The divorce court awarded custody of Lucy (12), Louise (14) and Nelson (16) to Emma and P.C. was ordered to pay fifteen dollars of alimony every month, and Emma received the farm in Barkers Ridge, with P.C. still required to make payments on it. Failing that, he would land himself back in court. Just to be able to walk away from that long and abusive relationship was a great relief to her: “I know when I go to bed that no brute of a man is going to kick me out into the floor and then lie out of it.”
Her children immediately noticed a change in Emma – she was happier and had time to do the things she loved to do – reading, gardening, traveling and writing poetry. In 1944 she sold the farm in West Virginia and moved back to Rutland, Ohio where she purchased a home. Nelson had served in World War II, Louise was attending Marshall College and Lucy, just graduated from high school, was off to attend business school.
With her children out on their own, Emma had time to travel and go where she pleased. She would go to various places, work for awhile and then move on elsewhere, but finally returning to Rutland to renovate her home and write some poetry, which she later self-published. She moved back to Gallipolis when Louise had a baby in 1949 and they purchased a house together the following year.
For awhile Emma worked various jobs and traveled to visit relatives. After Louise left in 1951 Emma rented the house and worked for five months at a hospital in Columbus. One day, while working there she saw the August 1949 National Geographic article which would change her life. Included in the article were some preparations tips for anyone planning a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Emma was intrigued.
In July of 1954 she flew to Maine to begin the trek from the north end of the trail. Two days later she was lost, had run out of food and eventually found the place where she had made a wrong turn. She told a forest ranger she wasn’t lost, but merely “misplaced”; however, she still decided to return home to Ohio. Some people may have never attempted such a feat again, but that wasn’t “Emma-like”.
The following spring she packed the few things she thought she would need and headed for Georgia to start the trek again, this time from the southern end of the trail. In the drawstring sack she slung over her shoulder were: Vienna Sausage, raisins, peanuts, bouillon cubes, powdered milk, a tin of Band-Aids, iodine, bobby pins and a jar of Vicks VapoRub®. She added a gingham dress and slippers, a warm coat, shower curtain in case of rain, drinking water, Swiss Army knife, flashlight, candy mints, pen and a memo book to record her thoughts along the way. For the trek she was attired in dungarees and Keds® sneakers.
On May 3, 1955 Emma was again setting off on the long Appalachian Trail hike which had never been completed solo by a woman, and certainly not by someone who was sixty-seven years old. She had saved enough money and began a walking regiment earlier that year in January and by April was walking ten miles a day.
Only two people knew exactly where she was that day – the cab driver who drove her to the starting point and her cousin Myrtle Trowbridge with whom she had spent the previous night with. Her children did not know where she was or what she was doing – she had told them she was going on a walk – and walk she did.
Along the way she got lost more than a few times, but found her way back to the trail (due to some poorly marked landmarks and trail blazes). She spent some nights in farm houses along the way, owing to the kindness of strangers, some of whom she remained in contact with for years to come. Sometimes she was turned away and made a bed out of leaves under the stars.
She had meant to keep quiet about her journey, but after she mentioned it to someone on June 20, she was met several times along the way by photographers and journalists who wanted to know more about her story and why she was doing it. On June 22 she finally acquiesced and agreed to an interview and the following day the Roanoke Times ran a headline announcing to the world her intentions: OHIO WOMAN, 67, HIKING 2,050 MILES ON APPY TRAIL.
From that point on her story would spread across the country, and that’s when everyone began to refer to her as “Grandma Gatewood”. Sports Illustrated, still a fledgling magazine, wanted her story and sent journalist Mary Snow to track her down. They connected and Snow would meet her at various places along the way to continue writing Emma’s story.
Emma encountered plenty of beauty and wonders of nature along the way. In August, she encountered the wrath of nature when a storm with origins off the coast of French Guiana morphed into Hurricane Connie, which eventually made its way up the Atlantic seaboard and inundated New England with torrents of rain. Still she pressed through, sometimes with the help of other hikers on the trail.
