Overlooked No More: Emma Gatewood, First Woman to Conquer the Appalachian Trail Alone

What the public knew about Emma Gatewood was already remarkable. She was the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail by herself in one season. She was 67 years old, a mother of 11, a grandmother and even a great-grandmother when she accomplished the feat in 1955. And she personified the concept of low-tech, ultralight hiking, spurning a tent and sleeping bag, carrying only a small sack and relying on her trusty Keds.

But what the public did not know was equally remarkable. Grandma Gatewood, as she was called, had survived 30 years of severe beatings and sexual abuse by her husband. She often escaped from him by running into the woods, and she came to view the wilderness as protective and restorative.

That Gatewood was alone and in her late 60s renewed interest in the trail, especially among women. If a woman of her age could hike it all the way in one season, many of them reasoned, they could, too. Her citation at the Appalachian Trail Museum concludes: “She inspired two distinct movements in long distance hiking, women thru-hikers and the ultra-lite movement.”

By the time Gatewood died at 85 in 1973, she had hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail three times — the third time, in sections — and was the first person, man or woman, to conquer it more than once.

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