Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail

“There were a million heavenly things to see and a million spectacular ways to die.”

Ben Montgomery | Chicago Review Press | April 2014 | 13 minutes (3,064 words)

Download .mobi (Kindle) Download .epub (iBooks)

 

For our Longreads Member Pick, we’re excited to share the opening chapters of Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, the book by Ben Montgomery about Emma Gatewood, the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone—and who did so at the age of 67.

Montgomery is a writer for the Tampa Bay Times and founder of Gangrey, and his work has been featured on Longreads many times in the past. Thanks to the author and Chicago Review Press for sharing this story with the Longreads community.

* * *

1

Pick Up Your Feet

May 2–9, 1955

She packed her things in late spring, when her flowers were in full bloom, and left Gallia County, Ohio, the only place she’d ever really called home.

She caught a ride to Charleston, West Virginia, then boarded a bus to the airport, then a plane to Atlanta, then a bus from there to a little picture-postcard spot called Jasper, Georgia, “the First Mountain Town.” Now here she was in Dixieland, five hundred miles from her Ohio home, listening to the rattle and ping in the back of a taxicab, finally making her ascent up the mountain called Oglethorpe, her ears popping, the cabbie grumbling about how he wasn’t going to make a penny driving her all this way. She sat quiet, still, watching through the window as miles of Georgia blurred past.

They hit a steep incline, a narrow gravel road, and made it within a quarter mile of the top of the mountain before the driver killed the engine.

She collected her supplies and handed him five dollars, then one extra for his trouble. That cheered him up. And then he was gone, taillights and dust, and Emma Gatewood stood alone, an old woman on a mountain.

Her clothes were stuffed inside a pasteboard box and she lugged it up the road to the summit, a few minutes away by foot. She changed in the woods, slipping on her dungarees and tennis shoes and discarding the simple dress and slippers she’d worn during her travels. She pulled from the box a drawstring sack she’d made back home from a yard of denim, her wrinkled fingers doing the stitching, and opened it wide. She filled the sack with other items from the box: Vienna Sausage, raisins, peanuts, bouillon cubes, powdered milk. She tucked inside a tin of Band-Aids, a bottle of iodine, some bobby pins, and a jar of Vicks salve. She packed the slippers and a gingham dress that she could shake out if she ever needed to look nice. She stuffed in a warm coat, a shower curtain to keep the rain off, some drinking water, a Swiss Army knife, a flashlight, candy mints, and her pen and a little Royal Vernon Line memo book that she had bought for twenty-five cents at Murphy’s back home.

She threw the pasteboard box into a chicken house nearby, cinched the sack closed, and slung it over one shoulder.

She stood, finally, her canvas Keds tied tight, on May 3, 1955, atop the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world, facing the peaks on the blue-black horizon that stretched toward heaven and unfurled before her for days. Facing a mean landscape of angry rivers and hateful rock she stood, a woman, mother of eleven and grandmother of twenty-three. She had not been able to get the trail out of her mind. She had thought of it constantly back home in Ohio, where she tended her small garden and looked after her grandchildren, biding her time until she could get away.

When she finally could, it was 1955, and she was sixty-seven years old.

She stood five foot two and weighed 150 pounds and the only survival training she had were lessons learned earning calluses on her farm. She had a mouth full of false teeth and bunions the size of prize marbles. She had no map, no sleeping bag, no tent. She was blind without her glasses, and she was utterly unprepared if she faced the wrath of a snowstorm, not all that rare on the trail. Five years before, a freezing Thanksgiving downpour killed more than three hundred in Appalachia, and most of them had houses. Their bones were buried on these hillsides.

She had prepared for her trek the only way she knew how. The year before, she worked at a nursing home and tucked away what she could of her twenty-five-dollar-a-week paycheck until she finally earned enough quarters to draw the minimum in social security: fifty-two dollars a month. She had started walking in January while living with her son Nelson in Dayton, Ohio. She began walking around the block, and extended it a little more each time until she was satisfied by the burn she felt in her legs. By April she was hiking ten miles a day.

Before her, now, grew an amazing sweep of elms, chestnuts, hemlocks, dogwoods, spruces, firs, mountain ashes, and sugar maples. She’d see crystal-clear streams and raging rivers and vistas that would steal her breath.

Before her stood mountains, more than three hundred of them topping five thousand feet, the ancient remnants of a range that hundreds of millions of years before pierced the clouds and rivaled the Himalayas in their majesty. The Unakas, the Smokies, Cheoahs, Nantahalas. The long, sloping Blue Ridge; the Kittatinny Mountains; the Hudson Highlands. The Taconic Ridge and the Berkshires, the Green Mountains, the White Mountains, the Mahoosuc Range. Saddleback, Bigelow, and finally—five million steps away—Katahdin.

