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Emma Gatewood: The Grandma of the Appalachian Trail

Here's how Emma "Grandma" Gatewood made history with an impressive 2,168-mile trek.

In 1955, 67-year-old Grandma Gatewood told her family she was heading out for a hike. Then 146 days later she summited Mount Katahdin in Maine to become the first woman ever to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail Trail solo.

While this feat alone is incredibly impressive, her whole life story is one of overcoming obstacles.

Born in Gallia County, Ohio, Emma Rowena Caldwell was one of 15 children. Her father became an alcoholic and gambler after losing a leg in the Civil War, and her childhood was anything but easy. With only an eighth-grade formal education, she continued to read and learn about wildlife and plant life on her own.

After enduring over 30 years of beatings at the hands of husband P.C. Gatewood with whom she had 11 children, Emma Gatewood finally escaped domestic violence and set out on her own.

Ultra-Light Hiking Career

Inspired by a National Geographic article that made it sound easy, Gatewood set out to hike the Appalachian Trail alone for the first time in 1954 but returned home just a few days later after a series of misfortunes.

The following May, she set out from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia with no sleeping bag, hikers, or frame pack — just a shower curtain for protection, Keds on her feet, and a small denim bag containing a few items. She survived on plants and berries she found and slept on leaves or stones.

News outlets got wind of her story and made her somewhat famous mid-hike, resulting in "trail magic" help from strangers. She reached Baxter Peak on September 25 and celebrated her successful journey with a verse of "America the Beautiful."

After two more trips, she became the first person—man or woman—to hike the complete Appalachian Trail three times. She also completed a 2,000-mile hike on the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Portland and several other long-distance hikes throughout the country, including an annual trip through Hocking Hills State Park.

Sports Illustrated profiled Grandma Gatewood in the 50s along several other media outlets since then, and her full biography — "Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail" by Ben Montgomery — was published in 2016. She was posthumously inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame and continues to inspire thru-hikers decades after her death.