margins, telling me how I could’ve done it better. And I’d be perfectly fine with that!
In general, why do you write? In the world of the internet, clicks and rapid consumption – struggling newsrooms and ‘dying journalism’ -- how have you found a way to continue writing and write long-term features that find readers and their interest?
BM: I think the click culture is hype. We haven’t lost our attention spans. And they’ve said journalism has been dying for generations. I just don’t believe it. I see no evidence. What I see in my kids and their peers are intense readers, longing for long stories. All three of my kids -- ages 13, 11 and 9 -- have read every single Harry Potter book. And the Hunger Games. And A Wrinkle in Time. My 13 year old has started reading the New Yorker. My 11 year old loves Smithsonian Magazine.
The requirement is that it’s good and worthwhile. I try to find stories that fit. The audience is out there, everywhere.
Do you think modern life still hold a realistic un-romanticized value on the ability to unplug, take risks and take such long extreme journeys outdoors? Has the purpose and benefits of the type of journey Grandma Gatewood took lost? Is that kind of journey still possible? Or is the desire to break from societal norms and routines (like Grandma Gatewood did, or in extreme forms, like modern-day hermits) misunderstood by romanticized fascinations, especially if those who partake ultimately reject societal expectations and refuse re-assimilation to some elements if not all related to modern society?
BM: Oof. I can maybe answer by pointing to the ever-increasing number of AT thru-hikers. It climbs year over year and has for three decades. We still want to be able to get away or break the mold, and maybe the Millenials are the generation that will find that work-live-relax balance that leads to healthier, happier lives. As odd as it may sound, I’m perplexed and dismayed by our car culture. It’s a curse if you ask me. (Hat tip to Thoreau, who blasted cars in 1862, calling them “man traps.”) In the 1930s, we thought the auto was the answer to everything, and we did away with rail and redesigned cities to get from place to place faster in individual cars. But American cities are ridiculously congested now, and many are now having fits trying to retrofit infrastructure that makes pedestrianism easier. In the Tampa Bay area alone last week, there were sixteen deaths on roads -- and nine were “vulnerable” users, as they call them: five motorcycles, one bicyclist, three pedestrians. If sixteen people died in an explosion, it would be national news! But kill sixteen people in a single week in an American city with cars and no one bats an eye. Where was I going with this? Walking (and unplugging) anywhere in modern life should be an option, and should be realistic, but even the daily pedestrian commuter is in some ways and places a societal outcast. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been enjoying a walk and someone has stopped to offer me a ride. /<rant>
As her story regains modern momentum, followers will inevitably compare Grandma Gatewood and Cheryl Strayed. Do you think there are similarities between the two stories? Is it fair to compare? Why do you think their stories and hikes captured the public’s interest as compared to other women who have similar stories such as Mary Kilpatrick, Mildred Ryder or Neva Warren?
BM: I think Emma and Cheryl Strayed shared some similarities, in that they were both trying to walk off painful experiences or life trauma. I don’t think they would’ve gotten along, though. Emma was short on pity, and perhaps even empathy. I think their stories were popular because they were relatable, but to different demographics, maybe. They’re both quests stories, in a very long line of quest stories. Perhaps they stand apart from others only in that they were told and found an audience.
Is there a reason the public focuses most on strong women who have completed the hike? Are their journeys more than the miles they walked but a symbol of feminism and strength? Famous for accomplishments that were not originally considered to be in the realm of women and their abilities?
BM: For sure, although I’m not sure Emma would’ve been comfortable wearing a title like Feminist. I ultimately think the stories are rarer than the deeds. What I mean is, we’ve lionized men in books and film for a very long time, and there are plenty of ripe stories about women that should be told.
Do you think the book finally gives the complete answer to the big question; why did she do it? Even for the hikes after the first time? And why did she do it the way that she did? Does the Why matter as much as most think it ought to, especially since she was so private about personal details of her life? Does the understanding of the Why change the way someone may consider her, her life, the impacts she made or her accomplishments?
BM: The WHY was my engine. And in the end, the best I could do was give it the full effort of my reporting and discernment. We may never know exactly why, but I hope I got close. I know for sure why she did it again and again: she liked it.
I hope it changes the way she’s regarded. Until the book, those who thought they knew her story really just knew scraps. The dark secrets of her abusive marriage add another layer to her legend, I hope. And perhaps it serves as a mirror to those who find themselves in similar situations, wondering if they can get away.
Is it possible humanity has a tendency of getting lost in the why, or deeper meanings? Can stories or narratives ever be as simple as Grandma Gatewood initially insisted; I did it because I could/ wanted to. I said I would do it, so I did?
No. For me, as a human and a reader, that’s where the fun is.
For more information about the book, Ben Montgomery's visit and the Urban Air event visit our website.