And between here and there: a bouquet of ways to die. Between here and there lurked wild boars, black bears, wolves, bobcats, coyotes, backwater outlaws, and lawless hillbillies. Poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. Anthills and black flies and deer ticks and rabid skunks, squirrels, and raccoons. And snakes. Black snakes, water moccasins, and copperheads. And rattlers; the young man who hiked the trail four years before told the newspapers he’d killed at least fifteen.

There were a million heavenly things to see and a million spectacular ways to die.

Two people knew Emma Gatewood was here: the cabdriver and her cousin, Myrtle Trowbridge, with whom she had stayed the night before in Atlanta. She had told her children she was going on a walk. That was no lie. She just never finished her sentence, never offered her own offspring the astonishing, impossible particulars.

All eleven of them were grown, anyhow, and independent. They had their own children to raise and bills to pay and lawns to mow, the price of participation in the great, immobile American dream.

She was past all that. She’d send a postcard.

If she told them what she was attempting to do, she knew they’d ask Why? That’s a question she’d face day and night in the coming months, as word of her hike spread like fire through the valleys, as newspaper reporters learned of her mission and intercepted her along the trail. It was a question she’d playfully brush off every time they asked. And how they’d ask. Groucho Marx would ask. Dave Garroway would ask. Sports Illustrated would ask. The Associated Press would ask. The United States Congress would ask.

Why? Because it was there, she’d say. Seemed like a good lark, she’d say.

She’d never betray the real reason. She’d never show those newspapermen and television cameras her broken teeth or busted ribs, or talk about the town that kept dark secrets, or the night she spent in a jail cell. She’d tell them she was a widow. Yes. She’d tell them she found solace in nature, away from the grit and ash of civilization. She’d tell them that her father always told her, “Pick up your feet,” and that, through rain and snow, through the valley of the shadow of death, she was following his instruction.

* * *

She walked around the summit of Mount Oglethorpe, studying the horizon, the browns and blues and grays in the distance. She walked to the base of a giant, sky-reaching monument, an obelisk made from Cherokee marble. She read the words etched on one side:

In grateful recognition of the achievements of James Edward

Oglethorpe who by courage, industry and endurance founded

the commonwealth of Georgia in 1732

She turned her back on the phallic monument and lit off down the trail, a path that split through ferns and last year’s leaves and walls of hardwoods sunk deep in the earth. She walked quite a while before she came upon the biggest chicken farm she had ever seen, row upon row of long, rectangular barns, alive with babble and bordered by houses where the laborers slept, immigrants and sons of the miners and blue-collar men and women who made their lives in these mountains.

She had walked herself to thirst, so she knocked on one of the doors. The man who answered thought she was a little loony, but he gave her a cool drink. He told her there was a store nearby, said it was just up the road. She set off, but didn’t see one. Night fell, and for the first time, she was alone in the dark.

The trail cut back, but she missed the identifying blaze and kept walking down a gravel road; after two miles, she came upon a farmhouse. Two elderly folks, a Mr. and Mrs. Mealer, were kind enough to let her stay for the night. She would have been forced to sleep in the forest, prone to the unexpected, had she not lost track.

She set off early the next morning, as the sun threw a blue haze on the hills, after thanking the Mealers. She knew she had missed the switchback, so she hiked back the way she had come for about two miles and all along the roadside she saw beautiful sweetshrub blooming, smelling of allspice. She caught the trail again and lugged herself back up to the ridge, where she reached a level stretch and pressed down hard on her old bones, foot over foot, going fifteen miles before dark. The pain was no problem, not yet, for a woman reared on farm work.

She stumbled upon a little cardboard shack, disassembled it, and set up several of the pieces on one end to block the angry wind. The others she splayed on the ground for a bed. As soon as she lay down, her first night in the woods, the welcoming party came calling. A tiny field mouse, the size of a golf ball, began scratching around her. She tried to scare the creature away, but it was fearless. When she finally found sleep, the mouse climbed upon her chest. She opened her eyes and there he was, standing erect on her breast, just two strange beings, eye to eye, in the woods.

* * *

A hundred years before Emma Gatewood stomped through, before there was even a trail, pioneers pushed west over the new country’s oldest mountains, through Cherokee land, the determined Irish and Scottish and English families driving toward the sinking sun, and some of them falling behind. Some of them settling.

They made these mountains, formed more than a billion years before of metamorphic and igneous rock, their home. Appalachia, it was called, a term derived from a tribe of Muskhogean Indians called the Appalachee, the “people on the other side.”

The swath was beautiful and rugged, and those who stayed lived     by ax and plow and gun. On the rich land they grew beets and tomatoes, pumpkins and squash, field peas and carrots. But mostly they grew corn. By the 1940s, due to the lack of education and rotation, the land was drained of its nutrients and crops began to fail.

But the people remained, buckled in by the mountains.

