Book Review: ‘Grandma Gatewood’s Walk’

Posted by | April 7, 2014

Bette Lou Higgins

Bette Lou Higgins

Please welcome guest book reviewer Bette Lou Higgins. Higgins, Artistic Director of Eden Valley Enterprises, is working to document Emma Gatewood’s life with a storytelling program, e-book, one-act play and PBS documentary. The project is being undertaken by Eden Valley, FilmAffects and WGTE/PBS. Bette Lou says that whenever she tells the story of Emma Gatewood her audiences are always inspired – even if it’s just to take a walk around the block!


When I was in 11th grade at Garfield Heights Senior High School in Garfield Heights, OH, I had an English teacher – Mr. Toneff. We did quite a bit of writing in his class and Mr. Toneff had a mantra: “V.S.D.!” Vivid Specific Detail… for writing to be good, it had to have V.S.D.

Mr. Toneff would love Ben Montgomery. His new book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, has A LOT of V.S.D. On the very first page, as Montgomery describes Grandma’s ride up the mountain to start her record-setting hike on the Appalachian Trail, he vividly describes the trip: “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.” You can practically see a little old lady looking out the car window with anticipation. You can practically feel the bumps on the mountain road. You can practically hear the engine and the cabbie complaining.

And Vivid Specific Detail is what fills this chronicle of a woman’s life travels.

grandma gatewood cover

Emma Rowena Caldwell Gatewood was 67 years old in 1955 when she started on a trail that would lead her, not only to the top of a mountain, but to fame, celebrity and status as an inspiration to hikers (and non-hikers) for years to come. At this time of her life, when most women her age were settling into quiet domesticity, Emma took a hike. She started at Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia and stopped 2,050 miles later at the top of Mt. Katahdin, Maine to become the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) alone!

Montgomery’s book follows her as she moves forward on the A.T., but also looks back at the events in her life that came before THE hike – the childhood spent in poverty, the endless chores, the marriage that gave her 11 children and ended after 33 years of abuse. However, Ben Montgomery doesn’t just look at Emma’s life – he looks at her times. He sandwiches her story between the histories of the Appalachian Trail, the automobile, and even a kind of history of walking and hiking and the country. His view of her life is as vast as the view from the top of the mountains Emma climbed.

Emma’s “walk in the park” wasn’t – not on the trail, not in life. The trail, which was relatively new in 1955, was not in the “advertised condition” of a comfortable four feet in width with food easy to obtain and shelters nearby. The trail barely existed in many places, shelters were often filthy or uninhabitable and it was helpful to be able to forage for food growing wild if you wanted to eat regularly. In life, she worked hard and endured poverty and abuse. Her husband, Perry Gatewood, started beating her shortly after their marriage and didn’t stop until their divorce. Emma raised her children, crops and flowers. She wrote poetry and enjoyed nature. She was bent, not broken. She rose above it all and Ben Montgomery tells it all.

Emma’s hike wasn’t the end – it was the beginning of a new phase in her life. It wasn’t any easier than her past, but it was HER choice. She went back and thru-hiked the A.T. two more times. She hiked the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail in 1959. She helped establish Ohio’s Buckeye Trail. Between 1955 and her death in 1973 she hiked MORE than 10,000 miles. At 82 years old she was still working on the Buckeye Trail – clearing it, blazing it, leading hikes on it. She said, “Why, I’ve done more since I was ‘too old’ than most young women.”

Though Montgomery tries to answer the persistent question of “WHY did she do it?”, there seems to be no one answer. Emma gave different ones every time she was asked – “After 20 years of hanging diapers and seeing my children grow up and go their own way, I decided to take a walk – one I always wanted to take.” “I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill, then what’s beyond that.” “Just for the heck of it.” But he concludes with some Very Specific Detail with the answer that seems to make the most sense. Grandma Gatewood told one reporter that she did it “Because I wanted to.”

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is the story of a remarkable woman. Her life covered the time when walking was the main form of transportation to the time when man walked on the moon. Her story gives us all hope that our trip can be an adventure, too, if we only keep putting one foot in front of the other. So read her story and then go take a hike!

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