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Grandma Gatewood: The First Woman to Hike the Appalachian Trail Solo

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Grandma Gatewood on the trail

Grandma Gatewood on the trail

An Appalachian Trail Legend

Grandma Gatewood is considered a legend among the Appalachian Trail hiking community. In 1955, she earned the distinction of being the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail by herself; the trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. She was a 67-year-old mother and grandmother from Ohio when she completed her expedition.

Later, Grandma Gatewood became the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail three times through. She hiked it a second time in 1956 and then section-hiked it in 1964. Grandma Gatewood became a media sensation after completing the hike and the media coverage of her amazing achievement is credited with making the Appalachian Trail known worldwide.

Early Years

Emma Rowena (Caldwell) Gatewood was born on October 25, 1887, into a family of 15 children. Her family lived in the Guyan Township in Gallia County, Ohio. Her father was a farmer. During the Civil War, his leg was amputated. He struggled to deal with this and turned to a life of drinking and gambling. Her family lived in a log cabin, and the children slept four to a bed. Her formal education stopped when she finished the eighth grade. Despite the lack of education, Gatewood still spent quite a bit of time reading; she enjoyed consuming books about plants and wildlife.

An early picture of Grandma Gatewood with her husband and their children.

An early picture of Grandma Gatewood with her husband and their children.

Marriage and Children

At 19 years old, Gatewood got married to Perry Clayton on May 5, 1907. He was 27 years old. Clayton was a college-educated primary school teacher. He eventually became a tobacco farmer. They had only been married a few months before Perry became abusive. On several occasions during their marriage, he severely beat her. The abuse consisted of him once breaking a broom over her head as well as breaking her teeth, cracking her ribs, and more.

One time when law enforcement was summoned, they arrested Gatewood herself. The mayor of her town in West Virginia saw her face after the beating and took her home for protection. At another time, her husband was convicted of manslaughter and ordered to pay restitution to the dead man’s widow. The judge eventually suspended his jail time because Clayton had nine children and a tobacco farm that needed work. Gatewood divorced her husband in 1941 after being married for 33 years. She raised the last three of her eleven children as a single mother.

Appalachian Trail Interest

When the 1950s arrived, all of Grandma Gatewood’s children were finally on their own. One day, she was busy reading an article in National Geographic magazine. It was about Eric Shaffer who was the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. She realized that no woman had ever solo hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. Gatewood felt hiking this trail was a worthy challenge for her. She told people if a man could do such a thing, she could also do it. Gatewood often spent time in the outdoors around her West Virginia home. She did this to get away from her abusive husband. The desire to hike the Appalachian Trail began to grow within her.

Gatewood's First Attempt

After reading the National Geographic article, she felt the only thing she needed to do for hiking the trail was to be in good health and have some hiking equipment. Grandma Gatewood set out in July of 1954 to hike the Appalachian Trail. She was 66 years old. Unfortunately, things did not go well for her.

She started from Mount Katahdin in Maine. After a few days, she broke her glasses. Grandma then got lost and also ran out of food. She was eventually found by park rangers. They were able to convince her to return to her home in Ohio. Grandma Gatewood decided she wouldn’t tell anyone about this failure.

Grandma Gatewood hiking the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire.

Grandma Gatewood hiking the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire.

Appalachian Trail Success

Grandma Gatewood was determined to not fail at hiking the trail again. The next year, at the age of 67, Grandma Gatewood headed out to take on the Appalachian Trail yet again. She told her older children she was simply going for a walk. Grandma Gatewood changed a few things after the previous year’s failure. This time she started in Georgia on May 3, 1955. Grandma Gatewood would not stop this time until she reached Mount Katahdin in Maine. She eventually accomplished this on September 25, 1955; it took her 146 days to hike the entire trail.

Standing at the top of Baxter Peak in Maine after finishing the hike, Grandma Gatewood calmly signed the trail register. She then looked out at the Maine landscape and sang the first verse of “American the Beautiful.” Grandma Gatewood then yelled, “I did it. I said I’d do it, and I’ve done it.”

After Appalachian Trail Hike

Sports Illustrated wrote an article about Grandma Gatewood describing things she had experienced when hiking the Appalachian Trail and newspapers all over the United States published articles about Gatewood’s outstanding accomplishment. An article about her in the Baltimore Sun described her as a jovial little grandmother who conquered the demanding Appalachian Trail.

She was a guest on television’s Today Show. Grandma Gatewood was also featured on a television quiz show and won two hundred dollars. In June 1956, Thomas A. Jenkins, who was a U.S. Representative from Ohio, entered Grandma Gatewood’s accomplishment into the Federal Congressional Record.

Additional Hikes

In 1957, Grandma Gatewood thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail again. She told reporters the trail was now in better condition than it had been during the previous year. The work done by the local hiking clubs to clean and mark it was what was responsible for things better.

In 1959, Grandma Gatewood was now 71 years old and there happened to be quite a bit of publicity about the Oregon Centennial Exposition Walk along the Oregon Trail. Grandma Gatewood then became the first woman to walk the entire 2,000 miles of this trail by herself. She was inspired by reading about all the pioneer women who had walked the trail behind covered wagons. Gatewood completed a third hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1964. This time she was 76 years old and cemented the record of the first person to hike the trail three times.

Historical marker in Ohio honoring Grandma Gatewood

Historical marker in Ohio honoring Grandma Gatewood

Life During Her 80s

During her 80s, Grandma Gatewood spent over ten hours daily clearing and marking a hiking trail in Gallia County, Ohio; one that would eventually connect to the Buckeye Trail. She also took an ambitious bus trip with an open-ended ticket. This made it possible for her to visit every state in the mainland United States as well as three Canadian provinces.

Grandma Gatewood's grave marker

Grandma Gatewood's grave marker

Gatewood's Death

It is estimated that during her hiking life, Grandma Gatewood hiked over 14,000 miles. This is approximately halfway around the world. On June 4, 1973, she passed away from a heart attack. She was 85 years old. At the time of her death, she had 11, children, 24 grandchildren, and 30 great-grandchildren, as well as one great-great-grandchild. She was buried at Ohio Valley Memory Gardens with her marker reading Emma R. Gatewood, Grandma.


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