Those early settlers were buried on barren hillsides. The threadbare lives of their sons and daughters were set in grooves, a day’s drive from 60 percent of the US population but cut off by topography from outside ideas. They wore handmade clothing and ate corn pone, hickory chickens, and fried pies. The pigs they slaughtered in the fall showed up on plates all winter as sausage and bacon and salted ham. They went to work in the mines and mills, risking death each day to light the homes and clothe the children of those better off while their own sons and daughters did schoolwork by candlelight and wore patches upon patches.

Mining towns, mill towns, and small industrial centers bloomed between the mountains, and the dirt roads and railroads soon stitched the little communities together. They were proud people, most of them, the durable offspring of survivors. They lived suspended between heaven and earth, and they knew the call of every bird, the name of every tree, and where the wild herbs grew in the forest. They also knew the songs in the church hymnals without looking, and the difference between predestination and free will, and the recipe for corn likker.

They resisted government intervention, and when taxes grew unjust, they struck out with rakes, rebellion, and secrecy. When President Rutherford B. Hayes tried to implement a whiskey tax in the late 1870s, a great fit of violence exploded in Appalachia between the moonshiners and the federal revenuers that lasted well through Prohibition in the 1920s. The lax post–Civil War law and order gave the local clans plenty of leeway to shed blood over a misunderstanding or a misfired bullet. Grudges held tight, like cold tree sap.

When the asphalt was laid through the bottomland, winding rivers of road, it opened the automobile-owning world to new pictures of poverty and hard luck. The rest of America came to bear witness to coal miners and moonshiners, and a region in flux. Poor farming techniques and a loss of mining jobs to machines prompted an exodus from Appalachia in the 1950s. Those who stayed behind were simply rugged enough, or conniving enough, to survive.

This was Emma Gatewood’s course, a footpath through a misunderstood region stitched together on love and danger, hospitality and venom. The route was someone else’s interpretation of the best way to cross a lovely and rugged landscape, and she had accepted the invitation to stalk her predecessors—this civilian army of planners and environmentalists and blazers—and, in a way, to become one of them, a pilgrim herself. She came from the foothills, and while she didn’t know exactly what to expect, she wasn’t a complete stranger here.

* * *

Her legs were sore when she set off a few minutes after 9:00 am on May 5, trying to exit Georgia. She hiked the highlands until she could go no farther. Her feet had swollen. She found a lean-to near a freshwater spring where she washed out her soiled clothes. She filled her sack full of leaves and plopped it on a picnic table for a makeshift bed.

The next morning, she started before the sun peeked over the hills. The trail, through the heart of Cherokee country, was lined by azaleas, and when the sunbeams touched down they became flashes of supernatural pinks and purples in the gray-brown forest. Once in a while, she’d stop mid-step to watch a white-tailed buck bound gracefully across her path and disappear into the woods. Once in a while, she’d spot a copperhead coiled in the leaves and she’d catch her breath and provide the creature a wide berth.

That night she drank buttermilk and ate cornbread, the charity of a man in town, and spent the night at the Doublehead Gap Church, in the house of the Lord. That’s how it was some places. They’d open their iceboxes and church doors and make you feel at home. Some places, but not all.

She was off again the next day, past a military base where soldiers had built dugouts and stretched barbed wire all over the mountains, a surreal juxtaposition of nature and the brutality of man. She pressed on through Woody Gap, approaching the state line. She was joined there by an old, tired-looking mutt, and she didn’t mind the company.

She climbed a mountain, cresting after 7:00 pm, the sun falling. She’d have to find a place to stay soon. She followed the bank of a creek down into the valley, where several small houses stood. They were ugly little things, but there was a chance one would yield a bed, or at least a few bales of hay. Anything was better than shaking field mice out of her hair in the morning.

In the yard of one of the puny homes, she noticed a woman chopping wood. It looked as if the woman’s hair had not been combed in weeks, and her apron was so dirty it could have stood on its own.

Her face was covered with grime and she was chewing tobacco, spitting occasionally in the dirt.

The woman stopped as Emma approached.

Have you room for a guest tonight? Emma asked.

We’ve never turned anyone away, the woman said.

Emma followed her onto the porch, where an old man sat in the shade. He wasn’t nearly as dirty as the woman, and he looked intelligent—and suspicious. This was the tricky, treacherous part of the trail, scouting for a bed among strangers. She had not prepared for this part of the experience, for she never knew these negotiations would be necessary. There, on the strangers’ porch, she wasn’t afraid so much as embarrassed. She told the man her name.

You have credentials? the man asked.

She fetched her social security card from her sack and handed it over. He studied the card as the mutt that followed her down the hollow sniffed out a comfortable spot on the porch. Emma fished out some pictures of her family, her children and grandchildren, and presented those, too, for further proof that she was who she said she was. But the man was suspicious.

Is Washington paying you to make this trip? the man asked.

No, Emma said.

She told him she was doing it for herself, and she had every intention of hiking all 2,050 miles of it, to the end. She just needed a place to spend the night.

