Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is the story of Emma Gatewood who in 1955 and aged 67, set out to become the first woman to walk the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Georgia to Maine, USA. The book was written by Ben Montgomery in 2014 and made it to the New York Times Bestseller list.
The USA National Parks Service describes the AT as:
A 2,180+ mile (over 3,508 km) long public footpath that traverses the scenic, wooded, pastoral, wild, and culturally resonant lands of the Appalachian Mountains. Conceived in 1921, built by private citizens, and completed in 1937, today the trail is managed by the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, numerous state agencies and thousands of volunteers. (source: USA National Parks Service)
When Gatewood first steps foot onto the AT, she appears ill prepared and ill experienced. She is definitely travelling without the benefit of dedicated hiking gear … she has no tent, a sack for a backpack, a plastic bag for a rain jacket and is wearing tennis shoes. We soon learn of her lifetime love of nature and hiking, and her ability to live off berries and warm stones to keep her warm, and willingness to sleep on a layer of moss. She sleeps wherever she can, sometimes finding shelter and often sleeping on the ground. She often loses her way many times, and while she deliberately leaves the trail to find food and shelter in nearby towns, she always rejoins the trail at the point she left. There was one exception where because of severe flooding, rejoining wasn’t possible however, she only missed 2 miles (3.2 km) but given her overall distance travelled, we can forgive her!
The snippets about Gatewood’s life are shared sparingly by the author Montgomery but as the story progresses we learn that Gatewood is a mother of 11 who has 23 grandchildren and several great grandchildren. Curiously her family don’t know she is walking the AT until they read about it in the newspapers and are unconcerned despite caring for her welfare.
Emma Gatewood led a very hard life and suffered extreme and debilitating violence at the hands of her aggressive husband. This is an area that Montgomery plays down as an ‘abusive relationship’ when in reality it was in my view, pure brutality. I’m not sure why the author did this – even the quotes from Gatewood’s journal and letters articulate the extent of the brutality.
I loved reading Gatewood’s matter of fact account of this very significant achievement but you get very little of how she is feeling or what she is thinking along the way. We hear of the people she meets along the way in almost a transactional manner:
There she met Mr. and Mrs. Richard Bell, who were spending a week at a friend’s cabin and invited Emma to sit down for some breakfast. Her knee was throbbing and swollen. After breakfast, Richard Bell positioned Emma and his two young daughters by a trail sign and snapped their photograph before Emma cut away.
Montgomery is very taken by the local history and provides detailed accounts of ‘why things are this way’ based on historical vignettes that span from Civil War days to post World War II. If you’re interested in US history you will enjoy this. If you have a personal connection with life within the towns along the AT, it will hold more meaning for you.
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is a great story about keeping going, toughing it out and being resourceful. It is definitely fashioned around characters from a different time but there is one enduring message…. if you want to achieve something, go and do it. If you do, most people will become your supporters and will help you. And a few won’t but don’t take it personally!
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This review was done with product purchased by Australian Hiker