National News

Overlooked No More: Emma Gatewood, First Woman to Conquer the Appalachian Trail Alone

Posted June 27, 2018 5:17 p.m. EDT

What the public knew about Emma Gatewood was already remarkable. She was the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail by herself in one season. She was 67 years old, a mother of 11, a grandmother and even a great-grandmother when she accomplished the feat in 1955. And she personified the concept of low-tech, ultralight hiking, spurning a tent and sleeping bag, carrying only a small sack and relying on her trusty Keds.

But what the public did not know was equally remarkable. Grandma Gatewood, as she was called, had survived 30 years of severe beatings and sexual abuse by her husband. She often escaped from him by running into the woods, and she came to view the wilderness as protective and restorative.

During her trek on the Appalachian Trail, word of her passage spread from town to town along the 2,050-mile route, from Georgia to Maine. Sightings of her were like catnip to local newspaper reporters, who took to the trail to interview her as she passed through.

One newspaper account found its way to her hometown in Ohio, which is how her children — by then grown and out on their own — learned where she had gone when she said she was going for a walk.

That Gatewood was alone and in her late 60s renewed interest in the trail, especially among women. If a woman of her age could hike it all the way in one season, many of them reasoned, they could, too. Her citation at the Appalachian Trail Museum concludes: “She inspired two distinct movements in long distance hiking, women thru-hikers and the ultra-lite movement.”

By the time Gatewood died at 85 in 1973, apparently of a heart attack, she had hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail three times — the third time, in sections — and was the first person, man or woman, to conquer it more than once.

Another woman, Mildred Norman Ryder, known as Peace Pilgrim, had hiked the entire trail in 1952, but she had done it in her mid-40s and with a companion. Earl Shaffer became the first person to hike the trail alone, which he did in 1948 at 29. (He received a New York Times obituary.)

In 1959, Gatewood went on to conquer the 2,000 miles of the Oregon Trail, trekking alone from Independence, Missouri, to Portland. By this time, some newspapers called her “America’s most celebrated pedestrian.”

The story of Gatewood’s battering at the hands of her husband did not emerge for more than a half-century, when a newspaper reporter, Ben Montgomery, told her story in “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk,” a book published in 2014.

Montgomery worked for The Tampa Bay Times in Florida, and Gatewood was his great-great-aunt. In his research for the book, her surviving children spoke with him and entrusted him with her journals, letters and scrapbooks.

In that material he found stark references to what she had withheld from news interviewers: that her husband had nearly pummeled her to death several times. During one beating, she wrote, he broke a broom over her head. Her children told Montgomery that their father’s sexual hunger had been insatiable and that he forced himself on their mother several times a day. In 1937 she left him and moved in with relatives in California, leaving behind two daughters, ages 9 and 11, who were still at home. She was confident that her husband would not beat the girls, and she could not afford to take them with her. In a sorrowful letter to her daughters with no return address, she wrote, “I have suffered enough at his hands to last me for the next hundred years.”

But unable to bear being away from them any longer, she returned after a few months. Back in Ohio her husband would not let her out of his sight. She later wrote that in 1938, he beat her “beyond recognition” 10 times.

“For a lot of people the trail is a refuge,” Brian B. King, a publisher of guidebooks and maps for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said in a telephone interview. “But seldom is it a refuge for something as bad as that.”

Emma Rowena Caldwell was born on Oct. 25, 1887, in Gallia County, Ohio. Her father, Hugh Caldwell, a farmer, had lost a leg after being wounded in the Civil War and turned to a life of drinking and gambling. Her mother, Evelyn (Trowbridge) Caldwell, raised the couple’s 15 children, who slept four to a bed in the family’s log cabin.

At 19, Emma married Perry Clayton Gatewood, 26, a teacher who later became a farmer. Almost immediately he put her to work building fences, burning tobacco beds and mixing cement, in addition to her household chores. Three months after their wedding, he started to beat her, a practice he continued until, one day in 1939, he broke her teeth, cracked one of her ribs and bloodied her face.

In that incident, Gatewood responded by throwing a sack of flour at him, prompting a law-enforcement officer to arrest her, not him, and put her in jail. The next day, the mayor saw her battered face and took her to his own home, where she remained under his protection until she got back on her feet.

A short time later, her husband left for good. Gatewood filed for divorce, which was granted in 1941, and he was out of her life.

In 1949, she came across a National Geographic magazine article about the Appalachian Trail and became intrigued to learn in reading it that no woman had ever hiked it solo. Gatewood’s only real training for her historic trek was walking 10 miles a day to build up her leg muscles. But in a sense, her entire life had prepared her for the undertaking.

Through endless farm chores, as a child and as an adult, she knew how to work herself to the bone, and then to keep on going. She had often found a haven in the woods — from her grinding chores and, later, from her abusive husband. Though her formal education ended in the eighth grade, she was resourceful and taught herself about wildlife and the medicinal properties of plants and which ones were edible.

Her first attempt at hiking the Appalachian Trail, in 1954, ended badly. Starting out in Maine, she quickly broke her glasses, got lost and was rescued by rangers, who told her to go home.

The next year, she started in Georgia and successfully trekked north. In neither instance did she tell her children where she was going. Montgomery, the author, said she feared that they would try to stop her.

Gatewood sewed herself a small drawstring sack. In it, she carried as few items as possible, including a shower curtain to keep the rain off, a Swiss Army knife, a flashlight, Band-Aids, iodine, a pen and a small notebook. Her larder consisted of Vienna sausages, raisins, peanuts and bullion cubes. She wore through seven pairs of canvas shoes, many of them Keds. Gatewood had seen no need to lug a tent; she had planned to rely on the hospitality of strangers. And more often than might be expected, she was able to do just that, in part because of her growing fame. Still, she spent many nights on the cold ground, under picnic tables and even on a porch swing.

She completed her first hike in 146 days, an average of 14 miles a day. It was considered a remarkable pace, especially given her age, her limited gear and the condition of the trail. She would often set out before sunrise and not stop until she was spent. The members of at least one Boy Scout troop and their leaders reported that they could not keep up with her.

As she closed in on Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail, in a rugged part of Maine, newspaper reporters extolled her achievement, and “much of America was pulling for her,” Montgomery wrote.

People, he said, were “clipping newspaper articles at kitchen tables and watching her traipse across the evening news on television, wondering whether she’d survive, this woman, in so mean a place.”

Little did they know what she had already survived.