Does your family approve of what you’re doing? asked he.

They don’t know, said she.

He regarded her, an old woman in tapered dungarees and a button-up shirt, her long, gray hair a mess. Her thin lips and fat, fleshy earlobes. Her brow protruding enough to shade her eyes at their corners. She hadn’t seen a mirror in days, but she reckoned she looked hideous.

You’d better go home, then, he said. You can’t stay here.

There wasn’t any use in fighting. She knew where she was. She hefted her sack onto her shoulder again, turned her back on the man and his worn-out wife, and started walking.

* * *

2

Go Home, Grandma

May 10–18, 1955

The Cherokees were gone, most of them relocated at gunpoint to Oklahoma, but their stories still whipped through the passes of the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia.

In the beginning, as the native creation story had it, the earth hung from the heavens by four cords and the surface of the earth was covered by water until a beetle dived down and brought up mud, creating land, which spread in every direction. One by one, emissaries visited from the sky realm to see if the earth was inhabitable, until a great vulture made an exploratory trip. When he tired, he flew so low his wings brushed the earth, punching valleys on the down thrust and bringing forth mountains, these mountains, on the updraft.

When the land finally dried and plants and animals came they were given instructions to stay awake for seven nights, to keep watch over their new habitat. Nearly all were awake the first night, but several had fallen asleep by the next, and more by the third, and then others. By the seventh night, only the pine, spruce, laurel, holly, and cedar plants had stayed awake to the end, and they were rewarded medicinal properties and evergreen foliage; the rest were punished and made to lose their “hair” each winter. Of the animals, only the panther, owl, and a few others remained alert; they received the power to see in the dark, to own the night.

Darkness was falling. Emma walked as fast as she could, feeling alone, and the trail carried her over the mountain until she finally found a narrow logging road and hurried down it, keeping in the middle, until she came upon some large machinery and a shed about 10:30 pm. She crept inside, spread her blanket on the floor, and secured the door. She heard dogs barking, then a pickup truck, but she stayed still. In the morning, when she finally woke, she stepped outside. In the soft light of dawn, she could see that she’d found her way into the middle of a summer camp, but it appeared to be vacant, no camp counselors blowing whistles and no children doing morning exercises.

Her own children had no idea she was here. She wasn’t even sure if all eleven of them knew about the Appalachian Trail, or how the footpath had been calling her, how she’d been captivated by the fact that no woman had yet hiked it alone.

They knew she loved to walk, that she’d stalk through the hills of Gallia County, awed by the stillness and quiet of the forests. They remembered stomping through the woods with her when they were young, when she’d urge them to listen for birdsongs and teach them to watch for snakes around blackberry bushes and point out the medicinal properties of wild plants, as if she were preparing them for their own journeys.

Her resolve, hardened by years of white-knuckle work, was intact. She trod along, through the ferns and galax, ground cedar and May apple, through great patches of oak and hickory and poplar trees. The flowers were popping: the bloodroot, trillium, violets, bluets, lady’s slipper, and beardtongue. As she approached the edge of the forest she saw something that beckoned her on, something she wouldn’t see again for another two thousand miles, like a gift from the Cherokee: a pink dogwood.

She had told no one of her plans for the long walk that year, for fear they’d worry or try to stop her. She hadn’t even told them about the year before, about her failure. That would be her secret, too, a pact between her and God and the park rangers in the Maine wilderness who saved her life.

* * *

She first laid eyes on the trail in a doctor’s office back home, inside a discarded National Geographic from August 1949, and the nineteen-page spread with color photographs was a window to another place. The photos showed a bear cub clinging to a tree by a trail blaze, shirtless men scrambling up lichen-speckled boulders above the tree line in Maine, teenaged hikers atop rocks at Sherburne Pass in Vermont, hikers on an overlook at Grandeur Peak, a “girl hiker” inching through a crevice near Bear Mountain in New York. She read that a hiker in the Great Smoky Mountains had looked down into a deep canyon and had seen a lank man hoeing a corn patch. The steep cliffs made the hollow seem inaccessible, so the hiker shouted, “How’d you get down there?” “Don’t know,” came the reply. “I was born yere.”

She read that the “soul-cheering, foot-tempting trail” was as wide as a Mack truck, that food was easy to come by, and that trailside shelters were plentiful and spaced within a day’s walk from one another.

“The Appalachian Trail, popularly the ‘A.T.,’ is a public pathway that rates as one of the seven wonders of the outdoorsman’s world,” the article gushed. “Over it you may ‘hay foot, straw foot’ from Mount Katahdin, with Canada on the horizon, to Mount Oglethorpe, which commands the distant lights of Atlanta.”

The old woman had been captivated.

“Planned for the enjoyment of anyone in normal good health,” it read, “the A.T. doesn’t demand special skill or training to traverse.”