By the time she reached the end of the trail on September 25, 1955, she had worn out several pairs of sneakers, lost or had broken her glasses, and had just traversed, by far, the most difficult and arduous part of the trail. She simply recorded in her journal that she had reached “the end of the trail”. In twenty-six days she would turn sixty-eight years old and had just hiked 2,050 miles through thirteen states. The only ceremonious thing she did was to sing the first verse of America the Beautiful.
Whether Emma was totally aware of it, by that time she was already a celebrity of sorts as her story had captivated the nation. Emma would be asked, “why did you do it?” She would reply, “I thought it would be a nice lark . . . but it wasn’t.” She was interviewed countless times and appeared on television shows.
In 1956 the United States House of Representatives honored her accomplishments. One would think that one solo hike over the A.T. would be enough to last a lifetime, but by the following May she started out again to set yet another record as the first person, man or woman, to walk the entire trail twice. She started out on April 27 that year and made it to Mt. Katahdin on September 16. Emma later walked the trail again in sections rather than one continuous trek.
In 1959 Oregon was celebrating its centennial anniversary as a state. On May 4 she departed Independence, Missouri, at the age of seventy-one years old, and began walking the historic Oregon Trail. She told a Junction City, Kansas reporter, “I was looking for something to do this summer and a walk to Oregon seemed like the best thing.” The governor of Oregon named her a special ambassador, and as she made her way she stayed with families along the way. In response to last week’s article, one reader, Ralph Coffman, shared the following:
Grandma Gatewood stayed with us for awhile when she hiked the Oregon Trail. I walked a few steps with her. She had a significant and powerful influence on my life. I have traveled the world, mostly by hitchhiking in my younger years. She was a godsend. What an inspiration to so many.
Again, her story captivated the nation. She accepted no rides and carried only her knapsack and an umbrella. On August 7 she reached her destination in Portland and was greeted by a mob of admirers. Ben Montgomery, author of Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, wrote: “When Emma reached the ribbon, she was overcome with tears. She brushed it apart and fell into the arms of a stranger and wept. She seemed shaken by it all, particularly the crowds.”
After regaining her composure she asked the Portland mayor, “Who do they think I am? Queen Elizabeth?” She was again feted with honors such as the key to Portland, invitations to Hollywood and an appearance on Art Linkletter’s House Party. In November she was invited to appear on the Groucho Marx television show You Bet Your Life.
Emma continued to travel and in 1960 attempted another trek across the A.T. After seventy-five miles she had to abandon the trail because of debris that had been strewn along a section in North Carolina. She decided to skip forward and was photographed on June 2 in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
By August 7, one year to the day since she had completed the Oregon Trail walk, she crossed over into Canada, having completed another section. This time she had only hiked about seven hundred miles and worn out just two pairs of sneakers.
In 1964 she walked the most difficult part of the A.T. through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, completing her third A.T. hike in sections. Emma sold her house in 1967 and bought a small trailer court in Cheshire, and continued to travel and promote the sport of hiking. She also began blazing and marking a trial through Gallia County which would eventually connect to the Buckeye Trail (notice in the picture below, she was still wearing her Keds® sneakers).
P.C. became seriously ill in 1968 and had one last request to see Emma. According to Ben Montgomery, “[H]e wanted her to come stand in his doorway, just for a moment. The woman who had walked more than ten thousand miles since she left him refused to take those steps.”
In 1973 she embarked on a long bus trip and after returning home fell ill. On June 3 she called Nelson to say she wasn’t feeling well. He and an ambulance rushed to her home only to find she had lapsed into a coma. The following morning Emma awoke briefly to hum a few bars of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and then slipped away in the presence of her daughter Rowena and son Nelson and his wife.
She was hailed as the most famous female hiker in the nation. For years to come stories about her would sporadically appear. In recent years, efforts to tell Emma’ story have been undertaken by an Ohio non-profit organization, Eden Valley Enterprises, in conjunction with Film Affects. To read more about their project and contribute to the production and broadcast of the “Trail Magic” documentary, click here or here.
This has been one of the more enjoyable pieces of history I’ve read and written about since starting the blog last October. I hope you’ve found this “feisty females” story informative, inspiring and uplifting. In case you missed it, I reviewed Ben Montgomery’s book yesterday — click here to read it.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.