“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4



In 1955, Emma Gatewood told her children she was going for a walk and left her small community in rural Ohio. She would return six months later a national hero whom was followed by most major newspapers, the Today show and many radio stations. Why? She was the first woman to solo hike the Appalachian trail.

Far more remarkable, was this 67 year old grandmother of thirty grandchildren, walked the trail in a pair of Ked’s high tops and a minor amount of equipment. Poor and living on $54 a month of social security, she made her own back pack stuffed with a few clothes, a shower curtain to protect her from the rain and her favorite food, Vienna sausages.

For much of her journey she relied on the generous gifts of housing and food from “trail angels” she met along the way. Though she still spent many nights in the woods, sleeping under trees and picnic benches. Frequently she would make a fire to protect herself from bears and wild dogs.

Along the way, she forded swollen streams, hand over hand climbed rock faces and spent some nights sleeping in below freezing weather. Nothing could stop her, even the great hurricane Diane. She was a real life Forrest Gump.

During her hike on the Appalachian trail in 1955, the trail was rough and had little maintenance. Very few people hiked the trail as thru-hikers in her day. In fact for many years there were no attempts.

The trail is over 2000 miles in length. Thanks to pioneers like Gatewood, today 31 different organization maintain the trail. Each year, thousands attempt the thru-hike with thousands of dollars spent on gear. Over several years, less than 25% finish the trail. The trail starts on a remote mountain top in Georgia and ends with a extraordinarily steep climb to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Along the way, hikers suffer blisters, sprained ankles and have to climb peaks 5000 feet or more above sea level. Many hikers can only walk 10 or so miles a day. Grandma Gatewood would frequently walk over twenty! She finished the trail in 146 six days, when the average is just short of 180 days.

Today over a million people visit the trail, with most being single day hikers. Some just hike sections of the trail for a week or so. The much smaller group of hikers, called thru hikers, are mostly in their twenties looking for a lifetime adventure before they start their lives.

You can ask any thru-hiker about Grandma Gatewood and they will know her legacy. For many she is the inspiration to continue. “If Grandma Gatewood could do it, so can I!” is a consistent refrain by these hikers.

Where did she get her energy and strength? She was a hardworking farmer most her life, working many days for 12 or more hours. She had eleven children to raise and a farm to attend to.

But she also had an abusive husband. She endured many beatings. Some so severe that they almost ended her life. She had false teeth, because her husband had knocked most out. She was constantly bruised and had the scars.

One day she punched back and ended up getting arrested for battery. After spending a night in jail, the local mayor found out and demanded she be released. He took her in for a while and not long after the courts finally granted her a divorce.

She hung on to the farm after her husband left and made a meager living during the Great Depression. Her children grew into adults and left the house. Leaving her the opportunity to walk the great trail she had read about in the National geographic.

She was a kind woman, who never turned away any that came to her house looking for food during the depression and the war years. She didn’t have much, but she shared.

There are few clues about her faith. But in her letters she would refer to God as the great “I Am.” A reference to God’s describing himself to Moses. An interesting reference that showed her Biblical knowledge and respect for God.

Her fame grew as she walked. At first a local newspaper ran a small story. Then more as she passed through the trail towns. Then the national press picked her up and daily the nation watched her walk. As she neared the end of her hike, at each trail head she would be met by reporters, including Sports Illustrated.

She never could understand why the nation took an interest in her. She was just out for a walk. A walk to cleanse a difficult life.

Later, she would hike the trail two more times, the last time when she was 75. She hiked the Oregon trail from St. Louis to Oregon, all 2500 miles. She became the first female extreme sport hiker in America, well past the age of 65. Many that walked with her, where many decades younger and couldn’t keep her pace.

Today, she is an icon for the small group who hike long distances. If she could do it, so can’t they. She is in the museum for the Appalachian trail, listed as one of the ten most influential hikers. After a lifetime of turmoil, she lived her final years fully. She died at the age of 85 in 1973. Leaving a legacy for us and a brood of offspring that still discuss her today. In fact a great grand-nephew wrote a book about her called Grandma Gatewood’s walk.

Grandma Gatewood showed the world, that you are never too old and disabled to live life. Living life fully to her meant one step at a time, with a riveted focus on not being defeated.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Andy Mai

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