In 1955, 67-year-old American hiker Emma Gatewood (1887–1973) walked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, becoming the first woman to complete a solo trek of the 2,050-mile trail. Gatewood spent the rest of her life hiking across the continent, earning the nickname Grandma Gatewood. Her story inspired legions of new hikers and countless trail restoration efforts across the United States.
The woman who would be an inspiration to hikers as Grandma Gatewood, Emma Gatewood was born October 25, 1887, one of 15 children born to Hugh Caldwell and Evelyn Esther (Trowbridge) Caldwell. Settled with his family in Gallia County, Ohio, Hugh Caldwell was of Scottish descent—his parents immigrated to the United States to farm. He fought for the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War and lost a leg in battle. Like her siblings, Gatewood spent her childhood at a series of family farms along the Ohio River. She attended school sporadically—sometimes only two to four months a year—due to the workload required at the family farm.
When Gatewood was 18, she was sent to Huntington, West Virginia, to work an eight-week stint as a housemaid. Later, she secured a long-term housemaid position near Crown City, Ohio, for the grandmother of one of her cousins. Gatewood earned 75 cents a week for her cleaning, milking, and dishwashing. She also washed and ironed clothes, took care of the chickens, and delivered the coal for the cook stove.
It was in Crown City that Gatewood met her future husband, P.C. Gatewood. At 26 years of age, and with a teaching degree from Ohio Northern University, P.C. Gatewood was one of the most prized bachelors of Gallia County. A teacher at the local one-room school, he came from a well-off family who owned a furniture factory in Gallipolis, Ohio. P.C. Gatewood took an interest in Emma and courted her by offering her rides home from church atop his horse.
When the couple married on May 5, 1907, Emma Gatewood was 19. Unfortunately, the honeymoon did not last long because P.C. expected his wife to do the heavy lifting; her chores included building fences, burning tobacco beds, and mixing cement on the farm. Early in the marriage, he also became physically abusive. In October 1908, Emma Gatewood gave birth to her first child, Helen Marie. Ruth Estell followed in 1909, and Ernest—called Monroe—was born in June 1911. In January 1914, William Anderson was born, followed by Rowena in 1916, and Esther Ann about a year later. Twins Robert Wilson and Elizabeth came in 1920. A ninth child was born in 1923, followed by Dora Louise in 1926 and Lucy Eleanor in 1928. In all, the Gatewoods had 11 children.
In 1918, the Gatewoods bought a new farm, one that butted up against the Ohio River. Emma worked alongside the farmhands with the children and took care of the house. Farm life was anything but tranquil due to P.C.'s reputation as quick to anger. In 1924 he killed a man after a fight. Convicted of manslaughter and ordered to pay a $50,000 settlement, P.C. had to sell half his land to make the payment. Because he owned a farm and had a large family to support, his prison sentence was suspended, but the family struggled to recover from the financial strain. Then the Great Depression set in, making things tougher. By now, P.C. was nearly impossible to live with.
To escape her husband, Emma Gatewood spent time in the woods walking and basking in the peace. She began writing poetry about the landscape, her verse describing the flowering plants, the Ohio River, and the tugboats that chugged by. In 1937, with her youngest daughter now nine years old, she could take no more and ran away. She went to California where her mother lived and moved in with a sister in Santa Ana. Although she was safe, Gatewood felt guilt over abandoning her children and worried how their father was treating them. She had run away once before, about a decade prior, but had returned because of the kids.
Gatewood found work as a practical nurse but was soon burdened with health issues. Unable to afford medical care, she decided to return home in 1938 and ask P.C. to pay her medical bills. Not surprisingly, his abusive behavior accelerated. He now refused to let his wife out of his sight.
In July 1939, the Gatewoods moved to Barkers Ridge, West Virginia, to farm a small patch of tobacco. By this time, only three children were left at home. To supplement the family income, Emma found work as a government monitor and was tasked with ensuring farmers did not plant more tobacco than was allowed.
In September 1939, after a domestic argument, one of the teen Gatewood boys discovered P.C. beating his wife. The boy intervened and told Emma to run. P.C. subsequently had his wife arrested, and she was held in neighboring Milton, West Virginia, where law enforcement quickly realized that she was a battered spouse. After she was released from jail, the mayor of Milton offered her a place to stay, and she found work in a local restaurant. While Emma Gatewood was away, P.C. cleared out the house and left while his three remaining children were at school. They contacted their mother and told her to come home because their father was gone for good. Emma Gatewood filed for divorce on September 6, 1940, after 33 years of abuse. The divorce was granted on February 6, 1941. She received custody of the three youngest children—now aged 16, 14, and 12—and the farm on Barkers Ridge. P.C. eventually died in 1968.
In 1944, Gatewood sold the tobacco farm and returned to Ohio, settling in Chesapeake. Later, she bought a house in Rutland, Ohio, on the Appalachian plateau. During this period, she was restless and moved frequently. She spent time in Pittsburgh, then Dayton, where she worked in a boarding school. She continued to write poetry and self-published a collection of verse. In 1949, daughter Louise had a baby, and the two moved in together in Gallipolis. For the next several years, Gatewood worked odd jobs and cared for relatives.
