Hickory chickens are underfoot this month

Posted by | April 11, 2014

‘Hickory chickens,’ or ‘dry land fish,’ don’t have anything to do with chicken, fish or hickory. They are morel mushrooms and they’re in season right about now. Look for 3 varieties throughout Appalachia: morchella esculenta, which can be found under old apple or pear trees when the oak leaves are about mouse-ear size; morchella angusticeps (‘fat morel’), which can be found under oak, beech or maple forests, when the serviceberry is in bloom; and morchella crassipes, found on swampy ground near jewelweed.

morel mushroomAll favor damp soil and decaying logs, and if you hunt after a spring rain when the sun has warmed things up a bit you’ll likely be rewarded. Don’t count on help from die-hard ‘shroom hunters, however! Not only is the morel’s flavor prized above all other mushrooms, but it’s notoriously difficult to cultivate commercially. And so hunters are loath to share their fields lest others clean them out first.

Watch out for false morels. ‘True’ morels have caps that are completely attached to the stem–while false morels in the genus Verpa have caps that hang completely free, like a thimble placed on a pencil eraser. One of the verpas, Verpa bohemica, is known to be mildly poisonous to some people.

Batter dipped and fried up, nothing compares to the ‘sponge mushroom’s mild oyster flavor (hence the ‘dry land fish’ label). Some folks shun the batter, and saute them plain with butter and onion. They can be dried (never frozen!) for the off-season months (they need to be soaked in water for a few hours to reconstitute them). Or just use them dried: they can be turned into powder with a rolling pin to make a wonderful morel “spice” that can be added to sauces.

Related post: Land fishing for Molly Moochers

sources: Firefox 2, ed. Eliot Wigginton, Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1970

http://www.mushroomexpert.com/morchellaceae.html

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Heirloom Seeds and Social Bridges: Forging Connections in Lumpkin County, GA

Posted by | April 10, 2014

Jonathan WinskiePlease welcome guest author Jonathan Winskie. Winskie is a graduating senior at the University of North Georgia. He is pursuing a History degree with an Appalachian Studies minor. He has worked as a seasonal Interpretive Park Ranger at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia (National Park Service) and as a Student Assistant at the North Georgia Appalachian Studies Center.

 

In the fall of 2012, seven students from a diverse array of academic majors and social backgrounds ventured from the comfort of the neo-suburban bubble that was North Georgia College & State University’s (now University of North Georgia’s) campus. These students, all enrolled in the fledgling Introduction to Appalachian Studies course, sought to extend their collegiate experience beyond the classroom; they desired an experience just as unique and perhaps even more personal than the lush forests, gentle streams, and timeworn mountains could provide.

heirloom demo booth

Most of the students had spent extensive time exploring the natural beauty of the region; some even chose to attend North Georgia in large part for the very reason that such outdoor recreation would be readily available. No, these students sought an experience that eluded most of their classmates, or perhaps they eluded it: they sought to engage in conversation with the people whose ancestors had cleared, sawed, planted, and sweated their way to a hospitable mountain home and who still resided in the county today. These students brought with them an open mind, empty paper, and an eagerness to connect with those who didn’t see Lumpkin as simply a pretty retirement community or as a necessary stop in their transient journey to careers and families.

Several key questions fueled their inquiry: how has heirloom seed gardening helped to develop community in Lumpkin County? What is the status of the tradition? What heirloom seeds still exist within the county?

The students’ line of inquiry coalesced into Saving Appalachian Gardens and Stories (SAGAS). SAGAS, a collaboration between the Departments of Biology and Visual Arts and the Appalachian Studies Center, is one of 15 Appalachian Teaching Projects  sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Since that initial foray into the hearts and minds of Lumpkin’s citizenry, dozens of students have followed in the footsteps of the initial septet, expanding the project beyond the bounds of Lumpkin County and bringing the seeds and citizens highlighted in the project to a various by-invitation presentations and conferences, including several Appalachian Studies Association Conferences and even presenting before the Federal Co-Chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, Earl Gohl.

