Friday, February 27, 2015

Grandma Gatewood's Walk: book review

It was 1973, sitting on the front porch of this old farmhouse, visiting our nearest neighbor a mile down the road, Mrs. Lola Mealer. I loved listening to her stories, my favorite was about the time Granny Gatewood walked down the road and set a spell, taking a break from her walk on the Appalachian Trail. Mrs. Mealer told us all about the little grandmother setting out to hike the trail, she described her tennis shoes and knapsack. I was delighted to read about my neighbor in the very first chapter of this book, Grandma Gatewood's Walk by Ben Montgomery.

She caught a ride to Charleston, West Virginia, then boarded a bus to the airport, then a plane to Atlanta, then a bus from there to a little picture-postcard spot called Jasper, Georgia, “the First Mountain Town.” Now here she was in Dixieland, five hundred miles from her Ohio home, listening to the rattle and ping in the back of a taxicab, finally making her ascent up the mountain called Oglethorpe, her ears popping, the cabbie grumbling about how he wasn’t going to make a penny driving her all this way. She sat quiet, still, watching through the window as miles of Georgia blurred past. 
They hit a steep incline, a narrow gravel road, and made it within a quarter mile of the top of the mountain before the driver killed the engine.
She collected her supplies and handed him five dollars, then one extra for his trouble. That cheered him up. And then he was gone, taillights and dust, and Emma Gatewood stood alone, an old woman on a mountain.
She pulled from the box a drawstring sack she’d made back home from a yard of denim, her wrinkled fingers doing the stitching, and opened it wide. She filled the sack with other items from the box: Vienna Sausage, raisins, peanuts, bouillon cubes, powdered milk. She tucked inside a tin of Band-Aids, a bottle of iodine, some bobby pins, and a jar of Vicks salve. She packed the slippers and a gingham dress that she could shake out if she ever needed to look nice. She stuffed in a warm coat, a shower curtain to keep the rain off, some drinking water, a Swiss Army knife, a flashlight, candy mints, and her pen and a little Royal Vernon Line memo book that she had bought for twenty-five cents at Murphy’s back home.
 She stood, finally, her canvas Keds tied tight, on May 3, 1955, atop the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world.

Grandma Gatewood's Walk by Ben Montgomery tells Grandma Gatewood's story, 40 years after her death and almost 60 years after her first AT through-hike in 1955. Research included her diaries and trail journals, newspaper clippings, interviews with family and friends and folks met along the way.

Learning of the trail by reading an article in National Geographic, Emma Gatewood couldn't stop thinking about it. She took to heart the part about only a handful of people having hiked the entire trail from one end to the other - all men - and she vowed to be the first woman.

She loved to walk and loved the woods, so one day she just left. She didn't tell anyone, not her children or grandchildren. She said they were all grown and gone, that she would send them a postcard.

The AT's southernmost point was not always on Springer Mountain like it is today. From the early 1930s until 1958 it began on Mount Oglethorpe, which is just 5 miles up the road from my house.

When Emma Gatewood got out of that taxicab on the top of Mount Oglethorpe, she read the inscription on the monument there and proceeded down the trail/road. The trail took a sharp turn but she missed the marker and stayed on the gravel road until she came to the farmhouse of Mr. and Mrs. Mealer who were nice enough to let her stay the night. This was her very first of many encounters of nice folks along the way, and some not so nice. That morning she started out on the walk of a lifetime. With her trademark Keds sneakers and denim knapsack she went where no woman had gone before, making history along the way.

Before her stood mountains, more than three hundred of them topping five thousand feet… and finally - five million steps away - Katahdin.

Another book about real people doing extraordinary things, right here in Georgia, right here on our road! Reminds me of An Appalachian Childhood by Deany Brady, good reading!


blheve said...

This book is really good and tells Emma story in great detail!

I am working on a project to document Grandma Gatewood's life which will culminate in a PBS documentary this May. (You can get complete information about the project at )

Is your neighbor still around. I'd love to talk to her -- we are still interviewing people who knew Emma for the film. If she's available, please contact me directly.

Thank you.

Stephie said...

Wow, thank you for such a lovely post - I really enjoyed it. I'm a keen lover of the outdoors and enjoy walking long distances. Some years ago I read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods and thought then I'd love to walk the AT (or some of it!) - I'd be a bit apprehensive about bears though, not too many of those to contend with in the UK!!!