Hiking Pioneers: Emma Gatewood and Her Impact on the Appalachian Trail
Curated expert Hannah K. explores the life and legacy of Emma Gatewood, the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail three times.
As the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail three times, Emma Gatewood, also known as Grandma Gatewood, is famous for being a pioneer in ultralight backpacking and long-distance trekking.
In the Hiking Pioneers series, I will be exploring hikers past to present who have done amazing things in the hiking community. From pioneers who achieved key milestones and helped establish change to present hikers breaking down barriers and setting goals, I’ll be deep diving into the life, achievements, and legacy of these truly inspiring outdoorsmen and women.
Before we get into the details, I would like to share that Emma Gatewood and I share the same birthday - how frickin’ cool is that!
Gatewood was born on October 25, 1887 in Ohio to a family of fifteen. Her father was a farmer who turned to a life of gambling after his leg was amputated in WWI. Her mother, Evelyn, was tasked with raising the children, who often slept four to one bed in a log cabin they lived in.
Marriage and Late Life
When she was 19, she married a college-educated, 27 year old named P.C. Gatewood and together they raised 11 children. Mr. Gatewood sent Emma to do labor-intensive work in addition to her household and mother duties, and soon began to beat her, often almost to death. Some of her injuries included broken ribs and broken teeth.
Stuck in an abusive marriage, Gatewood would often run away from her home into the nearby woods to escape his violent outbursts until 1940 when they divorced. By the time she died at age 85, she had 24 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren, and 1 great-great-grandchild.
In 1955, when she was 67, she told her family she was going on a walk. She had read about the Appalachian Trail years earlier in a magazine and felt drawn to do it herself. Very misinformed, however, about what the trail would be, she did not bring much gear. She wore Keds and in a denim bag she made, she carried a blanket, raincoat, and shower curtain.
A local newspaper wrote about her story and her rise to fame began. While she was still walking, people heard about Grandma Gatewood hiking the trail and began to assist her on the way - often providing food, places to sleep, and new friends.
Today, Grandma Gatewood is famous for being an extreme ultra-light hiker pioneer and the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail (2,168 miles) and by herself and in one season in 1955. After this amazing accomplishment, Grandma Gatewood continued to push her hiking feats and became the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail three times, with her last hike in 1963 at the age of 75.
Gatewood became a member of the National Campers and Hikers Association, as well as the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club. Later in life, she was recognized as the Director Emeritus of the Buckeye Trail Association.
Emma “Grandma” Gatewood was recently added to the Appalachian Trail hall of fame in 2012. After her hiking achievements, artists created installations, songs, and other artistic projects to honor her life. A children’s musical duo, Jeff and Paige, wrote this song about her.
In 2014 a biography was published called Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail. Author Ben Montgomery was given access to all of her journals and belongings, and noted that her loud criticism of the trail had a direct impact on the maintenance of it.
Grandma Gatewood’s life can inspire us to gain independence and self-reliance, as well as to follow our adventurous spirit. Emma Gatewood is one of my hiking heroes, and I am honored that we share a birthday.
If you’d like to connect with me about Emma Gatewood or need help finding the right gear for your next adventure along the Appalachian Trail, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or the other Camping & Hiking experts here on Curated.