For Your Library

Posted: January 13, 2017

Review of: Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery, Chicago Review Press Inc., 2014, ISBN 978-1-61374-718-6

The book, “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail,” may not sound too exciting, but don’t judge this one by its title or cover. Published in 2014 and on the New York Times bestseller list four months after its release, this book relays the compelling story about a hardcore, no- tech, ultra-lite hiker, before any of these things were cool. Emma Gatewood (a.k.a. “Grandma Gatewood”) was the first woman to solo thru-hike the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail (AT). She did it in 1955 before the trail was well developed, and then remarkably hiked it two more times, all after age 67. This also made her the first person ever to have hiked the AT three times alone. Amazingly, she later hiked the Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon, many other trails across the USA, and helped establish the Buckeye Trail system in her home state of Ohio. This book was written by Ben Montgomery, an award-winning reporter and great-great nephew of Gatewood, thirty years after her death in 1973. It’s an inspiring tale for seasoned hikers, hiker wannabes, and even anyone facing seemingly impossible odds in their life. It chronicles Gatewood’s early life, family, work, abusive marriage, and her challenging yet simple motivations for hiking.

Gatewood’s indomitable spirit and ability to keep plugging along despite the circumstances she faced were unquestionably stirring. Gatewood knew no one would support her dream to hike the AT, so she left without telling anyone. Some of the characters she met along the way tried their best to discourage her to go home where she belonged – she hiked on. Further, Gatewood plainly demonstrated all someone needs are the bare essentials for success if they determinedly focus on the big picture, instead of comforts, material goods, or money they don’t have. Her important hiking gear consisted of canvas topped sneakers (she wore out six pairs on her first AT trek), a homemade cloth shoulder bag, a lightweight blanket, and a plastic shower cap for the rain. She carried no tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, map, or compass. She ate simply (peanuts, raisins, and canned goods) and even gathered wild edibles along the trail. She also graciously accepted the kindness of strangers along the way.

In the end, Emma Gatewood’s remarkable accomplishments, in contrast to her humble personality and quiet demeanor, made her a fascinating story for reporters and outdoor enthusiasts. This notoriety in turn spotlighted the dismal condition of the AT and the importance of hiking trail systems for the country. Gatewood was interviewed by countless newspapers across the country, the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, and she even appeared on the Today Show. While she didn’t start out to advocate for improving the AT and developing more trails, Gatewood is known today as the person who “saved” the trail from neglect and abandonment. And, she generated wide-spread national attention to the value of hiking and walking for mental and physical health; two legacies we still cherish today.

Contact Information

Sanford S. Smith, Ph.D.
  • Teaching Professor in Forest Resources and
Phone: 814-865-4261