Before there was Cheryl Strayed, there was Emma Gatewood.
On September 16, 1957, Ohio native Emma Gatewood, aged 69, arrived at the 5,270-foot peak of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the 2,050-mile-long Appalachian Trail. Back on April 27, “Grandma” Gatewood had started out from Mount Oglethorpe, Georgia – at the trail’s southern end – equipped with a handsewn denim bag of hiking supplies and a determination to repeat her record-setting trek of 1955. Two years earlier, over the course of five months, Emma had become the first woman to solo thru-hike (travel from start to finish without interruption) the scenic Appalachian Trail.
Grandma Gatewood and Cheryl Strayed – recent thru-hiker of the western-states Pacific Coast Trail and author of the best-selling memoir Wild – had something in common. They were both on a quest. Both took somewhat radical risks to complete their journeys. Both found something on the trail that changed their lives.
Emma Gatewood was born Emma Rowena Caldwell on a farm in Gallia County, Ohio, one of 15 siblings. She did her share of chores, including hoeing, planting, worming tobacco, milking, washing, and cooking. When persuasive P.C. Gatewood insisted on marriage, she consented and went on to birth her own farming family of 11 children. P.C. was not the husband young Emma had hoped for. They had a stormy relationship, witnessed by the children, in which P.C. physically abused Emma.
Sometime in the early 1950s, her family grown and gone, Emma read an article in National Geographic about Earl V. Shaffer, the first man to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Emma found this an irresistible challenge. She, a woman, could do that, too! And – in spite of her bad knees, bunions, false teeth, and feeling blind without her glasses – she did.
An abortive but instructive attempt in 1954 was followed by her successful traverse in the summer of 1955. Emma enjoyed meeting residents along the way from Georgia to Maine, often hiking out for food, temporary shelter, and the finer things like a shower and bug spray. She traveled light, carrying no more than 15 pounds of trail basics stuffed in a bag thrown over her shoulder. Emma tried to avoid predators like bears and rattlesnakes, and pesky critters like mice, black flies, mosquitos, and reporters. She was constitutionally no-nonsense and tended to believe that people could do a whole lot more than they thought. “The hardest part of hiking the Appalachian Trail,” like so many other challenges in life, she told her son Nelson, “was simply making up your mind to do it.” If Emma had worn a button, it might have read, “No Pantywaists!”
Acclaim came Emma’s way during and after her 1955 adventure. She appeared on NBC’s “Today” with Dave Garroway, “The Art Linkletter Show,” and Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life.” Reporters for countless newspapers and magazines dogged her steps and lauded her achievements. What led her to the 1957 repeat? The quiet trail, nature, the sense of a spiritual connection beckoned. “The petty entanglements of life are brushed aside like cobwebs,” Emma wrote in her trail journal. Plus, no woman had ever done it twice!
Cheryl Strayed went “wild” on the PCT in an attempt to recover from her mother’s death. Stuck in protracted grief, she found herself unable to move on in life. She was young, had many years ahead of her, and needed to find a new normal. Emma Gatewood walked into AT history as a woman of age and maturity, after her immediate responsibilities to her family were over. The limitations of an abusive husband and small children to raise, and the cultural expectations imposed on women of her generation may have sat too heavily and fit too closely on her small but sturdy frame. When she could set them aside, she did, and set out to discover in the most basic sense what she was capable of.
How capable was she? After her AT thru-hikes in 1955 and 1957, Emma walked 2000 miles of the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon (my birthplace!) in 95 days during the Trail’s centennial year celebration in 1959. She attempted a third AT passage in 1960, but heavy-weather damage to the trail diverted her course through other trails in Pennsylvania, New York Massachusetts, Vermont, and Canada. She climbed several peaks in the Adirondack Range, and successfully completed a third traverse of the AT in 1964. She was personally instrumental in creating several sections of Ohio’s treasured Buckeye Trail.
Emma died in 1973, but her memory lives on as an inspiration to all that, in the words of (fellow Mount Katahdin-climber) Henry David Thoreau, “If one advances confidently in the direction of [her] dreams, and endeavors to live the life which [she] has imagined, [she] will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Fox Searchlight Pictures is bringing Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to the big screen, starring Reese Witherspoon, on December 5th. A documentary of Emma Gatewood’s life, created by FilmAffects and WGTE/PBS Toledo, is in the works, slated for airing next spring. Fundraising to bring Emma to our small screens continues, spearheaded by Bette Lou Higgins and Kelly Boyer Sagert of Eden Valley Enterprises. Let’s make sure Grandma Gatewood has her moment in digital-celluloid history.