Grandma Gatewood

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Emma Rowena
"Grandma" Gatewood
Emma Gatewood 414x425.jpg
Born(1887-10-25)October 25, 1887
DiedJune 4, 1973(1973-06-04) (aged 85)
Resting placeOhio Valley Memory Gardens
Years active1955 to 1973 (hiking)
Known forHiking the Appalachian Trail and the Oregon Trail
Spouse(s)Perry Clayton Gatewood [m. 5 May 1907, divorced Sept. 1940]
ChildrenHelen Marie, Ruth Estell, Ernest (Monroe), William Anderson, Rowena, Ester Ann, Robert Wilson, Elizabeth Caldwell, Nelson, Dora Louise, Lucy Eleanor

Emma Rowena (Caldwell) Gatewood, known as Grandma Gatewood, (October 25, 1887–June 4, 1973),[1] was a U.S. based ultra-light hiking pioneer. She became famous as the first solo female thru-hiker of the 2,168-mile (3,489 km) Appalachian Trail (A.T.) in 1955.[2][3][4] She subsequently became the first person to hike the A.T. three times, after completing a second thru-hike two years later, followed by a section-hike in 1964.[3][4] In the meantime, on the occasion of the 1959 Oregon Centennial Exposition, she hiked 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of the Oregon Trail in three months from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon by herself at the age of 71.[2][5]


Early life and education[edit]

Gatewood was born to a family of 15 children in Guyan Township, Gallia County, Ohio. Her father Hugh Caldwell, a farmer, turned to a life of drinking and gambling after his leg was amputated in the Civil War. The child-rearing of the family was left to her mother Evelyn (Trowbridge) Caldwell. Emma and her siblings slept four to a bed in their log cabin. Her formal education ended with the eighth grade, but she enjoyed reading encyclopedias and the Greek classics, and taught herself about wildlife and woodland plants that could be used as medicines and food. She also enjoyed writing poetry.[2][5]

Marriage and children[edit]

Emma Gatewood

On May 5, 1907, at the age of 19, she married 27-year-old Perry Clayton (P. C.) Gatewood, a college-educated primary school teacher, and later tobacco farmer, with whom she had 11 children.[1] Almost immediately her husband set her to work burning tobacco beds, building fences, and mixing cement, in addition to her expected housework duties.

Although P. C. was recognized in the community as a man of above-average intellect, he had a mean streak. Within months of the wedding, he started to beat his wife, a vicious pattern that continued for the duration of their marriage.[2] In 1924, he was convicted of manslaughter after killing a man during an argument. He was ordered to pay restitution to the widow of the victim, but his prison sentence was suspended because he had nine children and a farm to take care of. Emma recalled being beaten nearly to death on several occasions. When her husband became violent, she would often run into the woods, where she found peace and solitude.

In 1939, after yet another violent fight, P. C. arranged to have his wife arrested and jailed. Seeing her with broken teeth and a cracked rib, the town mayor took her in and found her a job. She filed for divorce and in 1941 testified against her husband in a hearing that resulted in the divorce being granted, giving her custody of the three children still at home and with alimony to be paid by P. C. This was at a time when divorce was difficult, and after her husband had repeatedly threatened to have her committed to an insane asylum as a means of maintaining control over her.[5]

Six years later, when Emma had sold the farm and her youngest daughter Lucy finished high school, Emma began working at various jobs, renovating her house, and writing poetry. By 1951, all of her children were on their own.[5]

Hiking career[edit]

In the early 1950s, while reading a discarded copy of the August 1949 edition of National Geographic magazine, Gatewood found an article about the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) The description and photographs captivated her and made it sound like something she could do. All that was needed was "normal good health" and "no special skill or training." She set out in July 1954 at the age of 66 to hike south from Mount Katahdin in Maine. After a few days, she got lost, broke her glasses, and ran out of food. The rangers who found her convinced her to return home, but she vowed to herself that she would tell no one about her failure.[2][5]

The following year, at the age of 67, Gatewood told her grown children that she was going for a walk. They did not ask where or for how long, as they knew she was resilient and would take care of herself. This time, she started earlier in the year and walked north from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia beginning on May 3, 1955, and ending 146 days later on September 25 at Mount Katahdin. At the top of Baxter Peak, she signed the register, sang the first verse of the song "America the Beautiful" and spoke out loud, "I did it. I said I'd do it and I've done it."[5][6]

Because the National Geographic magazine article had given her the impression of easy walks and clean cabins at the end of each day's expedition, she took little in the way of outdoor gear. She wore canvas Keds shoes on her misshapen feet and carried some clothes and food in a homemade denim bag slung over one shoulder.[5]

Local newspapers began picking up on her story in late June, beginning in Virginia with an article in The Roanoke Times. Then the Associated Press did a national profile of her while she was in Maryland, leading to an article in Sports Illustrated when she reached Connecticut.[7] This publicity made her a celebrity even before the hike was over; she was often recognized and received "trail magic" (assistance from strangers) in the form of friends, food and places to sleep.[5]

After the hike, Sports Illustrated ran a follow-up article describing her experiences on the trail. She was quoted as saying that, based on the National Geographic article's rosy descriptions, she thought "it would be a nice lark. It wasn't." She continued, "This is no trail. This is a nightmare. For some fool reason, they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find."[6][3] Newspapers across the United States, including The Baltimore Sun, carried articles about the "jovial little grandmother" who conquered the A.T. In addition, she was invited as the featured guest on the news and talk television program the Today Show with Dave Garroway and won two hundred dollars on the televised quiz show Welcome Travelers.[5]

