Emma Gatewood might not be a household name, but that shouldn't diminish her achievements. In 1955, the 67-year-old grandmother (actually, great-grandmother) became the first woman to solo hike the entire length of the 2,050-mile (3,300-km) Appalachian Trail in a single season. She did it without a tent or a sleeping back, carrying a homemade sack over her shoulder and wearing Keds. But even more astounding than this feat, or even her age, is the story of Gatewood's life leading up to her epic Georgia-to-Maine trek.
The woman who would become known as "Grandma Gatewood" married at 19 and went on to have 11 children with a man who viciously abused her throughout their marriage. He also forced her to do heavy manual labor on their farm. She finally obtained a divorce in 1941, after over 30 years of marriage. The idea to hike the Appalachian Trail alone came to Gatewood in 1949, when she read in National Geographic that this had never been done by a woman.
Though she had no significant long-distance hiking experience, Gatewood would frequently go for walks in the woods near her West Virginia home, viewing the wilderness as an escape from the intolerable situation at home. And her physically and mentally demanding life meant that she knew how to push on through adversity, even far beyond what she thought were her limits.
A walk in the woods:
- Gatewood's first attempt to hike the AT in 1954 was unsuccessful. Starting in Maine, she broke her glasses, got lost, and was told to go home by the park rangers who rescued her. She decided to try again the following year, starting in Georgia so that she wouldn't run into them.
- With both attempts, Gatewood didn't tell anyone that she was going to hike the Appalachian Trail, as she thought her adult children would try and stop her. She simply said she was going for a walk – her children learned about her successful trek through news reports.
- Gatewood's 1955 thru-hike took her 146 days, at an average of 14 miles (22.5 km) a day. In addition to also hiking the Oregon Trail, Gatewood would complete the Appalachian Trail twice more, the final time in sections. This made her the first person, male or female, to hike the entire trail solo more than once. Her experience inspired generations of women thru-hikers, as well as the ultralight hiking movement.