In 1955, 67-year-old Emma Gatewood became the first woman to walk all 2,050 miles of the Appalachian Trail by herself. She survived a rattlesnake strike and two hurricanes, boarded with gangsters from Harlem, and sang “America, the Beautiful” when she finally reached the peak of Mount Katahdin in Maine. It was her second attempt, and she’d done it without telling a soul where she was going. She’d done it again, despite the fact that the first time nearly killed her.
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.
Hear Ben Montgomery describe Grandma Gatewood’s path along the Appalachian Trail.
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.
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.
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.
She was out of food, and almost out of hope, lost in a vast wilderness not even thirty miles from where she had begun.
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.
Published in This Land Vol. 5, Issue 6. March 15, 2014.
Excerpted with permission from Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, Chicago Review Press, April 2014.