Emma “Grandma” Gatewood (October 25, 1887 – June 4, 1973; Scorpio and Artemis)
To say that she had the Gods on her side would be an understatement. This woman faced such tragedy at the hands of her husband. These were episodes of extreme violence, sexual abuse and emotional abuse as well. After she finally got rid of him, she began to heal from these inner wounds in her own individual way. A way which began to nurture her sense of self and help define her as a woman. By an act of purpose, she became an accidental celebrity. A gift that she did not wish for but would allow and come to expect after a while. Emma Gatewood, aka Grandma Gatewood on the A.T. (Appalachian Trail) would be the first woman to walk the trail in 1955 at the age of 67. She would continue to walk the trail two more times as well as the “The Oregon Trail,” and quite a few other long hauls.
I was turned on to this story, just this past year, after learning about a documentary made in her honor. A documentary which features two of her daughters: Lucy and Louise, the youngest of the clan. After watching the documentary, I saw Ben Montgomery’s book “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk,” lying on the table and picked it up to scan the cover. This book was a New York Time’s bestseller and written by a Pulitzer Prize Finalist. After purchasing it, I had put the book to the side, thinking it would be a dull day to day journey and not quite that interesting. I assumed I would force myself through it so I could review it for this website. Naturally, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book was full of intrigue; rich in historical content from that time period and of course her background.
Being a woman from Mercerville, Ohio and having lived in Gallipolis and some small
towns in West Virginia with her husband; it is not unusual to imagine a story of abuse and desperation. Not quite a story of poverty, when you had a woman like Emma but finances were plucked away because her husband was just a really bad man. I am not putting too much emphasis on him because it is a typical jerk of a husband story. You can read the book to find more. These types of stories are so compelling and what old country music tried so hard to explain to us. She would have eleven children, 24 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren and one great-great when she died at the age of 85.
Ben creates a rich experience of the trail that you feel as if you are walking right along with her. Thanks to her journals, newspaper articles, and letters written home, he was able to piece together what life on the trail was actually like for her, on a daily basis. In the meantime, his research uncovered one of the largest hurricanes of that time “Hurricane Connie.” He was able to show us the devastation in towns she had already left behind as well as how it affected the path in front of her. He spoke of civil unrest of the times while talking about the night she spent with two opposing gang leaders from New York, unaware yet sensitive to her surroundings. His story created a depth by showing us her own trials and tribulations on the road and yet, no matter what, she persevered and kept moving forward “one foot at a time.”
Reading this book, I kept thinking to myself “Wow, the Gods sure wanted her to be the one.” I also kept imagining the pain she must have been in with a simple pair of tennis shoes. I imagined what her feet must have looked like. As a smaller hiker myself (up to 15 miles), I have seen my own feet after wearing hiking boots. If they aren’t just right, you can get callouses, blackened toe nails, and bloodied heels – all of which I have had. I heard about the throbbing pain she suffered toward the end – with her knee beginning to give out. I have, at 54, problems with my legs which give me trouble if I walk too much on sidewalks or in shopping centers. I could imagine what it was like after her glasses broke (also toward the end) and she could barely see ahead of her. What amazed me most was that a 67 year old woman, having birthed eleven children, was able to sleep on a bed of leaves or hot rocks to warm her back. I have only had one child and my back does not allow me to sleep on anything but a mattress and this is not for vanity. I certainly would have a hard time getting off the ground after an eventful night’s sleep (her sleeps outside were rarely good ones due to nature, not her back). The bitter icy temperatures up in the final mountain range, any of us who live in cold weather climates – such as Ohio – know far too well what it would have been like wearing a rain coat and a few layers of clothes. But she made it and is now a legend.
As you can imagine, I am not racing to get to the trail and step in place behind her. I’ll keep walking my 6-10 miles with my local meetup group. I wouldn’t mind walking the Grandma Gatewood trail again (I didn’t know I had been on it when I was at Old Man’s Cave). The writer, Ben Montgomery did walk the majority of her trail and did so by tracing the original path she would have taken, thanks to her notes. This is because the trail she took was much more intense and less user friendly than the well-paved and marked trail of today. I was impressed by his dedication to doing so. He was definitely not a wimpy writer, hiding behind his computer.
So, very sadly, I must put this story behind me as I do with all the women that I have begun to research for this blog and begin to search for another amazing tale. After finishing each woman’s article, I feel as if they have just died for the first time. I tend to be on the verge of tears as I finish the book and write the article as I know I must say goodbye and move forward. I have gotten to know some amazing women that no one really has much intimate knowledge about, with the exception of what little is there to read. When I went about bringing this website to people’s attention, I had no idea just how few resources there would be about Ohio Women’s History. It is important to showcase their lives and make sure that young women have heroines, someone to look up to and imagine being like. Important that they understand, women have done so much more than get us the right to vote – which is all most people seem focused on. We are in a generation of slackers, people who would have the same physical problems I have from sitting at their desk for hours in a day staring at a CRT. Ben’s book talks about an article a man wrote which addresses the laziness of society (back then), due to the invention of automobiles. It mentioned people driving for only two blocks to get a bar of soap. I can’t imagine what that man would think of today’s society. His story was telling and a bittersweet call to arms before life became as it is right now.
The story of Emma Gatewood is the tale of many strong farming women who were capable of accomplishing multiple tasks in one day. My own research into women’s history reminds me of the book, “They Saw the Elephant,” which are diaries and stories about women crossing the country with their families, to find Gold in the hills of California, around the time of 1849. Unless these women documented their experiences or someone decided to walk a trail, these other women, unsung heroines, are people we will never know. Except of course if our grandparents made sure to put them in our heads – and we listened and paid attention to those stories. Otherwise, they are long ago and forgotten because now, in their place, are the modern vamps of our time who can sing a song or look pretty on the screen.
Note: Below is the Grandma Gatewood Trail at Old Man’s Cave, where a placard is there mentioning this. This trail was her favorite hike.