Emma Grandma Gatewood

Emma "Grandma" Gatewood completed the Appalachian Trail in September of 1955 at age 67.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published on April 28, 2020 by the Ohio History Connection. Richland Source has entered into a collaborative agreement with the Ohio History Connection to share content across our sites.

“Why?”

It’s the simple one-word question that has been so hard for humanity to answer for probably as long as we’ve ventured out from the safe confines of our homes and communities. Mountaineers, explorers, adventurers of all types have no doubt struggled to find a concise and coherent response that seems to satisfy that question.

This is how Emma “Grandma” Caldwell Gatewood, sitting alongside a road in central Virginia a month and a half into her journey on the Appalachian Trail in 1955, came face-to-face with this question.

She had left her life in Gallia Co., Ohio in May with the goal of hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one continuous hike, from Georgia to Maine, a distance of 2,055 miles. The trail is longer these days due to additions to the route and now stretches for over 2,190 miles. Up until her hike, only five people had done the entire trail since it was completed in 1937 – and they had all been men.

So when the newspaper reporter tracked her down in Virginia, after the story of her hike leaked out, she of course was asked “Why?” She gave a variety of responses to this question when intercepted at various points along her almost five-month journey. They varied from:

“Just for the heck of it.”

“Always wanted to take this hike.”

“On a lark.”

“Because it’s there.”

The real answer was much more complicated.

What she didn’t tell the reporters is that she was walking away from a life that had included decades of abuse at the hands of her husband. The woods had always been a source of comfort and escape for her. She told the reporters she was a widow.

She had already spent much of her life outdoors, doing hard work on farms and tramping about in the woods of southeast Ohio. Emma really didn’t think the hike was that big of a deal. She also hadn’t told any of her 11 grown children where she was going, only alluding that she “was going for a walk.”

Emma had acquired the nickname “Grandma” -- she did have 23 grandchildren -- but in reality she was actually a great-grandmother at the time she started the trail.

Thru-hikers, as they are called today, spend a great deal of money to try to get the best high-tech, ultra-light gear. Each ounce that is saved in weight is one less ounce on your back for up to six months and over 2,000 miles. The goal now with most hikers is to have a total pack weight at 25 to 30 pounds. This includes a backpack, tent, sleeping bag and pad, stove, fuel, raincoat, clothing, maps, and food and water.

But when Emma started her hike in 1955 she had none of these luxuries. Her “backpack” was a denim sack that she sewed together herself, and in it she stuffed a shower curtain for shelter, a blanket, a few simple food items, first-aid supplies, and a coat. She had a pair of Keds tennis shoes on her feet. Her total pack weight: 17 pounds, the envy of any thru-hiker.

Emma Gatewood and her backpack

Emma Gatewood stands near a sign for the Appalachian Trail with her denim sack of supplies.

The 5-foot-2 great-grandmother completed the trail in September that year, becoming the first woman to hike alone the entire length of the world’s longest continuous footpath. Emma walked for 146 days, through 14 states, took 5 million steps, lost 30 pounds, went through 7 pairs of shoes, and gained and lost altitude on the trail the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest 16 times all at age 67.

But Emma was just getting started.

Two years later, in 1957, she hiked the Appalachian Trail again, making her the first person, male or female, to have completed a thru-hike of the trail twice. Then in 1964 at age 76, she did the trail once again. This time it was in sections, and she became the first person to hike the trail three times.

Between her 2nd and 3rd trail hikes, rather than resting on her laurels, she decided to take a stroll on the Oregon Trail. This was part of the Oregon Centennial celebration and her stroll covered almost 2,000 miles and took three months, in a walk from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon. By the time she eventually “retired” from hiking, she had hiked a total of 14,000 miles!

Emma is America’s most famous hiker and was the best ambassador for the Appalachian Trail. She is credited for helping save the nation’s foremost trail. But she never lost her love for Ohio’s forests and natural places.

Ohio has its own long-distance hiking trail, the Buckeye Trail. It meanders for 1,444 miles, reaching every corner of the state. And wouldn’t you know it, Emma had a hand in the Buckeye Trail too!

In the 1960s she began clearing and marking a 30-mile trail along the Ohio River in Gallia County, hoping that it would eventually become a part of the relatively new Buckeye Trail. At more than 80 years old she would be out working on this trail, for 10 or more hours per day.

Even though the Buckeye Trail would never make it to Gallia County, Emma was one of the founding members of the Buckeye Trail Association. She was there for the group’s inaugural hike in September 1959 when the first 20 miles were dedicated in Hocking Hills. Then in January 1967 she led a hike through a six-mile section of Hocking Hills, which became an annual winter tradition.

When she showed up for her final winter hike in 1973, age was catching up with her, and she couldn’t physically make the hike. But she stood at the trailhead and greeted the 2,500 people who had come out, including many old friends and people eager to meet Ohio’s celebrity hiker. The Hocking Hills winter hike is still very popular and draws huge crowds to this day.

So it’s fitting that her favorite section of this trail is now called the “Grandma Gatewood Memorial Trail."

It wasn’t until later, after nearly two decades of pursuing parent-frightening outdoor trips, that the best and most honest answer I could give to the question of “Why?” finally came to me (and yes, it was more than just to scare my parents!). After ruminating through all the logical but unsatisfying answers, like the scenery, the wildlife, and the joys that are equal in intensity to the physical discomfort required to realize them, my answer to the question was simply: “Why not!?”

Then last year, almost a year to the day as I’m writing this, my son Alex left for his own adventure. He was leaving the security of our home, starting alone, to be gone for six months, following the same trail as Emma Gatewood – from Georgia to the summit of Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine.

And yes, I can admit it now, I did catch myself saying as he left: “Alex…WHY!?”

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