Emma “Grandma” Gatewood’s story speaks to the courageous,undaunted spirit of Appalachian people everywhere. Emma Caldwell was born around 1887 at Raccoon Creek in Gallia County Ohio; she was one of 15 children. When she was 19 years old she married Perry Clayton Gatewood, a teacher and a produce farmer. During a time when spousal abuse was considered strictly “a personal matter”, Perry would often beat Emma in front of his employees who would cheer him on yelling, “Slap her again!” By 1943, Emma left Perry for good.
After raising her eleven children, Emma decided she needed another challenge. When she read about the Appalachian Trail in National Geographic she discovered that no woman had ever hiked the trail alone from one end to the other. It sounded like a challenge to her – and she decided to BE that woman. Never mind that she was 66 years old, never mind that she had no real equipment, never mind that she had no experience. Emma set off on the barely marked trail from Mount Katahdin, Maine. She didn’t make it the first time. Never mind…she set off again the following year (1955) with an “aluminum blanket” (like the astronauts used), an old army blanket, sneakers, an extra dress and undergarments, hose, house slippers, bullion cubes, dried fruits, raisins and nuts, a water bottle and an emergency kit. This time she managed to go the entire 2,170 miles becoming the first person to solo walk the entire Appalachian trail in a single season!
Emma, became known to the public as “Grandma” Gatewood, and became a cause celeb across America. Being the first woman to solo hike the AT end to end, at the age of 67, was no small feat, period! Local reporters followed her story, Sports Illustrated featured her, even the KEDS sneaker company latched onto the marketing opportunity and supplied her with shoes. After completing the hike she was featured on the “Today Show”, Groucho Marx’ “You Bet Your Life” show and the “Tonight Show”. Her story raised the veil on several cultural barriers of the day, including age and sex descrimination.