Sometime in the 1950s, Emma Gatewood read a National Geographic article about the Appalachian Trail, which mentioned that no woman had ever completed the entire 2050-mile hike. The mother of 11, and grandmother of 23, told her daughter Rowena, “If those men can do it, I can do it.” And in 1955, at 67 years old, she did.
Gatewood, who left an abusive husband after 30 years of marriage and raised her last three children alone, was nothing if not tough. Known as “Grandma Gatewood,” she hiked the entire trail by herself, without a sleeping bag, tent or compass. According to The Washington Post, Gatewood wore out six pairs of sneakers over the course of her 146-day walk, and carried little more than a blanket and shower curtain to protect her from the elements.
After completing the hike, she told Sports Illustrated:
"I thought it would be a nice lark. It wasn't. There were terrible blow downs, burnt-over areas that were never re-marked, gravel and sand washouts, weeds and brush to your neck, and most of the shelters were blown down, burned down or so filthy I chose to sleep out of doors. This is no trail. This is a nightmare. For some fool reason they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find. I've seen every fire station between here and Georgia. Why, an Indian would die laughing his head off if he saw those trails. I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn't and I wouldn't quit.”
But Gatewood didn’t just hike the trail once—she returned again in 1957, becoming the first person of either gender to walk the entire trail twice. Then, in 1964, walking the trail in sections, she became the first person to complete it three times. It seemed that Gatewood had caught the hiking bug, and for the next few years, she spent most of her time outdoors, cumulatively walking thousands of miles.
According to The Washington Post, the publicity she brought had a major impact on the future of the Appalachian Trail: “Media coverage of her hike led to repairs and restoration of the trail and may, indeed, have saved the trail from falling into ruin. It also inspired a new crop of hikers.”
To learn more about Grandma Gatewood, check out Ben Montgomery’s book Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, or look out for a screening of the recently completed documentary Trail Magic, which features interviews with Gatewood’s daughter and great-granddaughter (for a list of upcoming screenings check out their Facebook page).
[h/t The Washington Post]