Grandma Gatewood
"Grandma Gatewood" ~ 1888-1973

Grandma Emma Gatewood was an Ohio farmers wife, mother of eleven children, grandmother of twenty three. She was the first woman to hike the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine solo. (The first is believed to have been Mildrid Ryder known as Peace Pilgrim) She did it in 1955 at the age of 67, wearing Keds sneakers and carrying an army blanket, a raincoat, a plastic shower curtain for shelter, a cup, first aid kit, raincoat, and one change of clothes, all of which she carried in a homemade bag slung over one shoulder. Her hiking diet consisted mainly of dried beef, cheese and nuts, supplemented by wild food she would find along the way.

She hiked the entire trail 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 an Ohio farmer’s wife who had 11 children and 23 grandchildren. Local newspapers picked up on her story, leading to a profile in Sports Illustrated and an appearance on The Today Show.

She first hiked the trail after reading about it in National Geographic magazine. “I thought it would be a nice lark,” she said, adding “It wasn’t.” Another time she complained, “For some fool reason, they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find.”

She also walked 2,000 miles of the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, averaging 22 miles a day!

In 1959 Grandma decided to follow a wagon train traveling between Independence, Missouri, along the Oregon Trail to Portland, Oregon. The trip was planned to celebrate the Oregon Centennial, but when Grandma arrived in Missouri she discovered that the wagon train had pulled out the week before.

Not to worry. Not only did she catch up with the wagon train, but passed it by. After walking some 2,000 miles she reached Portland a full week before the wagon train.

Despite the fact that she had taken many exciting and lengthly hikes, Grandma Gatewood's favorite hike was a six-mile stretch of the Buckeye Trail that connects Old Man's Cave, Cedar Falls, and Ash Cave. As a matter of fact, Grandma Gatewood lead the first Winter Hike, an event which has become Ohio's Hocking Hills State Parks biggest program.

The original hike began at Ash Cave, then wound its way to Cedar Falls and finally to Old Man's Cave. She loved the Winter Hike and lead succeeding hikes for the next 12 years only missing one before her death at age 85 in 1973.

A friend of mine, Dave "Doc" Loomis, author of "Happiness, Use It Or Lose It" ran into Grandma Gatewood while introducing members of all black New York street gangs to the outdoors via the Appalachian Trail. This is the story "Doc" tells...

The summer I turned 21, I worked for a church in East Harlem, New York, which had the highest density of population on earth at that time and a murder rate to prove it. Each square inch of concrete was fought over by gangs, with summer's heat adding fuel to that fire.

In hopes of brokering peace between the two largest rival gangs, the church I worked for had me take the four top honchos of each gang for a week-long hike along the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. None of the eight could resist the church's invitation to take an all-expenses-paid vacation far from the heat of the city.

Our first day out, we hiked 15 miles out before a hurricane ununexpectedly blew inland and trapped us inside an 8 x 20 foot trailside lean-to. As night fell, Emma Gatewood, a 5' 2" grandma who was living her dream of hiking the entire trail from Georgia to Maine staggered into camp. Bruised, exhausted, her gear and provisions washed away by swollen streams, she was in dire need. What made things tricky was that Emma was a genteel white Southern lady. She could hide neither her drawl nor her unease at living in close proximity to eight young black males, her distress leading all eight to bestow on her their stoniest stares.

It rained and blew hard four days in a row. The brute force of nature so overwhelmed us it literally dissolved the tension in our lean-to. That hurricane, by facing us with a severe, totally mutual challenge, forced us all back to what we had in common, our humanity. Like people trapped in a lifeboat, we came together to try to stay afloat. We took turns standing by a fire we had built by breaking off dead branches, thereby freeing up enough floor space for five of us to stretch out and sleep. We also took turns getting drenched collecting more deadwood.

Hiking out once the rains let up, Emma piggybacked on a variety of youthful backs as we forded swollen torrents that would have swept her downstream had she attempted them on her own. Whoever she was piggybacking on had somehow to stay balanced mid-stream while enduring a tight, often suffocating neck squeeze from her two thin, bony arms.

Weeks later, a postcard postmarked Bangor, Maine, arrived at the East Harlem church. It read: "I made it! Remember me to all those young men I owe my life to. Please tell them they are welcome to come visit me anytime, as also are you. Love, Emma."

"Most people today are pantywaist" ~ Grandma Gatewood