A Woman to Know: "Grandma" Emma Gatewood

I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn’t, and wouldn’t quit. — Emma Gatewood

I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn’t, and wouldn’t quit. — Emma Gatewood

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1955, Emma Gatewood told her children she was going for a walk. She’d endured decades of domestic abuse and by the time she was in her 60s — mother to 11 children and a grandmother to 23  — she had recently left her abusive spouse and started building a solo life of her own in Ohio.

At the time, only five men (notably, zero women) had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in one trek. Emma read an article about the trail in National Geographic and chose it for her first solo outdoor excursion. She packed little in the way of food and outdoor gear, so after two days she asked a Maine Forest Ranger for help, telling him she found herself “misplaced.” She returned to Ohio and immediately began preparing for her next trip on the trail.

Five months later, she returned to the AT, starting this time at the Georgia end. She became the first-ever woman to complete the journey — and immediately made plans to hit the trail again.

In 1960, she did it again, and in 1964, she thru-hiked the trail for the third time, this time at 75 years old. Emma taught other hikers how to hunt for wild ramps, fashion rain capes from basic materials and ration supplies. She became something of a trail legend, tailed by reporters and outdoor enthusiasts and honored as an icon of septuagenarian fearlessness.

Today, a six-mile section of trail in Ohio is named for Emma: “The Grandma Gatewood Trail.”

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