If you’ve ever chosen a title for your book group, you know how hard it is to find one that everyone enjoys. But that did happen in our Eastham group when we read Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery.
In 1955, 67-year-old Emma Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail alone — 2,100 miles across 14 states and several mountain ranges.
“Why?” reporters asked when they caught up with her. “Just for the heck of it,” she said.
Perhaps. Or maybe she was walking away from 34 years of marriage to an abusive spouse. Her only escape from her husband’s brutality had been long, healing walks through the nearby Ohio woods.
While her 11 children were young, she was inspired by an article in National Geographic (August 1949) about a man who hiked the entire trail. Six years later, she laced up her Keds and set out for Mount Katahdin in Maine carrying a homemade sack, an old shower curtain for a tent, and a Swiss Army knife. (Compare this to Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods. He carried costly equipment and made only 200 miles.)
The trail, she soon realized, was not the idyllic footpath described in National Geographic. By the time Emma made the journey, it was overgrown in places, most of its shelters blown down or burned.
She survived two major hurricanes, rattlesnakes, floods, wild dogs, and broken eyeglasses. Accidents happened and food was scarce; her survival often depended on sheer luck. Anonymous strangers along the way — called “trail angels” –– lent support in the form of a ride to town in the rain, a cold soda, a shower, a bunk.
Before long the press discovered “Grandma Gatewood” and Emma became a hiking celebrity. Sports Illustrated wrote about her in August 1955. She turned the publicity into an opportunity to educate people about dismal conditions on the trail. She was instrumental in the passage of the National Trails System Act, which made the federal government responsible for maintaining this and other trails.
Emma Gatewood’s story inspired our entire book group. You might read it and feel newfound gratitude for the preservation of a place where people whose lives have been hard can put the past behind them. But it also makes excellent reading, “just for the heck of it.”
Karen MacDonald is the adult services librarian at the Eastham Public Library, where she runs a book group. It is free; readers are welcome to join.