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Remembering Ohio’s Appalachian-Trail-hiking grandma

An old woman stands along a road with a pack slung over one shoulder. Her shadow stretches out behind her.
Marjorie Wood
Emma Gatewood stands on the Oregon Trail, with her pack and an umbrella in tow. She hiked 2,000 miles of the trail in 1959, years after she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

When Emma Gatewood was 67 years old, she hiked from Georgia to Maine, becoming the first woman to solo thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 1955.

Two years later, she did it again.

Affectionately called Grandma Gatewood, Emma spent much of her life in the woods or in her garden. She died in 1973 and is buried in the Ohio Valley Memory Gardens near her home in Gallia County.

Grandma Gatewood stands in front of trees. She's wears a purse slung over her body and a pack tossed over one shoulder.
Wikimedia Commons
Grandma Gatewood became the first woman to solo thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 1955. She was 67 years old.

Now, more than 50 years later, the owner of that cemetery wants to memorialize her gravesite.

“Grandma Gatewood was quite determined to [hike the Appalachian Trail] and be the first woman to do it,” said cemetery owner Paul Maxwell. “She said, ‘If a man can do it, then a woman can do it.’

“It’s quite an amazing story, and it’s being told to a whole new generation of backpackers and hiking enthusiasts. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t have somebody coming here to the cemetery wanting to visit her grave.”

So, Maxwell is working with an artist to create a life-size bronze sculpture of Grandma Gatewood, hiking stick in hand.

“At a time in our country when we're tearing down statues to people, who could be a better person to build one to,” Maxwell said, “than an amazing woman whose story should just never be forgotten.”

Solo hiking the Appalachian Trail

Gatewood first decided to attempt the Appalachian Trail after she read an article about it in a National Geographic magazine.

“She saw this magazine article and she thought, ‘No other woman has ever done this before, so I think I'm going to do it,’” said her great-granddaughter Marjorie Wood. “Well, when she started doing it, it was a lot harder than what she expected.”

In fact, her first try at the trail only lasted a few days.

“The trail was marked so badly, she kept getting turned around,” Wood said. “Finally, some rangers found her and they told her to go home and just forget about it, that she basically was too old. Well, that was the wrong thing to say.”

Grandma Gatewood went home, regrouped and tried again — this time starting from the south.

“And she didn't tell anybody she was going to do it,” Wood said. “But that was grandma. She was always doing things like that.”

Gatewood hiked the trail with a homemade knapsack filled with a change of clothes, a jacket, a rain hat and a shower curtain.

A woman stands on a rocky trail in Vermont. She carries a pack over one shoulder and a hiking stick.
Marjorie Wood
Grandma Gatewood poses on a trail in Vermont in 1960.

“You can use a shower curtain for a lot of different things,” Wood said. “You can lay it on leaves and sleep on it at night. You can put it over top of you if it's raining.”

She didn’t carry much food — just raisins, nuts, sausages and boiling cubes, so she could make soup. She knew which berries and plants were edible along the way.

“You have to understand, she did this in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a whole different world back then,” Wood said. “People weren't afraid to let someone in their house. A woman could walk through the woods and not worry about somebody attacking them.”

146 days after she started her trek, Gatewood crested Mount Katahdin in Maine, becoming the first woman to solo hike the trail in a single season

But her hiking days weren’t over yet. Grandma Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail from start to finish again in 1957. The next year, she climbed six peaks in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. And in 1959, when she was 71 years old, she hiked 2,000 miles of the Oregon Trail.

Then, she hiked the Appalachian Trail again, albeit broken into sections, becoming the first person to hike the trail three times.

“She hiked everywhere,” Wood said. “I can remember when I was a kid, we’d see her walking along the road. She’d always accept a ride. It’s just she didn’t drive and if she decided she was going to go somewhere, she went. She wasn’t going to wait around until somebody had time to take her.”

When Grandma Gatewood died at 85 years old, she had walked more than 14,000 miles.

Memorializing Grandma Gatewood

Her story was so inspiring that cemetery owner Paul Maxwell wanted to honor it — and he feels confident that’s what Grandma Gatewood would have wanted.

“I read in a book that she told her daughters in a tone that was certain and not at all arrogant, ‘When I'm dead and gone, they're going to erect monuments to me.’ That's exactly what we want to do,” Maxwell said.

He selected sculptor Bridgette Mongeon to create a life-size bronze statue of Gatewood to stand at her gravesite, with hopes of installing a similar one somewhere along the Appalachian Trail.

They’re working now with a team of artists and hikers to raise money for the project. They hope to have enough to complete it by the end of this year or early next.

“It's going to look like she's walking the trail and taking one step up the mountain to another spot higher up,” Maxwell said.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.