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

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

For this week’s Longreads Member Pick, we’re excited to share the opening chapters of Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, the new 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.

Chapter 1 is free for everyone below. Longreads Members, you can use your Member login to access your ebooks and read Chapter 2 here—or purchase the full book at Amazon.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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