Book Review: Grandma Gatewood’s Walk

A Good Read

grandma gatewood's walkIn 1955, at the age of 67, Emma Gatewood walked the entire 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail (AT). This is a quick review of the book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman who Saved the Appalachian Trail, by Ben Montgomery.

What makes this book a good read isn’t necessarily Mr. Montgomery’s writing ability, but that Emma Gatewood was such an incredible person. Before her through-hike of the AT, not many people had heard of the trail that runs from Georgia north to Maine, and only a handful had hiked it in its entirety. Emma would become the first woman to complete it. No one before or after her did more to popularize the trail.

Part of what made her famous was not only that she hiked it alone at the age of 67, but she had virtually no long distance hiking experience and she carried very little gear. Unlike many people today who can’t figure out what underwear to take backpacking; Emma didn’t have to ask what to take — she simply used the long lost talent called “common sense.” She started this hike with no backpack, no sleeping bag, no tent, no compass, no map, no GPS, no cell phone, no water filter, no hiking boots, no extensive first aid kit, and no trekking poles. She hiked it solo too. Her gear consisted of a large denim sack to carry all the gear, a shower curtain to keep her dry, canvas tennis shoes to hike in, some band aids and iodine, a bottle of Vick’s salve, a flashlight, a Swiss Army knife, and a warm coat. To ensure that her eleven children and twenty-three grandchildren wouldn’t worry about her, she didn’t tell them where or what she was about to undertake other than, “I’m going for a walk.” In todays risk adverse, high-tech world most backpackers would not take such limited gear or go alone – even for a weekend. To these folks, Emma expressed her opinion over 50 years ago, when she said, “Most people today are pantywaist.”

Starting at age 67, Emma would eventually walk over 14,000 miles to include hiking the AT three times and walking the pioneer Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon.

With nearly 50 years of hiking and reading about hiking, I have long been familiar with Emma Gatewood — familiar meaning I knew who she was and what her big hiking accomplishments were. But like most people, I knew very little about the person. Ben Montgomery has done an excellent job researching Emma’s life, to include reading her journals and other correspondence, interviewing her family and other people who knew her.

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk isn’t a hiking book and it isn’t a biography. It is both. Throughout the book the author switches from Emma’s hike to bits and pieces of her life – providing the background to who she was and perhaps why she was hiking. At first this juxtaposing from the present (her first AT walk) to the past and back to the present was irritating, but it works. Some of the background information is just snippets of historical information that often seems like filler to make a small book thicker, as the author doesn’t directly tie this information to who Emma was or how it impacted her life.

One thing about the book I absolutely hated is how the author inserts himself into Emma’s walk. Instead of just writing about Emma’s last day on her first AT through-hike, Montgomery writes about the hike he takes with his wife and a hired guide to retrace that climb to the top of Mt Katahdin. It doesn’t work and ruins a pretty good book.

What I did not know about Emma Gatewood was her work with a non-profit organization named Buckeye Trail, Inc., which was responsible for creating the Buckeye Trail in the state of Ohio. Not to mention, I had never heard of the Buckeye Trail. So I guess I better go to Ohio and check it out 🙂

The book can be purchased in hardcopy and Kindle format on Amazon.

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