In 1955, Emma Rowena Gatewood told her kids that she was going out for a little stroll. It was a little stroll that would end up taking her on a 2,168-mile journey traversing the Appalachian Trail — all the way from Georgia to Maine. And the 67-year-old did it all in one season, all alone.
She has always loved nature and the freedom that came with venturing out into the woods.
Gatewood was a farmer’s wife from Ohio, with 11 children and 24 grandchildren. She was also a survivor of domestic violence. There was even a time when her husband nearly beat her to death. She suffered from broken teeth, broken ribs, and threatened to commit her to an insane asylum if she ever thought about leaving their marriage.
When she needed to escape from the horrors at home, Gatewood would venture into the forest to find solace.
Thankfully, she was able to finally get divorced from her abusive husband, and became content in never re-marrying.
So, what inspired her to take on such an impressive feat? In 1950, she came across an article in National Geographic
that highlighted the legendary trail. However, she would soon find out that the article had come up a little short when describing the difficulty of the hike. She thought it would be a walk in the park. It wasn’t.
Equipped with only a pair of Keds tennis shoes on her feet, minimal hiking gear, a raincoat and a plastic shower curtain, she set off on her adventure.
Shortly after beginning her trek, people began recognizing the grandmother traveling all alone along the longest hiking-only trail in the world. Before long, local newspapers began following her story to share it with the public. By the time she made it to Connecticut, “Grandma Gatewood” was interviewed by Sports Illustrated, becoming an instant celebrity.
Despite bringing very few items with her, those she met along the way provided what hikers along the Appalachian Trail call “trail magic.” Trail magic is basically totally strangers offering hikers gifts, food and a place to rest their head at night.
Because of this “trail magic,” she was given the help that she needed to continue conquering more states, eventually hiking through 14 of them.
By the time she turned 75, Gatewood had become the first person in history to hike the Appalachian Trail three times. On top of that, she also hiked the 2,000 mile Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon, where she averaged about 22 miles per day.