Grandma Gatewood’s Walk

Ben Montgomery | Non-Fiction


In the 1950s – in ALL of the 1950s – only 14 people completed hiking the 2050 mile Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine (or from Maine to Georgia!)  One of them was Emma Gatewood, known affectionately and more famously as Grandma Gatewood.  With 11 children and 23 grandchildren, at the age of 67, she was the first woman to solo hike the AT.  In 1964, she became the first person to hike the entire trail three times.  Go ahead, do the math!!

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is her story.  I know many of you are avid hikers, often on foot, sometimes via armchair.  In 2016, 1110 people completed the Trail, 29% of them women. As an avid reader of hiking books, and a four-year follower of Wired, as she travels around the world thru-hiking, I notice that today, hiking the AT is a very different experience from when Grandma did it.  Hikers today carry all their supplies in lightweight packs, spend most nights sleeping on the trail in tents and cooking their food. Interestingly, back in 1955, the Trail was so new and such a marvel, that Grandma Gatewood, while she did spend many nights sleeping under picnic tables, also spent many nights at the homes of people along the trail. She would knock on doors and ask them for shelter; something you wouldn't see today except in an emergency.

She was famous for wearing only “Keds” tennis shoes and carrying a small knapsack, with no sleeping bag, tent, or cook stove.  The author, Ben Montgomery, weaves in information about our culture at that time of Gatewood’s hike, and for the years immediately following, putting it in context for what hiking was like in the 50s, as well as the roles of women.  He worked with Gatewood’s diaries, her correspondence from the trail, her heirs, and also the numerous articles that were published about her once she was "discovered” on the trail.  And she is not Cheryl Strayed! Whether you loved or hated Wild, you will find Grandma Gatewood’s tale to be quite different and without the angst, errors, and inner turmoil of Strayed's hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Grandma Gatewood simply walks.

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is an easy and enjoyable read. It is also inspiring.  As I told a friend last night, it also makes me feel a bit languid ... I mean, I am not about to hike the Appalachian Trail. Nosiree!  And I am a few years younger than Grandma Gatewood.

My one criticism of this book – and it is not big enough criticism to lower my heart rating – is that Ben Montgomery clearly is a reporter (he is a staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times). As such, his writing is, I find, dispassionate.  After just completing Coming Into the Country by John McPhee, who clearly wants to pass on his passion and enthusiasm, Montgomery is rather emotion-less in his communication.

Nevertheless, you will be delighted to know this story better!  Emma Gatewood is an unsung hero of our modern day world!

7 responses on “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk

  1. Mary C Crawford

    I’m fascinated by how little she carried. Does it talk about what she ate? Thinking she was probably savvy enough to know what berries and greens along the trail were eatable. And to just knock on the door and ask to stay…yes, it surely was a different era. Sounds like an interesting read.

    1. Andrea Sigetich Post author

      Yes, sometimes she DID eat berries and greens! I think her bag, which she slung over her shoulder, weighed, if I remember correctly, 13 pounds sometimes??? Food is a big topic in the book!!

      1. Mary C Crawford

        Like you, I like reading about these epic hikers with no intention of doing it myself. I’m jotting this title down on my list. Thanks.

  2. Charlene

    This sounds like a must read for me. You need to quit reading so much and posting such good reviews because my book list is getting longer every day!!!

    1. Andrea Sigetich Post author

      Ah ah! I just committed to my Opportunity Knocks group to do four more posts in the next month. I want to KEEP reading this much!

  3. Donna

    Through the Pittsburgh Botanical Society, Glenn knew one of Grandma Gatewood’s daughters, Esther Allen, who in her own right was a well-known and truly remarkable and knowledgeable botanist and naturalist. Esther gave many talks about her Mother. Did you know that Grandma Gatewood also walked the Pacific Crest Trail AFTER she became famous for hiking the AT. They were going to have a celebration for her at the end of the PCT but she was delayed two days so the organizers delayed the celebration until she got there. Did Ben Montgomery write about her encounter with the Bear?

    Her daughter Esther, was the final authority on trees, wild flowers and similar plants in Western Pennsylvania. Obviously, she learned much from her mother.

    1. Andrea Sigetich Post author

      Cool! Nice connection. Yes, Montgomery talks about the bear! I don’t find any evidence that Grandma Gatewood hiked the PCT which was designated in 1968 and completed in 1993. She died in 1973, so she could have done at least some io it! She DID however hike the Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon, which is also detailed in Montgomery’s book.