In spring of 1955, 67-year-old Emma Gatewood walked away from her Ohio home and caught a flight to Atlanta to begin hiking the Appalachian Trail. Starting from the southernmost point of the trail, Emma told no one where she was headed, simply telling her eleven grown children that she was going for a walk. Months later, after multiple newspaper interviews, she mailed her family postcards telling of her whereabouts.
Emma “Grandma” Gatewood was not an experienced hiker when she began her journey, but she was a strong farmers wife. She had experienced a lifetime of pain at the hands of her abusive husband, and her children had no doubt that she was able to care for herself. And care for herself she did, hiking 2,168 miles past snakes and porcupines, through hurricane driven rain that soaked her through for days, and along poorly marked wilderness trails. By late summer Emma had succeeded in becoming the first woman to complete the hike from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Emma’s remarkable journey raised the notoriety of the trail to new levels. At the time of her first hike, the Appalachian Trial was about 20 years old, rough and barely complete. Emma’s journey inspired more thru-hikers to take on the trail, with numbers rising from 59 completions in the first 33 years of the trail’s existence (1936-1969), to 775 completions in the next decade (1970s) alone. Emma’s story of perseverance and determination will inspire any outdoor enthusiast to find their next trail and go for a walk.