Emma Rowena Gatewood
DJ Name: Grammy the G
One fateful day, Emma Gatewood told her eleven children that she was going for a walk. What they didn’t know was that this so-called “walk” was the start to Emma’s solo adventure and eventual completion of the entire Appalachian Trail. Spanning roughly 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine, Grammy Gatewood became the first woman to complete the thru hike ~all by herself~. Oh, she was also 67 years old. And because once wasn’t enough, Emma “Grammy” Gatewood completed the A.T. another two times thus making her the first person to thru hike three times.
Before we get into the life and times of Grammy the G, “wood” you believe that these are her favorite tunes and she requests that you press play on this playlist because it’s unbe-leaf-able.
She shuffled them up before she journeyed over the river and through the woods (not to grandma’s house because, well, she was the grandma who, uh, left her house):
Lil’ Emma Rowena Caldwell was born on October 25, 1887, to a family of 15 in the 2,000-person community of Mercerville, oHIo to Hugh and Evelyn Caldwell. Hugh was a farmer who sadly turned to a life of drinking and gambling after his leg was amputated during the Civil War, which left family care in the hands of Evelyn while Emma stepped in to manage farm work. As a young gal, Emma was educated through eighth grade and in her spare time she enjoyed reading encyclopedias. We know you may think we’re making a silly joke, but we’re not. She was Encyclopedia Brown before Encyclopedia Brown. She liked to have an encyclopedic knowledge of anything from Greek classics to woodland plants that could be used as medicines and food. A little foreshadowing, eh?
Flash forward a few teen years later and Emma married a man by the name of Perry Clayton Gatewood when she was 19. She started poppin’ out babies immediately, and they eventually had 11 children. There was no honeymoon phase, rather quite the opposite: three months into their marriage, he began to physically abuse and assault Emma numerous times a day, and continued to do so throughout the entirety of their relationship. In addition to the many household chores she managed, Perry also made Emma build fences, burn tobacco beds and mix cement. When Perry became violent, Emma would run into the woods to seek refuge. One day in 1937, Emma left Perry and moved in with relatives in California. She left behind her two pre-teen daughters, confident that he wouldn’t lay a hand on them. She mailed a letter to them with no return address, writing to them “I have suffered enough at his hands to last me for the next hundred years.” However, Emma could not stay away from her children and she returned to Ohio (and the hand of Perry).
A few years later after Perry had broken her teeth and cracked her ribs, Emma responded to his attack by throwing a sack of flour at him. A police officer arrested her, not him (ugh), and put her in jail. While in prison, the mayor of their town noticed her bruised face and broken teeth and took Emma into his home where she remained until she healed. Emma served Perry with the paperwork and filed for divorce in 1940. A year later she testified and the divorce was granted during a time when it was nearly unheard of. So long, sucker.
By that point, all but three of Emma’s children were adults and living on their own. So in this next phase of her life, one without ceaseless abuse, she raised her children until they were no longer living at home. Emma came across a copy of National Geographic one day, and while perusing the pages filled with #Neature and #AdventureIsOutThere, Emma began to read an article about Eric Shaffer. He was the first man to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Thru-hike means, uh, hiking it all the way through from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin, Maine. Like obviously he stopped to sleep and stuff, and carried a tent and maybe lint to light his fires for food. In the article, Eric was able to “summit” up as, “In this
game hike, fire represents your life; when your fire’s gone, so are you.” Or, maybe that’s Jeff Probst.
So Eric as the first dude to complete the Appalachian Trail thru-hike inspired Emma to become the first dudette to complete the thru-hike which thus in turn motivated Emmy and Camille to pack up their bags and take on the trail, too. So actually this is our goodbye and we will see you after our 2,000-plus mile journey when we go live on the Historic Shuffle Insta from the peak of Mount Katahdin.
After reading the Nat Geo article, Emma allegedly told her daughter, “If those men can do it, so can I.” That’s the spirit. And so began Emma’s training for the A.T. A few women had attempted the A.T. before, but had never completed the entire route alone. Emma began to walk 10 miles a day to prepare for her journey, but really her whole life running through the woods away from her abusive husband and the hours she spent laboring on the farm had prepared her for this long trek. Emma’s first attempt at the trail was in 1954. She started in Maine and, unfortunately, ended in Maine. Right away she broke her glasses and got lost in the woods. Two park rangers rescued her and told her to go home. However, that first experience didn’t stop Emma from trying again.
One year later she returned to the trail by herself and the white blazes guided her from the Peach State to the Pine Tree State. With just a few pairs of Keds, a shower curtain, some dried fruit, sausages and nuts, she took to the trail and said “send me on my way.” Rumor has it she strutted to the beat of Maggie Rogers’ “Alaska” as she sang, “And I walked off you, and I walked off an old me.” When she couldn’t find shelter along her route, she snuggled up on a pile of leaves. And when she ran out of food, she munched on berries and other edible plants (at least she was wiser than Alexander Supertramp and didn’t try to eat any of the same forest scraps that led to his demise). She was 67 when she set out, and her quest began to catch the eye of local newspapers, starting with the Roanoke Times in Virginia. Even though her feet grew weary in her Keds, she said “you’ve got to be Kedding me if you think I’m gonna quit” and she persevered and finished out the trail.
But becoming the first lady hiker to complete the whole journey didn’t satiate her desire for adventure. In 1957, she once again plodded off along the trail and this time took her sweet time doing it to wave to her fans, i.e. the Girl Scouts and some other youth groups who she was invited to hang out with along the way. After that, in 1959, when she was 71, she decided to hit up some trails on the other coast. She didn’t die of dysentery, but she did walk 2,000 miles worth of the Oregon Trail. Then it was back to ye olde east coast for – yep, that’s right – Appalachian Trail round three. *cue bull horn pew pew pew pewwwww*. The year was 1964 and she was 76 years old. But she said “we can build this dream together, nothin’s gonna stop us nowwww” and when she had completed her journey thrice, hangin’ with mice n’ eatin’ rice, probably experienced a bit of lice, she officially became the first person — male or female — to complete the AT three whole times.
She retired after that, and she spent her remaining years clearing and marking a 30-mile hiking trail through part of Ohio. But even death couldn’t evade this spry, spunky granny, and she suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 85. She left behind an entire 66 descendants, including her 11 children, 24 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. Hubba hubba, that’s a lengthy legacy. And, of course, people honor and admire Granny Gatewood every year as people begin their own thru-hikes, preparing for the moment when their heads will peak above the clouds at Mount Katahdin.