In 1955, 67-year-old Emma Gatewood became the first woman to walk the entirety of the more than 2000 mile Appalachian Trail. She made the trek from Georgia to Maine, crossing over 300 mountains, alone, with $200 dollars in her pocket. Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery grew up hearing stories about Emma Gatewood, who was his mother’s great aunt. “Bedtime stories," Montgomery said. "Fantastical stories about this eccentric woman finding her way along the Appalachian Trail at the age of 67.” Those stories led Montgomery to search deeper into Emma Gatewood’s life and the subject of his new book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk.
Emma Gatewood’s family had no idea she was hiking the trail. Montgomery says Gatewood told them she was going on a walk and then disappeared. “They didn’t hear from her until she reached Roanoke, Virginia," Montogomery said, "which is 800 miles from the southern terminus of the trail in Northern Georgia. She dropped a postcard in the mail back to them in Ohio.”
The idea to walk the trail came to Gatewood in 1949 when she ran across one of the first feature stories about the trail in National Geographic. At that point she,“couldn’t get the trail out of her head,” said Montgomery. “When she became conscious of the trail it would not let her go and she would secretly journey into the woods in southwestern Ohio to try and test herself against nature to see what materials she might need to survive alone in the wilderness.
"But she was basically unprepared, she didn’t bring a tent, or a sleeping bag. She brought a shower curtain to use as a tarp and an army coat. And that was pretty much it. "
When Gatewood finally made it to Mt. Katahdin in Maine she left the two reporters who had been following her progress and started walking at sunrise in the sleet and rain to the summit, “She climbed the mountain in solitude and when she made it to the top at Baxters Peak she sang the first verse of America The Beautiful, said to no one ‘I did it. I said I’d do it and I’ve done it.’ and then turned around and hiked back down.”
Ben Montgomery is the author of Grandma Gatewood’s walk.