By the time the article was published in 1949, just one man, a twenty-nine-year-old soldier named Earl V. Shaffer, had officially reported hiking the trail’s entire length in a single, continuous journey. In the seven years since Shaffer’s celebrated hike, only five others had achieved the same. All were men.

Emma intended to change that.

“I thought that although I was sixty-six,” she would write later in her diary, “I would try it.”

She didn’t tell anyone what she planned to do and she gathered what she thought she could not do without, not what one was supposed to take on a two-thousand-mile hike. Those who had come before arrived with mail-order rucksacks and sleeping bags and tents and mess kits. Not Emma. Her little sack weighed seventeen pounds.

Since it was July 1954 by the time she was ready to set out on the five-month journey, she decided to start in the north and race the cold south. She caught the 6:15 am Greyhound out of Gallia County for Pittsburgh, and there caught the New York Express to Manhattan, then another bus to Augusta, Maine, arriving early the following morning. She caught another bus from Augusta to Bangor and checked into the Hotel Penobscot for the night and gave the man behind the counter $4.50.

The next morning, July 10, she caught a cab to Pitman camp and arrived about 10:30 am, then climbed Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail. Three and a half hours later she was back down, just before dark. A young couple invited her to share broiled hot dogs and pea beans baked with molasses and salt pork. Then she spread her blanket and drifted off to sleep under a lean-to at Katahdin Stream Campground, where the creek sings all night.

The next morning, before the sun peeked into the valley, she left her suitcase with a park ranger, gave him a dollar, and asked him to send it back to Ohio. Then she set off for York Camp, a sporting cabin on the west branch of the Penobscot River. A few miles in, she realized she had packed too many clothes so she emptied her bag, stuffed her extras into a box, and asked the folks at York Camp to mail them back to Ohio.

She hiked from there to Rainbow Lake, some thirteen miles farther, and a nice family at the campgrounds treated the bedraggled old woman to roast beef and pie. She decided to take the next day off and stayed two nights.

The next morning she started early. When she came to a weather-rotted sign, she took the wrong trail. She didn’t know that the Appalachian Trail was marked with white blazes and wound up walking far off course. Just before noon, she popped out of the forest and into a patch of bracken and realized she had lost her way. She searched for an hour and a half in the wilderness but couldn’t find the path. She climbed a knoll in an open space and built a fire and lay on the ground. She whistled and sang a little and nibbled on the raisins and peanuts she’d brought along.

“I did not worry if it was to be the end of me,” she wrote in her diary. “It was as good a place as any.”

After lunch, she went in search of water and disappeared deeper into the wilderness, following game trails through thick summer vegetation. As night fell, she found a rock and lay down to try to rest. When bands of rain blew through, she stood until they passed.

She tried more paths the next morning, exerting precious energy on a second wasted day, none leading her to the trail she had taken in, her food supply running short. She uprooted bracken to make a bed under an overturned rowboat she found leaning against some evergreen trees. She lit a fire, filled a coffee can with water, and doused the flames, hoping the smoke signals would alert other hikers or the rangers at Baxter State Park, but no one came.

She decided to take a bath in a small pond and she placed her eyeglasses on a rock. She forgot where she’d put them, and took a bad step, crushing a lens. She tried to patch it with a Band-Aid, but she could barely see.

She kept the fire going a few more hours, until eleven o’clock, but the wood was running short and she was growing tired. She ate the last of her food and lay down to rest, covering her face to keep the black flies away. Then she heard it.

An airplane came into view, flying low above the trees, the thump of its propeller echoing off the mountains. She jumped to her feet and waved a white cloth to try to flag the plane. And then it was gone.

She lay back down and closed her eyes. She was out of food, and almost out of hope, lost in a vast wilderness not even thirty miles from where she had begun. What would she say when she got back home, if she made it back home? What would she tell people?

She didn’t know it, but the ranger at Rainbow Lake had radioed the next camp, eight miles away, asking for an update when Emma arrived. When she didn’t come, the foresters launched a search.

Emma looked around for wood sorrel, which could be eaten for nourishment, but couldn’t find any. Nor could she find early chokeberries, blueberries, or cranberries, which had yet to bloom. She decided to try to find the trail one more time. She collected her things and started back the way she had come. By luck or miracle, she found the path back toward the camp and set off. She hiked for hours and finally arrived at Rainbow Lake by 7:00 pm, where she found a group of men throwing horseshoes.

Four Baxter State Park rangers had been frantically searching for her. They’d come across her camp while she was out scouting and they found traces of her fire. They had combed the woods, calling out for her, but she never heard them.

Welcome to Rainbow Lake, one of the men said. You’ve been lost.

Not lost, Emma said. Just misplaced.

The rangers, all men, were annoyed. They started telling her she should go home.

I wouldn’t want my mother doing this, one of them said.

She had broken glasses, no food, and not much money. Maybe they were right. Maybe she should quit.

