- Virginia Johnson
Emma Rowena Caldwell was an intelligent, attractive young woman and a hard worker. Growing up in rural Ohio in the very early 1900s, there wasn’t much opportunity for someone in her circumstances. Born into a poor family with 15 brothers and sisters, she grew up to know farm work, but she also loved to read. At 19, she married 27-year-old, college-educated P.C. Gatewood. It wasn’t very long before the beatings started. And continued.
In 1940, having borne him eleven children and endured near constant torment, she left him. Few outside her community knew the part of her story she left behind her. But everyone across America came to know “Grandma Gatewood,” the first woman to walk the entire Appalachian Trail—more than 2,000 miles—from Georgia to Maine. By herself.
Sixty-seven-year-old Emma just told her family she was going for a walk. Fording swollen streams and facing hurricane winds were not mentioned. Neither was being gone for several months. Carrying a lightweight pack and wearing dungarees and Keds, Emma set out on her way.
Where did she get the idea for such an undertaking? Five years before, she had read an article in National Geographic magazine. It mentioned that no women had hiked it all the way through. The idea simmered within her, and she decided it “would be a lark” to try it. It turned out to be rather more than that, and Grandma Gatewood’s Walk made her into a legend.
Ben Montgomery, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his other work, tells Emma’s story with insight and compassion. His account of a truly strong woman who went on to do great deeds at a time of life when most people would have been comfortable staying in easy chairs is inspiring. Emma’s other survival story—having been a battered wife for decades and pulling free of it—is equally moving.
If you enjoy Grandma Gatewood’s Walk and decide to take to the Trail, consider checking out The Appalachian Trail Guide to Maryland-Northern Virginia and AMC’s Best Day Hikes near Washington D.C.