Somewhere along the way, Gatewood came across a National Geographic article about the Appalachian Trail and became obsessed with thoughts of hiking the entire route. In July 1954, she flew to Maine and started south from the northern terminus, Mount Katahdin, but got lost and returned home, determined to try again. Next time she headed south, intending to start the hike from Georgia. On May 3, 1955, she set out from Oglethorpe Mountain, which at the time was the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. She did not tell anyone—including her family—about her mission.
A fan of ultra-light hiking, Gatewood did not pack many things. She carried a homemade, denim drawstring sack filled with sausage, raisins, peanuts, bouillon cubes, powdered milk, Band-Aids, iodine, a warm coat, a shower curtain to protect her from the rain, a knife, a flashlight, a pen and a memo book. She brought neither sleeping bag nor tent and hiked in canvas sneakers. To stay warm at night, she heated rocks on a fire then slept atop them. To supplement her food, she ate wild huckleberries and sorrel salad collected along the way.
By May 28, Gatewood had crossed into Hot Springs, North Carolina, and on June 4 arrived in Carver's Gap, Tennessee. Here, she took a break from the trail and checked into a motel so she could bathe and wash her clothes. By the time Gatewood reached Virginia, word of her journey had gotten out because she had spent several nights with fellow hikers she met along the route. In late June, a photographer from the Roanoke Times tracked her down as she passed through Botetourt County, Virginia. The paper ran a story on Gatewood with the headline: “Ohio Woman, 67, Hiking 2,050 Miles on Appy Trail.” Newspapers across the country picked up the story and reporters began to show up along the trail to check on her well-being. In 1955, no woman had ever hiked the trail alone—let alone a 67-year-old grandmother. In fact, only five men had completed the entire trail from end to end.
Some days Gatewood covered more ground than on others. First opened for hiking in 1937, the trail in the 1950s was not well-traveled or well-marked. Sometimes, Gatewood made a wrong turn after missing a white blaze marker in the overgrowth. After 66 days of hiking, she had gone nearly 1,000 miles and reached Boonsboro, Maryland. On August 8, she was near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. A few days later, Hurricane Connie hit the east coast and caused extensive flooding. Gatewood found a ramshackle shelter on Bromley Mountain in Vermont, and she hid out there while the heavy rains passed overhead. On August 15, Sports Illustrated featured Gatewood in an article, bringing wider interest to her accomplishment.
On September 25, 1955, Gatewood reached the end of the trail, ascending Mount Katahdin to reach the summit at Baxter Peak. She had hiked 2,050 miles through 14 states in 146 days, averaging roughly 17 miles a day. She lost about 25 pounds and went through seven pairs of tennis shoes and five rolls of adhesive tape, mostly used to support her ankles. After finishing, she became a celebrity and appeared on the Today Show as well as on a quiz show called Welcome Travelers.
In 1957, Gatewood walked the entire Appalachian Trail again, becoming the first person to through-hike it twice. This time it took her 147 days. The Athens Messenger reported that when she finished her second Appalachian trek, she complained that she might be getting too old to hike. “There were places where I had to pull myself over sheer rocks and I'm afraid I’ll get to the age where I won't be able to do that anymore.” Newspapers dubbed Gatewood the “Queen of the Forest,” and she was invited to speak at school assemblies and sportsmen's clubs.
Once Gatewood caught the hiking bug, she could not stop and began hitting trails across the United States. In the late 1950s, she hiked the 132-mile Baker Trail in Pennsylvania and climbed several mountains in the Adirondacks. In 1959, she tackled the Oregon Trail, walking 2,000 miles in 95 days from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, following the route taken by early pioneers headed for a better life in the West. Her walk was intended to commemorate Oregon's centennial celebration. In 1964, Gatewood completed her third hike across the Appalachian Trail. This time, however, she hiked it in sections over the course of several years. In the 1960s, she hiked the Horse-Shoe Trail in Pennsylvania and also hiked to the top of Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts.
Gatewood was a founding member of the Buckeye Trail Association (BTA) in her home state of Ohio. The BTA was founded with the intention of creating a crossstate trail that would loop around Ohio. The first 20 miles were dedicated in 1959 with Gatewood in attendance. During the 1960s, she helped to clear pathways to extend the trail. Over the next 20 years, the Buckeye trail grew to 1,444 miles. One section—through Hocking Hills State Park—is named in honor of Gatewood.
Gatewood died June 4, 1973, in Gallipolis, Ohio. She left behind 24 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren. She was buried at the Ohio Valley Memorial Gardens in Gallia County with a headstone that read: “Emma R. Gatewood—Grandma.” In 2016, the city of Cheshire, Ohio, dedicated a historical marker in her honor that included a reprint of one of Gatewood's poems, titled “The Rewards of Nature.” Overcoming much in her life, she also inspired generations of new hikers to find the rewards nature had to offer.
Montgomery, Ben, Grandma Gatewood's Walk, Chicago Review Press, 2014.
Athens Messenger (Athens, OH), September 17, 1957; June 5, 1973.
Sports Illustrated, August 15, 1955.
Washington Record-Herald (Washington Heights, OH), February 5, 1963.
Gallipolis Daily Tribune online, http://mydailytribune.com/ (May 21, 2016), Dean Wright, “Remembering Grandma Gatewood.”❑