Two of the rangers helped her into their monoplane and flew her to a nearby lake where the Baxter Park superintendent was waiting. He took her to the railroad station in Millinocket and put her on a train back to Bangor where she staggered through the streets, people casting sideways glances her way, and into the Penobscot Hotel, the same place she’d stayed seven long days before.

The man behind the counter said the hotel was full.

Have you tried any other place? he asked.

No, she said. I stayed here last week.

The man scratched around in some papers on the counter.

They won’t want that room tonight, he said. You can have it.

A bellboy escorted Emma upstairs.

Don’t you remember me? she asked him.

Yes, he said.

I’ve been climbing mountains, she said.

She closed her door and dropped her bag and walked to the mirror. She barely recognized the woman staring back at her. Broken glasses. A black fly had bit her near the eye and it was bruised. Her sweater was full of holes. Her hair was a mess. Her feet were swollen. She thought she looked like a drunk out of the gutter. A vagabond. A sixty-six-year-old failure.

She’d tell no one about this.

* * *

This time would be different. She had learned hard lessons.

She had been on the trail eight days when she caught a ride, from a man and woman named Jarrett who were picking up fertilizer near where a truck had spilled its load. They allowed her to stay the night at their home and drove her back to the trail the next morning, to the same spot from which she’d left, and sent her packing with a mess of corn pone. She walked twenty miles that day, finally reaching Hightower Gap as a spring thunderstorm moved in. She made her bed on some boards under a cement picnic table, but she rolled back and forth all night, trying helplessly to stay out of the rain.

She set off the next morning and at long last, on May 14, she crossed the state line and left Georgia behind. She started up the first mountain in North Carolina and the sun beat down upon her neck. She was tired. She raked together a bed of leaves and settled in for a nap; when she woke, she felt a little like Rip Van Winkle.

That afternoon, as another storm approached, she heard a cowbell clanking in the forest and a man calling hogs in the distance. She thought there might be a place to stay nearby, but when she walked down into the gap she didn’t see a soul. No homes. No hogs.

She was walking through a part of the world that was full of secrecy and distrustful of outsiders, the broad and beautiful setting for a never-ending game of cat-and-mouse between the people of the hills and the government stiffs. In these secluded hills, a man could scrape out only a meager living through lawful ways. If he wanted to get ahead, he needed more than a few hogs and a rocky plot of corn. The mountains were both a curse and a blessing, though, and the thick woods, tall peaks, and skinny valleys provided natural coverage for an assortment of clandestine entrepreneurialism. Chief among them was moonshining. It started with the water, pure and cold, which bubbled up endlessly out of limestone springs. It was aided by the blue haze that hung low and camouflaged the hickory smoke from the fires that cooked the mash. So out flowed secret streams of illegal moonshine, 100-proof white lightning, in the trunks of jalopies destined for the big cities of the Midwest—Detroit, Chicago, and Indianapolis. The local lawmen tended to look the other way. Cutting stills was impolitic. The state, however, saw opportunity—specifically the opportunity to tax and tax often. And if it couldn’t tax, it could handcuff—and thus raged a battle that occasionally sent bullets whizzing through these hollers.

Emma was a teetotaler. She didn’t even drink coffee, and she took great pride in that fact, making a point to turn it down outright, a hidden lecture buried in her refusal. But she knew of the battles that had seized the region and she tried to be careful as she plodded through.

She was startled when a man stepped from behind a tree.

Are there any houses around here? she asked.

Not around here, he said.

The man introduced himself as Mr. Parker, and another man walked up to them, Mr. Burch. They told her they had been checking on their hogs, which roamed free in the woods, each wearing a cowbell, and they were camping at a lean-to a few miles away. If she could walk there, she was welcome to stay, they said.

They seemed nice enough. She agreed, and Mr. Burch took her pack and carried it toward the shelter. When they arrived, another man, Mr. Enloe, joined them. They gave Emma straw for a bed and let her dry her wet clothes by their fire.

In the morning, two of the men left after breakfast and said they’d return by dinner, leaving Emma alone with Mr. Burch. She had decided to take the day off to give her aching legs time to recover. They asked her to make cakes out of the stewed potatoes left over from breakfast, so she mixed the potatoes with flour and eggs and fried the loose patties in a skillet over the fire. She’d come to the trail for solidarity with nature, for peace, and here she was, doing chores for a group of men.

That afternoon, the forest warden and game warden stumbled upon Emma and Mr. Burch. They though Emma was Burch’s wife. She was embarrassed, but didn’t correct them. She didn’t want to explain what she was doing out on the trail. She didn’t want to talk about why she was walking, or what she had walked away from.

* * *

He found her in the dark.

She was walking home from church in Crown City, Ohio, on a chilly night. He rode up beside her on his horse, Dick. Her cousin, Carrie Trowbridge, knew him from town and introduced them.

