Taking A Hike | Recreation, Outdoor Activities and Travel

Saying “take a hike” is sometimes used as a rude way of telling someone to stop bothering you. But in this case, I’d like to talk about a literal hike — and a very long one at that.

When I retired, I had a goal of doing more reading for pleasure. But oftentimes, my reading still got squeezed out by more urgent matters around the farm. That’s why I was delighted to be invited to join a local book club about two-and-a-half years ago by a former farmer I’ve known all my life. The book club members are an enjoyable group with wide-ranging interests, so their monthly book selections are diverse and the discussions are always thought-provoking.

Unfortunately, there are still too many months when I don’t make it all the way though a book before book club meeting day, but May’s selection was one I just couldn’t put down. I think many others would enjoy reading it, too.

“Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” is a New York Times bestseller written by author Ben Montgomery. It won the 2014 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography. The author weaves together the story of 67-year-old Emma Gatewood’s amazing hike on the Appalachian Trail with details of her earlier life as a farm wife in southern Ohio and West Virginia who raised 11 children, as well as the current events going on during 1955 when she made her “walk.”

Even casual hikers these days are often decked out with fancy backpacks, special hiking boots, blister-proof socks and SPF-resistant, moisture- wicking clothing. Grandma Gatewood had no such paraphernalia. She wore clothing similar to what she’d worn around the farm all her life and her feet were shod in plain old Keds canvas sneakers. She had sewn a denim drawstring sack and carried with her only the barest necessities — some snack-like foods, a few first-aid items, a shower curtain “to keep the rain off,” a warm coat, some water and a flashlight.

Fortunately, she also carried with her a pen and a little dime-store notebook. This enabled her to keep a journal of her travels, from which Ben Montgomery was able to piece together her story. From other sources, such as family and acquaintances, he described Emma as 5-foot-2, weighing in at 150 pounds, with false teeth and bunions. He notes, “the only survival training she had were lessons learned earning calluses on her farm.” He also notes what she didn’t have — no map, no sleeping bag and no tent.

While it might seem like folly for someone of that description to undertake a journey of 2,050 miles over the longest continuous footpath in the world, Emma had done her research. In fact, she’d even started hiking the Appalachian Trail southward from Maine back in 1954, but had to give up after just seven days. This time, she believed she was better prepared for what laid ahead, as she started out from Mount Oglethorpe, Georgia, bound for Mount Katahdin, Maine.

Along the way, Emma Gatewood met challenges ranging from snakes and bears to dangerous weather and injuring herself. She often relied on the goodwill of strangers living near the trail to take her in for the night, provide her with a meal or give her food to take along. At other times, she slept in rickety trail-side shelters, with total strangers as her overnight companions.

What motivated her to take this “walk”?

Emma traced it back to a National Geographic article she’d read in a doctor’s office in August 1949. Its photos inspired her, but you need to read the book to figure out for yourself why she decided to make this trek. And by the way, she hadn’t told her grown children about her plans — she just left home and sent them occasional post cards. Her children said they were never really worried, because they knew she could take care of herself.

The cover of the book uses the subtitle, “The inspiring story of the woman who saved the Appalachian Trail.” That might seem like an odd accomplishment for an obscure farm woman, but it was members of the media who nicknamed her “Grandma Gatewood.” She never sought publicity, but her story was spread by people she stayed with en route, who then contacted their local newspapers or television stations. Soon, she was being interviewed by national media, like the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, and much of America was following her progress on the trail, cheering her onward.

In that way, the public came to learn about the Appalachian Trail and also how it was poorly marked, poorly maintained and that its shelters were becoming dilapidated. This eventually resulted in additional public and private support for the trail and inspired many others to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Some of my book club’s members are accomplished hikers who want to spend more time on the Appalachian Trail after reading about Grandma Gatewood. Call me a wimp, but while I greatly admire Grandma Gatewood as a woman ahead of her time, I think I’ll just stick to riding the local rail-trail on a bicycle.

If you need a good read this summer, check “Gramma Gatewood’s Walk” out of your local library.


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