Grandma Gets Mean


Grandma Gatewood, courtesy of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy

I used to hear that for every woman on the Appalachian Trail, there were twenty men. That number is probably an exageration, but if you ask the women who walk the 2200-mile trail from Georgia to Maine, many of them will tell you that a boy’s club vibe prevails. The woods are, after all, one of the few places left in America where a man can be a man. By contrast, it’s said that the women who make the five-month journey just “get mean.”

So, cheers to the first woman who ever got mean on the Appalachian Trail. In 1955, a 67-year-old grandmother set out from Georgia in a pair of Keds, carrying little more than an old army blanket and a shower curtain for a tent. Five months later she reached mile-high Katahdin in Maine where a strong wind nearly blew her off the summit as she belted out “America the Beautiful.” According to Sports Illustrated (10/10/55), when asked why she hiked the Appalachian Trail, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood replied, “Because I wanted to.”

It’s worth noting that the Appalachian Trail of Grandma Gatewood’s time was tougher than the one popularized by Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Thru-hikers today can stay in hostels every couple of days, gear is lightweight and easy to use, and painted white blazes on the trees make it nearly impossible to get lost (unless, of course, you’re a creative non-fiction writer like Bill Bryson).

Grandma Gatewood went on to become the first person to hike the entire trail twice. She then became the first person to hike the entire trail three times.

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About Brianne Goodspeed


  1. Socialpyramid says:

    Great post! I can’t exactly imagine how a shower curtain makes a good tent, let alone any tent, but I know I’ve seen the woman’s colleagues hiking briskly through New England. Usually in short shorts or ill-fitting pants, often with a walking stick or trekking pole, and always with a tough, “don’t think of me as old” ‘tude. Reminds me of the grizzled skiers pushing 100 in Warren Miller movies.

  2. She sounds a bit like my grandma, who moved stone walls around when she was 80! Who says that old age has to equal decrepitude?

  3. Awesome – I love hearing good tales of the trail.

    One of my dearest friends from college, Lollie Winans, was murdered on the AT with her partner in 1996. It was one of the most disturbing events we (her friends and family) had ever experienced. Bryson mentions them in his book. They made it as far as Shenandoah and were found a mile off of the trail. I don’t bring this up to be a downer – just to remember them. It freaked some of us out for a while – and made the woods a bit more foreboding. I am eternally grateful that this traumatic experience did not deter me, personally, from continuing to explore my passion for the wild.

    What is more disturbing about what happened to these two incredible women is that they were both working in Vermont, bringing women who had been abused into the woods to teach them about the beauty and healing to be found in nature. I remember them and send positive energy when I am out in the woods.

    Thanks for reminding me of the strong women out there.

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