P. C. Gatewood was the catch of Gallia County, Ohio. He was slender, with a soft tan complexion and short brown hair. He was a strident Republican, and he came from plutocrats—regional royalty, or at least they presented themselves in that fashion. His family owned a furniture factory in Gallipolis. At twenty-six, he was eight years older than Emma, and he seemed worldly, aristocratic even. He had earned a teaching degree from Ohio Northern University, making him one of a handful in the region with a college diploma, and he taught children to read and write at the one-room schoolhouse nearby.

He asked if she wanted a ride and she accepted. He helped her up onto Dick. She had never ridden behind a man before, and as they galloped down the road she could scarcely stay on the horse. There was no way she was going to put her hands around P.C.’s waist.

He carried her home several times that winter, through the barren trees that cast crooked shadows on the hollows, but she never grew bold enough to slide her hands around his body. That wouldn’t be proper. One night, she fell off—slid right off the back of the animal. P.C. stopped long enough to give her a hand back on.

Winter turned to spring and P.C. began making more advances. Emma hadn’t spent much time thinking about a future with him, but in March he suddenly grew more serious. Out of the blue, he asked her to marry him. For the life of her, she couldn’t understand why he was rushing. He seemed to want to get married right away. She wasn’t ready. She bided her time and put him off for two months.

They’d come from different lives, raised in close proximity but worlds apart. She’d been born in October 1887, in a puny house near Mercerville, a mile from where the creek forked. The house had a barn, a well, and a terrible view of an ugly bluff, but the children played over the hills. There were twelve in all at the time, and their parents shoved them off to the one-room Cofer School when they didn’t have chores at home, which was rarely.

Her father, Hugh Caldwell, was a Civil War veteran, Union tried and true, whose parents had come from Scotland to farm. He was famous for having raised his head above a stone wall in the heat of battle to see where the enemy was. He was wounded later and then lost his bad leg, and after the war he was considered an old reprobate with an affinity for gambling and a taste for whiskey. Her mother, Evelyn Esther Trowbridge, was of British decent, offspring of a clan of Trowbridges who came to America in the 1620s. She was not far removed from Levi Trowbridge, who fought in Capt. Thomas Clark’s Derby Company in the Revolutionary War, and with the Green Mountain Boys under General Ethan Allen.

Emma had lived a dozen lives by eighteen. She still bore the scars from the day her sister, Etta, was heating water to wash in a kettle and a spark jumped out of the fire and caught Emma’s clothes. Her mother applied medicine with a feather. Emma ate fruit from the blackhaw tree and chased her cousin around the barn. When her family moved to Platform, in Lawrence County, near Guyan Creek, her father intended to build a new house. He set the stone but never got around to erecting the rest. They stayed instead in a log cabin, and her father built an extra bedroom on the front porch. The children slept four to a bed, and in the winter the snow on the clapboard roof would blow in on them and they’d shake the covers before it could melt. They peed off the front porch when their parents weren’t looking.

Her mother birthed three more children in that house, making fifteen in all, ten girls and five boys. On hot afternoons, they waded into the creek to get their clothes wet before they took to the fields to hoe corn or plant beans or worm and sucker tobacco or harvest sugar cane and wheat. They’d work until their clothes had dried, then repeat the cycle. Once, when Emma was instructed to plant pumpkins, she grew tired of the monotonous chore and planted handfuls of seeds in each hill. Every plant came up and her little secret was out.

On Sunday mornings, they put on their best clothes and walked a mile to Platform to Sunday school, and after church, the children would climb into the fingers of young trees and ride them to the ground. They hunted wildflowers and climbed all the cliffs they could find, and on one they held firm to a bush and rappelled down its face to peek into a small cave. Once, Emma’s older sisters told her she could catch sparrows at the cattle barn if she threw a little salt on their tails. For hours she worked that Sunday, trying to salt the birds’ tails.

The children would take a jug of water and set it by a bumblebee nest, then punch the nest. The bees flitted out of the nest and went straight into the jug, and the children plunged their hands into the nest for raw honey.

They went to school just four months a year, due to their farm work, and sometimes that dwindled to two. A gander stood guard outside Guyan Valley School, and when he saw the kids coming he’d stretch out his neck and flap his wings and hiss. Occasionally he’d make contact and bring tears.

In 1900, when Emma was thirteen, her father sold the farm and bought another on the Wiseman’s side of Raccoon Creek, a mile above Asbury Methodist Church and a mile below the Wagner post office. They sent the children to Blessing to school, but all were behind in their grades. They tried hard and finally caught up, but the school only went to eighth grade.

When Emma was seventeen, her father fell at work and broke his good leg. Her mother took him to Gallipolis and he was hospitalized for two months. Emma stayed home from school and did the work. She milked the cow before breakfast and did the washing on Saturdays. The boys killed hogs and Emma had to make the sausage, lard, and head cheese. Her mother was surprised that things were in such good order when she returned. Emma had done all the mending, cooking, and cleaning, too.

