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True Tale of Hike on Trail Inspires Readers

Apr 11 2014

by Anna Ferguson Hall

Warning: This may sound more like a game of telephone than a well-written piece, but stick with me here.

I have a friend, who has a friend, who’s family member thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. In and of itself, hiking from north Georgia to Maine is a major accomplishment, to say the least. But this friend of a friends’ family member who hiked the trail? She was his great great aunt, and she was 67 years-old when she did put on those hiking boots and hit the road. Bare in mind, too, that the Grandmother made the roughly 2,180 mile trek in 1955, before modern technology added at least a degree of comfort by way of cushy shoes, well-padded backpacks, warm North Face fleece and savy camping gear.

My friend’s friend chronicled his Grandmother’s long walk to Maine, in a recently-published book, titled “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail.My friend is a fellow journalist (well, was a fellow journalist, as he made the move to a new career at a coastal college), and he writes a weekly column in The Brunswick News. This week, he depicted the Grandmother’s story of strength, and the words were so moving, they needed to be shared in as many spots as possible. Including here.

Below, is my friend, Andrew Smith’s column, published Thursday, April 10, in The Brunswick News.

New book chronicles amazing spirit of hiking ‘Grandma’
By Andrew Smith

When writer Ben Montgomery humbly walked to the stage last Friday at a chic Tampa loft, he did it in much the way Emma Gatewood, the subject of his most recent book, would have done. Left foot, right foot; repeat, until you reach your destination.

He reached the microphone and addressed the audience; 60 or so of his closest family, friends, co-workers and supporters.

“In 1955, Emma Gatewood, a 67-year-old mother of 11, grandmother of 23 and great-grandmother of two, told her family she was going for a walk,” he began. “She left her home in Gallipolis, Ohio and took an airplane, a train and a cab to Mount Oglethorpe, in Georgia.”

Grandma Gatewood, as she was affectionately known to her kin and eventually the world, was about to hike the Appalachian Trail. She carried with her a denim drawstring bag filled with food, a shower curtain, a military blanket, a men’s coat, a dress, band aids and salve. On her feet she wore canvas Keds. She had no sleeping bag, tent or map.

“Nearly five months and 2,050 miles later, she would reach the summit of Mount Katahdin, in Maine,” Montgomery continued. “She signed the register, sang the first verse of “America the Beautiful” and said ‘I’ve done it,’ to no one in particular.”

With little immediate fanfare, Gatewood became the sixth person and first woman, to solo thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Eventually, the national press made Emma a celebrity. She used her new-found fame to call for trail improvements and promote walking, even as mass-produced automobiles cruised the newly completed interstate highway system.

Montgomery’s book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, is devoted to not only Gatewood, the hiker and folk hero, but Emma the person. Emma, the hard-working, devoted mother. Emma, the battered wife. Emma, the resilient and determined soul.

Throughout the book, the author weaves in morsels of Emma’s hike and life so deftly that when a chapter finishes, your anticipation is twice as great. It’s truly remarkable how her life, the trail and American culture all converged in the summer of 1955 to produce one of the most harrowing, difficult and inspiring journeys that had – until the release of this book – been lost to history and time.

A journalist by trade and a storyteller by birth, Montgomery’s extensive research and reporting give the book a strong backbone. During preliminary research, he was lucky enough to discover that four of Emma’s 11 children were still alive and could give first-hand accounts of their mother’s resilient spirit and matter-of-fact demeanor.

Emma’s youngest, Lucy, who has since passed, afforded Montgomery carte-blanche access to boxes of her mother’s memorabilia, letters, journals and photographs. Montgomery, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2009, combed through the treasure trove and made sense of what turned out to be a surprisingly complex character.

Gatewood’s personal account in hand, Montgomery utilized helpful librarians stationed in sleepy Appalachian towns along the trail’s route, uncovering dozens of articles about Emma from the pages of local newspapers.

Montgomery took to the trail as well, covering key sections in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Maine’s highest point, Mount Katahdin. The detailed descriptions of the trail give the reader a true sense of place and attachment to the main character. Like Emma, we climb mountains, sleep in lean-tos, trudge through rain, ford swollen streams and press on, no matter what.

“Women like Emma Gatewood should not be forgotten,” Montgomery said. “They amazing things she did should stick her firmly and permanently in the shared American experience.”

So, if you’re looking for inspiration to get off the couch or simply start something new, pick up a copy of Grandma Gatewood. It’s a walk you won’t soon forget.

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