Two students published a scholarly article detailing the project in Papers and Publications, the University of North Georgia’s peer reviewed undergraduate research journal. The article can be found here. I have been personally invested in the project since its outset, and given that I will be graduating in a little over a month, it comes time to reflect on the significance of this project from a student’s perspective.

Students work on putting together a "communograph" that depicts the data collected while researching the practice of collecting and sharing heirloom seeds. A communograph is a piece of artwork that serves as a collective memory bank, artistically representing the seeds, the stories, and the people who save them. It is a map of Lumpkin County, with photos of seeds, plants and community members transferred onto large pieces of fabric. The sections of the map are stitched together with red string depicting community boundaries and the areas where seed collectors share their produce and their seeds.

Students work on putting together a “communograph” that depicts the data collected while researching the practice of collecting and sharing heirloom seeds. A communograph is a piece of artwork that serves as a collective memory bank, artistically representing the seeds, the stories, and the people who save them. It is a map of Lumpkin County, with photos of seeds, plants and community members transferred onto large pieces of fabric. The sections of the map are stitched together with red string depicting community boundaries and the areas where seed collectors share their produce and their seeds.

I could expound upon the unique varieties of heirloom seeds endemic to Lumpkin County and northeast Georgia, or engage in a bitter diatribe against the influx of commercialization, but neither of those encompasses the true scope of heirloom seed gardening in Lumpkin County. Instead, I hope to emphasize the metaphoric “bridges” built upon these seeds. These seeds served, and still serve, as vessels to facilitate deep and powerful connections between community members, students, and, potentially, the future.

Many of the families that still practice heirloom gardening in Lumpkin County have deep roots in the region. Several of the families (the Grizzles, the Gilreaths, the Jarrards, etc.) all claim ancestry dating back to the 1833 Gold Rush or shortly thereafter. Living in the mountains of northeast Georgia could be a strenuous and sometimes dangerous endeavor. Those that decided to make the mountains their home relied upon their neighbors for survival, a necessity which developed deep community attachments.

One of the mainstays of life in Lumpkin, even as late as the 1960s and 70s, was growing one’s own food supply. However, this food was not horded selfishly. Carol Meeks, a native of Lumpkin, remembers that when a neighbor had an excess yield, “you just went over and got it, whatever they had.” Neighbors would behave in the same manner towards her own family’s garden. In this way, families traded heirloom seeds amongst each other. As we traced heirloom seeds through Lumpkin County, we found that many of the old families of the county traded heirloom seeds with each other, and so in some ways these seeds helped to facilitate the development of community in Lumpkin County.

Detail from communograph

Detail from communograph

Furthermore, heirloom seeds served as a social bridge between the students that took part in the project and the community members that gardened. In the five years that I have been enrolled at North Georgia, I’ve noticed that stepping onto the Dahlonega campus from anywhere else in the county was like stepping onto a different world. The vast majority of students hailed from outside of the county, and on weekends, the campus becomes like a ghost town, the site of a mass exodus of studentry making their way back towards Atlanta and its suburbs.

Thus, a very real disconnect exists between the community on North Georgia’s campus and that of Lumpkin County, as most students never take advantage of any opportunity to experience the “deep culture” of Lumpkin County. Instead, the relationship between students and community members is one founded upon misunderstanding and prejudice. When I first enrolled at North Georgia, my fellow cadets and I were taught to avoid the local “Nuggets,” lest we be forced to reenact a scene from the infamous Deliverance. This prejudice, as with most, proved to be baseless and ignorant.

For many of the students involved, the heirloom seed project served to rectify the problem by creating a dialogue between student and community member, and thus, I hope, the beginnings of a sense of mutual understanding and respect. In talking with my fellow students, many of them view this as an invaluable part of their college career. Several maintain contact with the community members with whom they worked, and I would venture to say that almost all see this project as personally and academically enriching.

