Grandma Gatewood, Appalachian Heroine

Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

Emma Gatewood, a pioneer woman of Appalachia, was born in 1887 and died in 1973 in Gallia County, Ohio. She was the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail by herself. Go Granny Go! The year was 1955 and she was 67 years old, a mother of 11 children and grandmother of 23. Before she died in 1973 she had hiked the Appalachian Trail three times. Gatewood became a hiking celebrity, appeared on The Today Show and in Sports Illustrated, became a lifetime member of the Buckeye Trail Association, was inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Frame, and is remembered in the Appalachian Trail Museum. What an inspiration to women and Appalachian residents!

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail is a 2014 book by Ben Montgomery. Gatewood was his mother’s great-aunt. He described Gatewood’s hiking adventures and discussed the biography of her life, both triumphs and struggles. Gatewood was first introduced to the trail by reading an article in National Geographic.

When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike, a picture book for ages 4 – 10, by Michelle Houts and illustrated by Erica Magnus garnered A School Library Journal Best Picture Book of 2016. University Press in Athens, Ohio is the publisher. Houts lives on a family farm in West Central Ohio. Visit

Eden Valley Enterprises located in Elyria, Ohio features Grandma Gatewood in a storytelling program, a PBS documentary, and a play. Visit In October of 2015, the Bossard Memorial Library in Gallia County, Ohio sponsored a living history presentation and a film documentary about Grandma Gatewood.

The Appalachian Trail

The dream for the Appalachian Trail started in 1921 with completion of the trail in 1937.The Appalachian Trail, a 2,2000 mile marked public hiking trail, goes from Georgia to Maine and passes through 14 states. An Appalachian Trail hike takes between five and seven months to complete. Grandma Gatewood hiked the trail in 5 months. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy publishes 11 guidebooks and maps covering the entire trail.

Media coverage from Gatewood’s hiking adventures led to restoration of the trail while inspiring new hikers. At 5 feet – 2 inches and 150-pounds, Emma Gatewood walked the entire Appalachian Trail by herself.

At Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio, a six-mile hiking section is designated as the Grandma Gatewood Trail. Beginning at the Upper Falls by Old Man’s Cave, her namesake trail connects three park areas.

A Pioneer Woman’s Resilience

Emma Gatewood married, worked on a farm, and raised 11 children. Because her husband was abusive, she would seek safety and solace in the woods. Her grit, resilience, and determination sparked her walking therapy. Back in Emma’s day there were no domestic violence shelters or protection by the law. In 1940, Emma divorced her husband. Ben Montgomery’s account conveys consistent physical abuse and suffering from broken teeth and ribs, and other injuries caused by her spouse. The first U.S. shelter for abused women did not open until 1964 in the state of California. Emma lived in Gallia County which is located in southeastern Ohio and is part of Appalachia.

I wonder what Emma thought about when she was a young married woman caught in a domestic violence relationship. No doubt her thoughts often turned to survival and how to protect her children. Walking provided a temporary avenue of escape and safety from human violence. Perhaps her mind wrestled about divorce and the moral, religious, and social convictions of her generation. What did she think about in 1955 as she walked the Appalachian Trail as a divorced woman? Author Ben Montgomery wrote “Hippocrates, the Greek physician, called walking man’s best medicine” and used a quote by George Sears in the preface of Montgomery’s book, “We do not go into the woods to rough it; we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home.”

I say “Emma Gatewood is a beacon of hope, courage, and resilience for the battered women and survivors of rural Appalachia and Ohio Appalachia. Walk on Emma. Walk on!”

Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D. is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D. is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio.