Grandma Gatewood

Emma Rowena Gatewood, better known as Grandma Gatewood was born on October 25, 1887 in Guyan Township, Gallia County, Ohio. She was a farmer’s wife who had 11 children and 24 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild living at the time of her death at 85.

Gatewood’s husband physically beat her on a regular basis starting from the first weeks of their marriage. She recalled being beaten nearly to death on several occasions. She suffered broken ribs, broken teeth, and other injuries during her unhappy marriage. When things became bad, she would run from the house into the woods where she found peace and solitude. She eventually successfully divorced him; at the time divorce was more difficult and her husband continually threatened to have her committed to an insane asylum as a means of maintaining control over her.

In 1955, at the age of 67, Gatewood told her children (who were now adults) that she was going for a walk. They did not ask where or for how long, as they knew she was resilient and would take care of herself. About 5 years earlier, Gatewood read an article in National Geographic about the AT and thought “it would be a nice lark,” though in retrospect considering the difficulty she added “It wasn’t.” The magazine gave her the impression of easy walks and clean cabins at the end of each days walk. Thus she took little in the way of outdoor gear. She wore Keds sneakers and carried an army blanket, a raincoat, and a plastic shower curtain in a homemade denim bag slung over one shoulder. She would later say “For some fool reason, they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find.”

Local newspapers picked up on her story in the southern states, then the Associated Press did a national profile of her while in Maryland, leading to an article in Sports Illustrated when she had reached Connecticut. After the hike she was invited on the Today Show. These appearances made her a celebrity even before the hike was over and she was often recognized and received “trail magic” (assistance from strangers) in the form of friends, food and places to sleep.

She hiked the AT again in 1960, and then again at age 75 in 1963, making her the first person to hike the trail three times (though her final hike was completed in sections). She was also credited with being the oldest female thru-hiker by the Appalachian Trail Conference.

In addition, she walked 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, averaging 22 miles (35 km) a day. She traveled to every state of the continental United States.

In 1970, at age 83, while visiting Appalachian Outfitters in Oakton, Virginia she was asked what she thought about the latest lightweight backpacking gear. Emma advised: “Make a rain cape, and an over the shoulder sling bag, and buy a sturdy pair of Keds tennis shoes. Stop at local groceries and pick up Vienna sausages… most everything else to eat you can find beside the trail… and by the way those wild onions are not called “Ramps”… they are “Rampions” … a ramp is an inclined plane.”

Gatewood was a life member of the National Campers and Hikers Association and the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club. She was Director Emeritus and a lifetime member of the Buckeye Trail Association.

The Appalachian Trail Museum includes information about Emma Gatewood in its exhibits and in June 2012, she was inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame.

Author: Harlem Valley News