Saying “take a hike” is sometimes used as a rude way to tell someone to stop bothering you. But in this case, I’d like to call it a literal hike – and a very long one at that.
When I retired, my goal was to do more reading for pleasure. But often my reading was still overshadowed by more pressing matters around the farm. That’s why I was thrilled to be invited to join a local book club about two and a half years ago by a former farmer I’ve known all my life. Book club members are a fun group with varied interests, so their monthly book selections are varied and the discussions are always thought-provoking.
Unfortunately, there are still too many months where I can’t finish a book before the day of the book club meeting, but May’s selection is one I just couldn’t put down. I think many others would like to read it too.
“Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” is a New York Times bestseller written by author Ben Montgomery. It won the 2014 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography. The author weaves together the story of 67-year-old Emma Gatewood’s incredible hike on the Appalachian Trail with details of her previous life as a farm wife in southern Ohio and Virginia -Occidentale who raised 11 children, as well as current events unfolding during 1955 when she makes her “walk”.
These days, even casual hikers are often outfitted with fancy backpacks, special hiking boots, blister-proof socks, and SPF-resistant, moisture-wicking clothing. Grandmother Gatewood had no such paraphernalia. She was wearing clothes similar to those she had worn on the farm all her life, and her feet were shod in old canvas Keds sneakers. She had sewn a denim drawstring bag and had taken with her only the bare necessities – some snacks, some first aid items, a shower curtain “to keep out the rain”, a warm coat, water and a flashlight.
Fortunately, she also carried a pen and a small notebook with her. This allowed him to keep a diary of his travels, from which Ben Montgomery was able to piece together his story. From other sources, such as his family and acquaintances, he described Emma as 5ft 2in, weighing 150lbs, with false teeth and bunions. He notes that “the only survival training she had was lessons learned from earning calluses on her farm.” He also notes what she didn’t have – no map, no sleeping bag, and no tent.
Although it might seem like madness for someone of that description to embark on a 2,050-mile journey on the longest continuous trail in the world, Emma had done her research. In fact, she even started hiking the Appalachian Trail south from Maine in 1954, but had to give up after just seven days. This time, she thought she was better prepared for what lay ahead, as she set off from Mount Oglethorpe, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine.
Along the way, Gatewood has encountered challenges ranging from snakes and bears to dangerous weather conditions and injuries. She often relied on the goodwill of strangers living near the trail to house her for the night, provide her with a meal, or give her food to take away. At other times, she slept in rickety shelters along the trails, with complete strangers as night companions.
What motivated her to take this “walk”?
Emma traced it back to a National Geographic article she read at a doctor’s office in August 1949. Her photos inspired her, but you have to read the book to see for yourself why she decided to do this trek. And by the way, she hadn’t told her adult children about her plans – she had just left home and sent them the occasional postcard. Her children said they never really worried because they knew she could take care of herself.
The cover of the book uses the subtitle “The Inspirational Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail”. It may seem like an odd accomplishment for an obscure farmwoman, but it was members of the media who dubbed her “Grandma Gatewood.” She never sought publicity, but her story was spread by people she stayed with along the way, who then contacted their local newspapers or TV stations. Soon she was being interviewed by national outlets, like the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, and much of America was following her progress on the track, cheering her on.
Thus, the public came to learn about the Appalachian Trail and also how poorly marked, poorly maintained, and decaying its shelters were. This ultimately resulted in additional public and private support for the trail and inspired many others to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Some of my book club members are accomplished hikers who want to spend more time on the Appalachian Trail after reading about Grandma Gatewood. Call me a wimp, but while I greatly admire Grandma Gatewood as a woman ahead of her time, I think I’ll stick to riding the local railroad by bicycle.
If you need a good read this summer, check out “Gramma Gatewood’s Walk” at your local library.