Emma Gatewood took on the Appalachian Trail in 1955 with Keds sneakers and a duffle bag thrown over her shoulder.
By the time she finished it, 146 days after she started her hike, she was a national phenomenon. Gatewood wasn’t only the first woman to finish the hike solo — she did it at 67 years old.
With “Grandma Gatewood” in mind, the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club (TATC) will celebrate Family Hiking Day Saturday at the Noland Trail followed by a screening of the documentary of Gatewood, “Trail Magic.”
The TATC is a Hampton Roads-based group whose purpose is to give people exposure to the outdoors and maintain a 10-plus mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail.
And since the trail is about three and half hours from Hampton Roads, the TATC will host a hike at Noland Trail. “We’re bringing the spirit of the Appalachian Trail here,” said TATC board member Bill Leber.
Leber is a longtime hiker and found out about the club after volunteering to help with trail maintenance at Gloucester’s Beaverdam Park.
“I knew the Appalachian Trail from when I grew up but I never knew a trail group was here,” Leber said.
The TATC is one of 31 trail groups for the 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Eight of those groups are in Virginia.
With TATC being the farthest away from the trail of the Virginia groups, it means upkeep must be well planned out.
“The Roanoke section, they have people that live right where the parking lot for the section starts, so if there’s a problem,” Leber said, there’s someone there to manage it.
If a problem occurs, like a fallen tree, the TATC will send out an email blast to ask if any of the 100 or so members who are heading up to the mountains.
Regular trail maintenance is scheduled for twice a year. It involves members walking the 10-mile stretch and marking down what work needs to be done like cleaning up vegetation, checking on stonework and cleaning the two shelters within its portion.
“You basically time your evenings to reach a shelter before it gets dark,” Leber said.
Because TATC is so far from their base of operation, they contribute as volunteers for many of the trails in the Hampton Roads area, including the Noland Trail.
Volunteers are necessary to the Noland Trail’s success, as there is only a single staff person of the Mariners’ Museum devoted to the trail, according to park operations manager Dave Kennedy.
“Priorities are established from discussions with the park operations manager and Noland Trail technician at the end of each week for the next week of service work,” Kennedy said via email. “Whenever possible, volunteer individuals or groups are inserted into the maintenance plan.”
On family hiking day, participants can choose between three-mile hikes, or shorter loops.
Geocaching, an activity in which participants use a GPS or mobile device to hide and seek containers, is available at the trail.
Peter Huston, the director and co-producer of “Trail Magic,” will introduce the documentary before it’s showing Saturday.
The film was released in 2015, about seven years after Huston first heard the story. He heard the story when Lucy Seeds, Gatewood’s youngest daughter, wanted to pass along her mother’s diaries and journals.
Seeds connected with Bette Lou Higgins, the film’s producer and a professional storyteller who focuses on important women in Ohio, where Gatewood lived. After hearing from Seeds, Higgins contacted Hurston.
The story captured Huston’s interest.
“She wasn’t a hiker but she walked every day. She never had a driver license,” Hurston said. “At 67, to think you can go and take on the Appalachian Trail was a pretty bold idea.”
Gatewood tackled the trail so late in life because other obstacles were in the way. She raised 11 children with a husband who beat her. Once the last child left the home, Gatewood was able to divorce him after 32 years of marriage.
With abuse being such an integral theme in Gatewood’s life, Huston and the other producers have taken the documentary to domestic violence shelters to share her story.
“She stood with the marriage because she was worried about the children,” Huston said. “In the 1930s and 1940s divorce wasn’t something available to a woman, certainly not to the abused. When she did finally get a divorce, that was a big, big move.”
Gatewood read about how no woman had completed the entire trail in an issue of National Geographic. She decided to change that.
After one failed attempt, the Ohio resident attempted to tackle the trail once again, in 1955.
“Back at that point it was men wearing heavy boots and old pants and wood-framed backpacks that weighed 60 pounds,” Huston said. “Here’s this older lady walking down the trail in high tops with a bag over her shoulders. It captured people’s imagination.”
Gatewood had a background in herbal medicine and was well versed what plants were edible. On top of that, she had no problem asking for stranger’s help.
“In 1955, hospitality was a lot different. You could knock on somebody’s door and they would feed you and let you in,” Huston said. “She didn’t have any problem going to a house or a cabin along the trail if she was hungry or needed shelter.”
Gatewood would complete the hike two more times: in 1960 and again in 1963.
A book detailing Gatewood’s story was completed in 2014, “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail,” by Ben Montgomery.
“Been a filmmaker for 30 some odd years and this has been the one story that’s taken on a life of its own,” Huston said.
Black can be reached by phone at 757-247-4607.
Family Hike Day activities
Noland Trail Hike
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to join the Tidewater Appalachian Trail club on its hike.
When: 12:45 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Mariners’ Museum, 100 Museum Drive, Newport News.
‘Trail Magic’ screening
Newport News: 4 p.m. Saturday in room 1022 at Christopher Newport University’s Forbes Academic Building.
Norfolk: 5 p.m. Sunday in room 1012 at Old Dominion University‘s Batten Arts and Letters Building.