Though there may have been some initial confusion as to our intentions, the reaction from the community towards our project and our students has been generally positive, with many being proud to share a little bit of their culture with those outside of their mountain town. I hope that we have built a bridge between campus and community that will continue to be mutually enriching and beneficial for years to come.

I feel that this project has the potential to build a bridge between the present generations and those of the future. In a world of growing dissatisfaction with corporate agribusiness, harmful chemicals, and genetic viability of food, heirloom vegetables offer a potential sustainable and healthy alternative. Many of our “seedkeepers” remarked that they practice heirloom gardening not out of necessity, but out of a desire to maintain some sense of autonomy and control over their food. Some practice heirloom gardening in order to help maintain genetic diversity among plant species. In heirloom gardening we can see the beginnings of social and environmental activism, and thus we have a potential blueprint for helping to create a more sustainable future for all.

Unfortunately, heirloom gardening in Lumpkin County seems to be on the decline. With the influx of conveniences such as a Wal-Mart and various fast-food chains, the time and effort required to grow one’s own food seems unnecessary for many. Most of those that still practice the tradition in Lumpkin County are approaching their twilight years, and few of younger generations seem to be carrying on the tradition in their stead.

heirloom tomato

I hope that through this project, Lumpkin County gardeners may have found some eligible youth to carry the banner forward. As Bill Best wrote in his book Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia, “the need to educate our public about this important aspect of our heritage can’t be overstated… We can start by saving and sharing.” I hope that the saving and sharing done by heirloom gardeners in Lumpkin County will help to build that bridge to a better future for all.

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Hopewell Country and the Junction Earthworks

Posted by | April 9, 2014

MaslowskiPlease welcome guest author Robert F. Maslowski. Dr. Maslowski was educated at Holy Cross College, Massachusetts, and has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. He retired as a civilian archeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers and teaches Appalachian Studies at Marshall University South Charleston Campus. He is editor of the journal West Virginia Archeologist.

 

Last Thursday we drove west to Hopewell country to meet with Nancy Stranahan, Director of the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System and Bruce Lombardo, Director of Heartland Earthworks Conservancy. The two of them were instrumental in a recent successful effort to preserve one of the largest and most complicated earthwork complexes built by the Hopewell.

Both Hopewell and Adena are regional cultures made up of many different ethnic groups or tribes. Hopewell DNA supports the theory that they were multi-ethnic. Adena, Appalachia’s first moundbuilding culture, dates from about 500 BC to AD 200. The major mounds and concentrations of mounds are located along the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers. The Adena developed an extensive trade network that included copper from the Great Lakes Region and marine shell from the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. These artifacts are commonly found in the Adena burial mounds.

Hopewell, which dates from 200 BC to AD 400 in Ohio, is located on the western edge of Appalachia. The Hopewell expanded on Adena mound building and constructed more elaborate earthworks with their burial mounds. They also expanded on the Adena trade network and besides Lake Superior copper and Gulf and Atlantic marine shell, the network included obsidian and grizzly bear teeth from the Rock Mountains, mica from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, silver from Canada and shark teeth from the east coast. The concentration of Hopewell earthworks is along the Scioto River on the edge of Appalachia at the intersection of several different environmental zones.

In spite of the elaborate trade networks and extensive mound and earthwork building, both the Adena and Hopewell were hunters and gatherers who practiced limited horticulture. They lived in scattered farmsteads and not villages.

Driving to Hopewell country, we decided to take the southern route, crossing the Ohio River at Huntington and crossing again at Greenup Lock and Dam, picking up Route 23 in Kentucky. Route 23 remains a part of eastern Kentucky oral tradition and folklore, “we were taught the three R’s in school, readin, writin and Route 23, the road to Columbus.” Route 23 was also part of the trail system that the Hopewell used to get mica from North Carolina. Elaborate ornaments were carved out of mica with special prismatic blades made of Flint Ridge Flint from east central Ohio. Pieces of mica along with these Flint Ridge blades were found at the Blanton Site near Paintsville Lake, KY, and the Cyrus Dock site on the Big Sandy River in Wayne County, WV. These were most likely trade centers along the Hopewell trade routes to the southeast.