In 1906, when she was eighteen, she left home for eight weeks to work as a housemaid in Huntington, West Virginia, across the Ohio River. She hated it and came home as soon as she could. That summer, her cousin Carrie Trowbridge asked her to come and stay with Mrs. Pickett, her grandmother, who lived near Sugar Creek. Mrs. Pickett paid Emma seventy-five cents a week and she was responsible for the milking, washing on the board, ironing, cleaning, shelling corn for the chickens, bringing in coal for the cooking, and washing dishes.

That’s when she met P.C.

There she was, away from home, him asking her to marry and her keeping him at arm’s length. But he’d had enough of this game of hard-to-get. He threatened to leave, to head west and never come back, if she refused to be his wife. She begrudgingly said yes.

She quit school and collected some clothes and went to her aunt Alice Pickett’s house, where Perry was waiting with her uncle, Asa Trowbridge. On May 5, 1907, the two exchanged vows and Emma Caldwell became Mrs. P. C. Gatewood.

They celebrated with a large dinner, then rode in a covered buggy up the Ohio River to Gallipolis and out to her mother’s place above Northup, where they spent their honeymoon night in a room fashioned out of bedsheets, before heading up to the little log cabin he owned on a hillside above Sugar Creek.

It wasn’t long before the honeymoon was over. P.C. began treating Emma as a possession, demanding she do his work. Mopping, building fences, burning tobacco beds, mixing cement. It wasn’t what she had in mind, but she tried hard to make the best of it.

They were married three months before he drew blood.

* * *

Standing Indian Mountain jutted from the earth nearly a mile, the highest point on the trail south of the Great Smokies. Emma, after a full day of rest and a good night’s sleep on a bed of hay in the lean-to, saying farewell to the men and pigs, and having a breakfast of leftover potato cakes, pushed forward, canvas Ked in front of canvas Ked, until she crested the mountain in the mid-morning.

The mountain was named by the Cherokee, who told of a great winged creature that made its home here. A bolt of lightning shattered the mountain and killed the creature, but it also struck a warrior, who was turned to stone. The mountain was named on account of a peculiar rock formation that used to jut from the bald precipice and looked very much like a man.

It took her an hour and a half to ascend, and behind her was a superb view of the Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains from which she’d come, through Deep Gap and Muskrat Creek and Sassafras Gap and Bly Gap. She needed to doctor her feet, but it was too early to stop, and even without a map she knew the toughest part of the journey so far was just ahead of her.

After a long trek through Beech Gap and Betty Creek Gap she began to climb Mount Albert, scrambling much of the way over steep rocks, and it was indeed the hardest climb yet in the thirteen days she’d been hiking.

That evening, after twenty miles of walking, she ventured two miles off the trail to find a place to stay. She discovered an empty lean-to at White Oak Forest Camp. The night was cold and she tried to build a fire, but her matches were wet and would not strike. She squirmed into a corner of the shelter and shivered under the blanket until she fell asleep.

She was greeted by rain the next morning, so rather than set off she walked to the game warden’s house and introduced herself. The warden’s name was Waldroop, and he and his wife drove Emma two miles back to the trail on their way to town. She started off slow, rain falling all day, and she arrived at Wayah Camp at 4:00 pm and built a small fire to dry her clothes. The nearest lean-to had an earthen floor, which was cold, so she heated a long board over the fire and rested atop it for warmth. When the board cooled, she did it again.

She left ten minutes after six the next morning, greeted by the early birds of the Nantahala—a Cherokee word meaning “land of the noonday sun”—a vast and dark forest visited by Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto in the sixteenth century and the naturalist William Bartram in the eighteenth. When Bartram came through, he “beheld with rapture and astonishment a sublimely awful scene of power and magnificence, a world of mountains piled upon mountains.” He continued:

The mighty cloud now expands its sable wings, extending from North to South, and is driven irresistibly on by the tumultuous winds, spreading his livid wings around the gloomy concave, armed with terrors of thunder and fiery shafts of lightning; now the lofty forests bend low beneath its fury, their limbs and wavy boughs are tossed about and catch hold of each other; the mountains tremble and seem to reel about, and the ancient hills to be shaken to their foundation: the furious storm sweeps along, smoking through the vale and descending from the firmament, and I am deafened by the din of thunder; the tempestuous scene damps my spirits, and my horse sinks under me at the tremendous peals, as I hasten for the plains.

Here walked a new pioneer, her swollen feet inside worn-out tennis shoes, climbing up to Wayah Bald, and up the steps of a stone fire tower built twenty years before by the Civilian Conservation Corps, spinning now, absorbing the breathtaking views of the surrounding range, the world of mountains piled upon mountains, alone, happy.

* * *

Purchase the full book at Amazon

The staff of Longreads.
Get the Longreads Weekly Email

Sign up to receive the Top 5 Longreads of the week, delivered every Friday.