She thru-hiked the A.T. again in 1957, and then hiked it again in sections in 1963 at age 75, making her the first person to complete the trail three times.[4] She was also credited with being the oldest female thru-hiker by the Appalachian Trail Conference. In addition, she walked 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, averaging 22 miles (35 km) a day. She traveled to every state of the continental United States.[5]

In 1970, at age 83, while visiting Appalachian Outfitters in Oakton, Virginia she was asked what she thought about the latest lightweight backpacking gear. Emma advised: "Make a rain cape, and an over the shoulder sling bag, and buy a sturdy pair of Keds tennis shoes. Stop at local groceries and pick up Vienna sausages... most everything else to eat you can find beside the trail... and by the way those wild onions are not called "Ramps"... they are "Rampions" ... a ramp is an inclined plane."[citation needed]

Gatewood was a life member of the National Campers and Hikers Association and the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club. She was Director Emeritus and a lifetime member of the Buckeye Trail Association.[1]

Death and funeral[edit]

At the time of her death at age 85 from a heart attack, Gatewood had one surviving sister plus 66 living descendents: 11 children, 24 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild. Her funeral was held at the Waugh-Halley-Wood Funeral Home, and she was buried in Ohio Valley Memory Gardens.[1][8] Her grave marker says simply "Emma R. Gatewood - Grandma."[5]


Her legacy lives on through various tributes, artistic works, and other commemorative projects. In fact, the A.T. recognized her by including her odyssey in exhibits in The Appalachian Trail Museum. Additionally, in June 2012, she was inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame.[9] Other trails in the industry recognized her feats including Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio, where the North Country Trail, Buckeye Trail, and the American Discovery Trail coincide and a six-mile section is designated as the Grandma Gatewood Trail. It connects Old Man's Cave to Cedar Falls to Ash Cave.[10][11] She has been the subject of projects, songs, and films, including a story-telling program and one act play designed by Eden Valley Enterprises.[12] Additionally,Trail Magic, a 60-minute documentary by Put-in-Bay filmmaker Peter Huston, is about Emma Gatewood.[13] Jeff & Paige, a children's music duo based in Boulder, Colorado, released a song in her honor, titled "Grandma Gatewood", on their 2015 album "Mighty Wolf".[14] In 2018, her story was revived by her feature in the New York Times Overlooked series, which adds stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in the historically male-dominated obituaries of the Times. The piece, a belated obituary, details her hiking accomplishments and abusive family life.[2]


  • Montgomery, Ben (2014). Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1613747186.
  • Houts, Michelle (2016). When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike. Ohio University Press. ISBN 978-0-8214-2235-9.[15]
  • Trail Magic: The Grandma Gatewood Story (PBS documentary). Eden Valley Enterprises and FilmAffects.


  1. ^ a b c d "Grandma Gatewood, 85, dies". Gallipolis Daily Tribune. June 4, 1973. Archived from the original on March 24, 2021. Retrieved March 25, 2021 – via The Digital Archives of Bossard Memorial Library - Gallia County District Library. Additional archives: Gallia County Genealogical Society.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Seeley, Katherine (June 27, 2018). "Overlooked No More: Emma Gatewood, First Woman to Conquer the Appalachian Trail Alone". The New York Times. Retrieved August 27, 2018. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  3. ^ a b c Freeling, Elisa. "Good Going". Sierra Magazine. Sierra Club (November/December 2002). Retrieved 26 March 2021.
  4. ^ a b c "2,000 Milers". Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Retrieved 28 March 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Montgomery, Ben (2014). Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1613747186.
  6. ^ a b "Pioneer Grandmother". Sports Illustrated. 1955-10-10. Archived from the original on April 20, 2021.
  7. ^ "Mrs. Emma Gatewood". Sports Illustrated. 1955-08-15. Archived from the original on July 19, 2012.
  8. ^ "Emma Gatewood Buckeye Trail Director Dies". Lancaster Eagle-Gazette. 6 June 1973. Retrieved 28 March 2021 – via
  9. ^ Jim Foster. "The 2012 Class Of The Appalachian Trail Hall Of Fame | Hiking Around Midstate PA and Beyond: A community blog". Archived from the original on 2012-08-18. Retrieved 2013-12-18. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  10. ^ "Hocking County Tourism Association". Retrieved 2013-12-18. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  11. ^ "Grandma Gatewood Trail - Old Man's Cave to Ash Cave | Logan Ohio Hikes". Retrieved 2013-12-18. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  12. ^ "Grandma Gatewood program". Eden Valley Enterprises. Retrieved 2013-12-18. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  13. ^ Fogarty, Steve (2015-05-03). "Film highlights first woman to walk Appalachian Trail alone". Chronicle-Telegram. Archived from the original on 2015-05-07. Retrieved 2015-05-03. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  14. ^ "Family Fun: Jeff & Paige unleash "Mighty Wolf" in Boulder". The Denver Post. 2015-10-30. Retrieved 2020-11-25.
  15. ^ Martin, Melissa (17 January 2018). "Grandma Gatewood, Appalachian heroine". Gallipolis Daily Tribune. Retrieved 26 May 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)

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