Figure 1. Hopewell Blades made from Flint Ridge Flint.

Figure 1. Hopewell Blades made from Flint Ridge Flint.

The Junction Group is located in Ross County, west of Chillicothe, at the confluence of Paint Creek and North Fork Creek. It is one of the largest and most complicated earthwork complexes built by the Hopewell. It is also one of the most intact examples of a Hopewell earthwork complex. The Junction Group was mapped and described by Ephraim G. Squier and Edwin H. Davis. They partially excavated one of the mounds in October 1845, and uncovered one badly decayed human skeleton at a depth of three feet, and three well preserved skeletons at a depth of seven feet. Their map and report were published in 1848, in the first volume of the Smithsonian Institution’s ‘‘Contributions to Knowledge’’ series, titled Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley.

Figure 2. Squier and Davis map with highlighted features.

Figure 2. Squier and Davis map with highlighted features.

Some of the earthen walls and one of the mounds are still visible after many decades of plowing. In 2005, Dr. Jarrod Burks (Heartland Earthworks Conservancy), Dr. N’omi Greber (Cleveland Museum of Natural History) and Dr. Wesley Bernardini (University of Redlands) completed a geophysical survey of the Junction Group which confirmed that the other structures mapped by Squier and Davis, while not visible today, were buried but still intact. The survey also documented a unique earthwork shape not previously recognized in Ohio, a quatrefoil (a 4-leaf clover shape). Squire and Davis had originally described this earthwork as a square with rounded corners.

Ceremonial Centers like the Junction Group show evidence of mathematical and engineering ability including the use of a standard unit of measurement. These earthworks were often designed using complex astronomical alignments related to the movement of the moon and sun. Hopewell engineers started construction of a mound or earthwork by digging out a foundation to a depth of about two feet below the surface. For earthworks, different types of clay were carried in and deposited it layers.

Figure 3. Burk's magnetic survey superimposed on an aerial photograph.

Figure 3. Burk’s magnetic survey superimposed on an aerial photograph.

The 335 acre farm including the Junction Group was scheduled to be sold at auction on March 18, 2014. The farm was divided into several parcels that would be auctioned off separately. A coalition of several environmental groups, including Arc of Appalachia Preserve System, The Heartland Earthworks Conservancy, The Archaeological Conservancy, Rivers Unlimited and SCOPS, South Central Ohio Preservation Society, was formed to bid on selected properties. The coalition was successful in purchasing the 90 acre tract that included the Junction Earthworks, an 18 acre tract of hillside and an additional 40 acre tract. The coalition also purchased from the property owners 1.2 miles of riverfront along Paint Creek, which was not included in the auction.

What makes this purchase unique is that not only was the archeological site preserved, but the purchase of the adjacent tracts of land will also preserve the environmental context of the Junction Earthwork Group. While many mounds and earthworks have been preserved, they are often located in developed towns or cities without any environmental context.

Figure 4. Criel Mound, South Charleston, West Virginia. Partially excavated by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1880s.

Figure 4. Criel Mound, South Charleston, West Virginia. Partially excavated by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1880s.

Ross County has more than 30 ancient earthworks, several of which are being nominated to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. One of the reasons for this concentration of ceremonial centers and earthworks is the environmental context of Ross County. While the forests of Appalachia have been known as one of the most productive eco-systems in the temperate world, Chillicothe lies at the center of six intersecting geological regions and at the terminus of the Wisconsin Glaciation. At Chillicothe the Scioto River crosses the boundary between the glaciated Central Lowlands and the unglaciated Appalachian Plateau. This Hopewell Heartland has the greatest diversity of micro-environments in the Ohio Valley and most likely made it possible for a hunting and gathering society with limited horticulture to create such elaborate ceremonial centers.

