What does it mean to overcome? What does it mean to move forward? There is pain in every life—some more than others—and we’re often told that we have to fight against it. We have to put one foot in front of the next and walk. It’s a determination to keep moving forward, past the brambles and through the darkness, making peace with the howling wolves, until you reach the top of the hill, bursting through to fresh air and endless vistas. For some people, this is metaphorical. For others, it is literal. For Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, who in 1955 at age 67, became the first woman to hike the legendary Appalachian Trail, it was both.
Hers is a story of courage, determination, and the unbeatable stubbornness that refused to accept the idea that getting older meant slowing down. Instead, she sped up, overcame obstacles in life and in nature that many thought insurmountable, and became an inspiration to millions. Her life showed that there is never a time to stop growing and to stop challenging yourself, and demonstrated the power of true courage.
Standing Up for Herself and Family
Emma Gatewood was born in Ohio in 1887, one of 19 children of a Civil War veteran. She grew up on a hardscrabble farm, where life depended on the grace of the land and where difficulty was a bad season away. Shortly after the turn of the century, at age 19, she married and moved to West Virginia, a normal course at the time. Her life, however, was anything but storybook.
As her biographer (who was also her great-nephew) put it, her husband was a “stubborn, ignorant, hard-fisted man” who would beat her regularly. At one point, when he had bloodied her face, blackened her eyes, and busted her ribs, the police came and arrested her for disturbance (she was let off by the horrified mayor). At a time when this was unheard of, she decided that enough was enough and was granted a divorce. She raised her last three kids on her own.
The last three kids, of course, were out of the 11 she had. By the time she was 67, in 1955, she had 23 grandchildren. For many, this would be enough of a life. She overcame an obstacle that today is still devastatingly difficult, and at the time was nearly impossible. She deserved to enjoy life as a revered grandmother. But she was flipping through a Life magazine and found an article about the fairly-new Appalachian Trail. With 2170 miles of mountains, hills, swamps, streams, thick woods, wolves, and bears, this seemed to Grandma Gatewood like a nice walk.
Navigating the Appalachian Trail
In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s classic and hilarious story of a 40-something male struggling with the trail in the 1990s, he describes the demoralizing danger of hills thusly: “The hardest part was coming to the dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill. The thing about being on a hill, as opposed to standing back from it, is that you can almost never see exactly what’s to come. Between the curtain of trees at every side, the ever-receding contour of rising slope before you, and your own plodding weariness, you gradually lose track of how far you have come.” Bryson writes this as a reflection of his first day, in which he covered approximately four miles.
Today, Bryson (who didn’t actually finish walking the Trail, but came close) gripes about wifi hotspots and other luxuries now available—but even when he hiked it, there were enough motels along the way that if you wanted to duck out for a bed, shower, and a hot meal, you could (and he did). In 1955 when Grandma Gatewood went for it, it was still new and wild, a barely-carved dream. It was the first national trail and by far the longest, without many cabins to get out of the rain or well-marked rest stops. It was a partially-marked path from the steep mountains of Georgia through the wilds of coal country up through New England and into the thick and haunted woods of Maine. Few made it all the way. Emma Gatewood was the first woman to do it.
She put one foot in front of the other. She didn’t bring a tent. She ate canned sausages, peanuts, and whatever greens or fruits she found on the way. She would occasionally use her natural charm and inherent likability to fall among strangers walking a portion of the Trail, who might let her sleep in a tent for the night or invite her for dinner.
By the time she reached the end, her story had gotten out and she was a celebrity. But if you think that slowed her down, you haven’t been paying attention. She hiked it again, this time so she “could enjoy it,” and became the first person to hike the whole trail twice. That seemed easy, so she did it a third time (again, gaining notoriety as the first person to do that), at 73 years old. Not content with just north-south walking, she hiked the Oregon Trail, all 2000 miles, in 1959.
Emma Gatewood used the end of her life to establish a series of nature trails in her native state of Ohio, which are still around today. People can literally walk in the path she paved, but we can all follow her example. She had a hard and difficult life, but she never gave up. She found a challenge for herself and did it out of a passion to try something new, out of a spirit of adventure, out of a desire to make the most out of life, and yes, out of sheer ornery cussedness.
Every hill in life bursts through the fog—sometimes only to reveal more hill. The trail goes up and down, with unexpected curves, sometimes revealing a rain-splattered swamp or a tangle of trees made frosty with your breath, and sometimes a vista of tearful beauty. But no matter where we are on this trail, we can follow Emma Gatewood’s example: we can keep walking.
At the Institute on Aging, we work with families so that anyone can enjoy aging indepently, in dignity and comfort, and get the most out of life. Contact us today to learn more about our programs.