Emma Gatewood made history in 1955 when she became the first woman to walk the entire Appalachian Trail alone – and then she became the first woman to walk it twice, and again a third time in sections, and all after she reached the age when most people retire. She also walked another famous trail in 1959 – tune in for more about that in tomorrow’s concluding article on “Feisty Female” Grandma Gatewood (read Part One here). Ben Montgomery’s book relies heavily on notes and diaries lent to him by Emma’s youngest daughter, Lucille Gatewood Seeds, as well as family stories and newspaper accounts.
The book isn’t merely about Emma’s historic walk either. The majority of the book’s chapters include flashbacks to her “background story” from childhood all the way through a tumultuous and abusive marriage to Perry Clayton Gatewood. Emma was herself one of the fifteen children of Hugh and Esther Caldwell (ten girls and five boys). She and P.C., as he was called, had eleven of their own.
Throughout the book the reader gets a glimpse of what gave Emma the determination and grit to attempt such a feat in the first place. Her life was not an easy one, but apparently she never shirked her duties as a wife and mother (except on two brief occasions to briefly escape the abuse), that is until she received one beating too many. When she finally divorced P.C., she was almost fifty-four years old – what else could she do with her life?
With only an eighth-grade education, she was an avid reader. One day she read a National Geographic article about the Appalachian Trail and started to think about taking up the challenge. Montgomery chronicles her first unsuccessful and brief attempt, followed by the 1955 arduous trek where she faced all kinds of adversity, including a hurricane and massive rain storms.
She would go on to walk the trail two more times, once all the way through and another time in sections. She had been an avid walker all of her life – during her volatile marriage it would give her a chance to step away for brief periods of time for solace and reflection, often writing dark-themed poetry.
She also walked across the country to commemorate the Oregon Trail anniversary. All of these feats made her at last a minor celebrity for awhile. She appeared on television shows (Groucho Marx and others) and was interviewed by several newspapers and publications over the years.
The book tells an uplifting story, although at times it may seem pedantic and plodding. However, it is a work of history and its reliance on notes, diaries and news accounts lends itself to that type of narration. Other book reviewers objected to the lack of imagination, but I found it flowed well enough to keep me interested – and certainly found it informative and inspiring.
I learned a lot about a person I had never heard of, so for me that’s always a plus. If you’re a hiker, walker, exercise enthusiast – or just aspire to do something with your life no matter your age – I think you’ll find the book a worthwhile and inspiring read.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.