Paint Creek and North Fork Creek have been designated as Exceptional Warm Water Habitats. The section of Paint Creek bordering the Junction Earthworks serves as an aquatic refuge for a number of fish species that disappeared from the Scioto River due to pollution. These streams also provide habitat for several endangered species. The purchase and preservation of the wooded parcels and 1.2 miles of riverbank along Paint Creek will provide good examples of Appalachian forest environments that were utilized by the Hopewell.

Figure 5. Robert Daffort Mural at Appalachian Forest Museum, Bainbridge, Ohio. Photo by C. Philip Gould.

Figure 5. Robert Daffort Mural at Appalachian Forest Museum, Bainbridge, Ohio. Photo by C. Philip Gould.

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Book Excerpt: ‘Hippie Homesteaders’

Posted by | April 8, 2014

Head shotThumbPlease welcome guest author Carter Taylor Seaton. Seaton is the author of two novels, Father’s Troubles, and amo, amas, amat…an unconventional love story, numerous magazine articles, and several essays and short stories. In her earlier life, she directed a rural craft cooperative, was nominated for the Ladies Home Journal’s “Women of the Year 1975” Award, and ran three marathons—Atlanta, New York City, and Marine Corps—after she was fifty. Her newest book, the non-fiction Hippie Homesteaders, was just published by West Virginia University Press. We’re pleased to offer an excerpt from it here:

 

Unraveling the tapestry of efforts that culminated in West Virginia’s strong reputation for supporting its arts is tricky business. Pull one agency thread, and you’ll find it tied to others. Although Don Page and the West Virginia Department of Commerce seem to have been the very earliest proponents of handcrafts as an economic engine, others took up the cause in short order. In addition to Don, artisans of that period give credit for help in launching their careers to Tim Pyles, then Coordinator of the Crafts Program at Cedar Lakes, Norman Fagan and Jim Andrews at the Department of Culture and History, and Rebecca Stelling, manager of The Shop at the Cultural Center. The Mountain State Art & Craft Fair and the West Virginia Arts & Crafts Guild that formed at the first fair, while not actual state agencies, also were entwined in the state’s efforts. They provided another valuable layer of marketing assistance to the emerging craft community.

seaton_des_cov_lg_blurb_rgb

When the West Virginia Department of Commerce sent Don and his fellow staffers across the state to find these folks who made arts and crafts, they did so knowing that of all their tourism-marketing efforts, craft events were the most lucrative. Thus, their mission was to encourage the artisans, offer additional training, if necessary, and find markets for their work, often through the craft fair venue.

For the upcoming 1963 centennial, they either identified or encouraged the creation of over one hundred fairs, festivals, or celebrations statewide that included arts and crafts as an essential component. One of these was the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair (MSACF), which was conceived by several folks involved with the Cedar Lakes Conference Center at Ripley, West Virginia. When Cedar Lakes was created in 1950, it was dedicated to providing educational opportunities for students and adults. Situated on a former farm, the 360-acre venue originally included four groups of cottages, an assembly building, dining hall, and chapel surrounding a four-acre lake. An arts and crafts center offering “training in the craft field to anyone in West Virginia interested in learning to make craft items for fun or profit” also was part of the initial plan.

Therefore, during the run-up to the state centennial, Ron Thomas, Larry Cavendish, and Margaret Pamalon decided the best thing they could do for the celebration was put on a craft fair, and that Cedar Lakes was the ideal location. They wanted to showcase the work of some of the people who had been taking workshops at the facility’s craft center. With the joint support of the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Education, the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair opened in July 1963 with fifty-four exhibitors. They intended it to be a one-year only event. Invitations to come see what the state had to offer were sent nationwide. Huge crowds attended, including folks from the Smithsonian Institution.

Faced with such success, it became an annual event, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2013. Although its first exhibitors were indigenous artisans, it didn’t take long for word of the MSACF to spread to the back-to-the-landers who were arriving as early as 1965. Don Page was eager to help them get accepted by the fair. A former industrial arts teacher, Don had operated twenty-six craft workshops while he was in the military. Each offered a different discipline. He knew his stuff. “I was receptive to those people, because they often had a background in design, and could move vertically in the craft medium whereas sometimes, the traditional people could not break themselves from their old molds,” he recalls. This honing of a traditional craft is often what made the back-to-the-land artisans so successful. Some began to exhibit at the fair after adopting both West Virginia and their new craft.

Connie weaving 1

Others, like potter Brian Van Nostrand, who landed in Webster County three years after the centennial celebration, were already practicing artisans. Don learned about Brian after reading a letter the artist had sent to the Department of Commerce seeking sales outlets. Van Nostrand was typical of the new breed of artisan, according to Don, and he reached out to the young man.

One day, Brian looked up to see Don and wood sculptor Wolfgang Flor walking up his road. Surprised to see any visitors at his remote homestead, he was even more amazed when Don told him the department would pay his expenses to come to the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair. He recalls thinking it was a dream come true. “I went, and remember making about four hundred dollars, thinking, ‘Oh man, we’re going to be making big money here – not big money, but maybe I can make a living doing this,’” he says as we sit chatting at a picnic table outside McDonald’s near Flatwoods, West Virginia.

After nearly thirty years, I’d been thinking about this reunion for several days, knowing I’d recognize him instantly. His engaging smile and steel blue eyes were indelibly imprinted after fifteen years as his tent-next-door neighbor at the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair. I was just as certain he would remember me. We had talked by phone, planned the meeting. Finally the day arrived. I found him sitting inside McDonald’s, bent over the table, his hands enveloping a coffee cup as if it were an unformed ball of clay. Only the top of his head was visible. Brian is no longer young, but he remains lithe and wiry. Bearded like most of the artisans of that earlier day, he still dresses in a tie-dyed T-shirt and jeans. He hasn’t changed, except for the graying hair. As I approached, he looked up, his blue eyes smiled, and crow’s-feet formed. “It’s been a long time, Carter,” he said. After we chatted a moment, we moved outside into the sun and he continued his story.

Joe at wheel

New Jersey born Brian Van Nostrand was studying art and philosophy at Furman University in South Carolina when he met Montie, his future wife. While waiting for her to graduate, he apprenticed with a nearby studio potter and discovered that ceramics was something he really loved. The experience set the course for his future career.

When Brian learned that West Virginia was hoping to attract artisans for tourism and promotion purposes, the couple decided to look there for their future home. They knew crafts held a strong tradition in the southern highlands and had learned from Brian’s mentor that other artisans were building successful careers in the mountains. Young and eager, after working for about six months in New Jersey to save start-up money, they headed south to look at West Virginia. Within eleven days of leaving home, they’d bought land in Hacker Valley, Webster County, where they currently live. It cost twenty-six dollars an acre—cheap even then—and they were debt free. They’d brought a year’s worth of canned food, basic materials, and foodstuffs, including potatoes, and were determined to have no overhead from the beginning.

It was a brutal first year. Brian had few, if any building skills, much to Montie’s dismay. Arriving in October, they slept on the ground under a makeshift canvas lean-to until the weather turned so cold Brian’s beard froze when he breathed. Neighbors gave them a miniature wood stove, and they moved into a structure built for drying corn that was still standing on their property. Although he knew next to nothing about construction, Brian did know about the basic materials, having worked at a building supply store in New Jersey. Soon, he began building their home by reading an instruction book one chapter at a time: Chapter One – How to Frame, Chapter two – Rafters, etc. By spring they had moved in, although the house still lacked windows. Once they were under roof, he set up his studio and began making pots.

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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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